Interview with Greg Palast On NYT Intimidation
Between The Lines
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release July 10, 2006
White House, Conservative Attacks on New York Times Over Financial Transaction Surveillance Program Seek to Intimidate the Press
Interview with Greg Palast, BBC-TV investigative reporter and author, conducted by Scott Harris
Listen in RealAudio:
Three major U.S. newspapers revealed on June 23 that after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. government had, without congressional oversight, gained secret access to a Belgian banking company's international financial transaction records in an effort to detect transfers of funds between terrorist groups. The reports, published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, dealt with the broad outlines of the program and not the operational details.
President Bush condemned the disclosure as disgraceful. Vice President Cheney declared that the reports would make it more difficult to prevent future terrorist attacks against the American people. Conservative politicians and commentators singled out the New York Times for their harshest attacks, some labeling the news reports as treasonous. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York demanded that the Times reporters be jailed if they refused to reveal their sources.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller defended his decision to publish the story, noting that his paper had in the past withheld news stories at the request of the White House. He suggested that the attacks on the Times were politically motivated in a critical election year. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with BBC investigative reporter and author Greg Palast. He examines the New York Times' occasionally cozy relationship with the Bush administration and the danger posed by government attacks on a free press.
GREG PALAST: First of all, the idea that Osama bin Laden doesn't realize that checking account transactions are being followed is absurd. Like the New York Times articles came out and someone said, "Oh, Osama stop using the ATM card because they're tracking it now." "Who's zooming who?" as Aretha Franklin would say. Come on now, he knows that.
So number one, I have to say that following these financial transactions, it may not have anything to do with the war on terror, by the way. And what really disturbs me is not what the New York Times reported, but I have to tell you what they haven't reported.
Remember that the New York Times are the characters that ran the Judith Miller propaganda that said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The New York Times has always been a good conduit for the official prevarication. Now suddenly, they're getting off the plantation a bit and therefore they're being beat up and punished.
But, I have to remind your listeners our BBC team found indications that there was a failure of this administration to track the money to al Qaeda flowing out of Saudi Arabia. The money to al Qaeda, the money to Pakistan to build the Islamic bomb, which then became of course the North Korean bomb and the Libyan bomb. The New York Times had that information , they wouldn't cover it -- nor would the rest of the networks.
So I don't have a lot of sympathy for the New York Times, but they’re quickly finding out what happens when you suddenly decide to report news, you get "klongged" over the head for just reporting the news.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Greg, the attacks on the New York Times in the wake of their story about the financial surveillance program are pretty stinging. I mean, you've got Congressman Peter King, a Republican of New York saying the reporters should be arrested and thrown into jail. There are other Republican commentators and legislators who are saying, "This is treason." How dangerous does this get in terms of our First Amendment rights -- the freedom of the press?
GREG PALAST: Well, the First Amendment rights say that you know there's a free press, but the press itself isn't free -- that is, you've got to own the press.
One of the problems, once again is the commercial censorship of the news, so it's more a game of intimidation. That is, we've got a problem of self-censorship by our news reporters who are afraid of making waves and being cut out of, so-called, access to the White House. I don't have any access, I don't want any access. I don't want any access to the propaganda, I don't want to be the conduit for the nonsense. I just want to look at the documents.
Yeah, it's very dangerous stuff. I mean, I work in Britain under an Official Secrets Act which officially censors my material -- but, at least I don't have the commercial restrictions. I would rather have the legal restrictions almost.
But, the great irony is of course, not irony -- the great hypocrisy is that for example, one of the characters running around on Fox News who's talking about the treason of letting Osama know that we're checking his checking accounts -- which is a bit nuts -- is a former CIA agent, Wayne Simmons who has been making a fortune for himself , making a big name for himself on Fox TV by talking about all the cool, secret stuff that he's been doing. Basically, Fox-TV has been a greater conduit of information about what our CIA is up to and its secret methods than the New York Times ever has been. But, it's just that they give it a different spin on how wonderful, brilliant and heroic our secret agents are -- as opposed to the reality, which is closer to Keystone Cops.
BETWEEN THE LINES: There are many people who are looking at what's going with the attacks on the New York Times and saying, "This is just part of the Republican game plan for the 2006 November congressional election," but I'm wondering if you think this goes deeper than that and these political operatives of the Republican party are really trying to gut the First Amendment?
GREG PALAST: Oh yeah, absolutely. What's happening here is the implicit threat -- and maybe more explicit -- is that reporters that get out of line will no longer be allowed to ask questions at the White House. I think one of the scariest things is not the attack on the Times, but the attack on Helen Thomas, who was a reporter for the AP, for decades had been always the first reporter to ask a question of the president at a press conference and when she didn't bow down to George Bush and said he wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier -- they physically -- I mean, this woman is like in her 70s -- they moved her to the back, they kind of lifted her up and shoved her to the back of the room and won't let her ask a single question . They might as well shackle her and put masking tape over her face.
So, I mean, what they're basically saying is, “Get out of line, you lose your access.” And then, in American networks, that means you lose your job.
BBC reporter and author Greg Palast's new book is titled, "Armed Madhouse." Read his articles online at www.gregpalast.com
* "GOP Congressman Calls for Criminal Charges Against NY Times Staff," by The Associated Press and Editor and Publisher Staff, June 25, 2006
* ACLU at www.aclu.org
* Electronic Privacy Information Center at www.epic.org
* Electronic Frontier Foundation at www.eff.org
* Center for Constitutional Rights at www.ccr-ny.org
* Economic Policy Institute at www.epinet.org
Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can
be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and
MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This
interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning,
syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for
the week ending July 14, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A
was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna