An Archipelago of Perfumes: The Legacy of Alex Cockburn
An Archipelago of Perfumes: The Legacy of Alex Cockburn
September 8, 2012
ALEXANDER COCKBURN (1941-2012)
As a journalist challenging the official line, Alexander Cockburn was sublime. He is greatly missed.
I first remember Alex's lively reporting in the 1970s Village Voice. The Arabian Gulf was looming large, and Alex was articulating its deeper politics. I was fascinated by that part of the world, having myself traveled in 1976 to Kuwait and Iran, where former CIA director Richard Helms was posted as US ambassador to the Shah's court.
But Alex was also looking for action in less obvious corners, like Yemen, which he described in a 1977 "Press Clip":
"The recent assassination of President Al-Hamdi of North Yemen left the trench-coat brigade of foreign correspondents caught short. What goes on in North Yemen? Where for that matter is North Yemen? Is it one of theirs or one of ours? Is it struggling to throw off a feudal past, or is it already battling against the problems of too swift moderization. Etc. etc."
Some months later Alex followed up with news that Al-Hamdi's replacement, Ahmed Al-Ghasmi, had also been assassinated, blown up by a briefcase. And South Yemen's president "dislodged from power." But it was Alex's eye on Yemen early on regarding Osama bin Laden's family roots there and his bankrolling by the CIA that really resonated, particularly as the story advanced.
In a tease clip, this one about the elusive "Middle Eastern entrepreneur" Adnan Khashoggi and the matter of bribes, he suggested the SEC who "fume and fret" might look for Khashoggi in Maine. Said Alex:
"[H]ow is Adnan supervising his U.S. business interests? It seems small airports in the state of Maine could tell a tale or two. Hunters up in those parts should guard against accidental slaughter of large foreign creatures swooping into the country."
One of Alex's most irresistible feature pieces from the 70s was written in collaboration with James Ridgeway for the Voice: "Ali and the Dog of War." The title was a play on Frederick Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War about European mercenaries in Africa. The Voice story described a coup in 1978 in the Comoros Islands (population 330,000), otherwise known as the Isles of Ylang Ylang, after the perfume blossom that grows there. The coup was orchestrated by "corsair" Gilbert Bourgeaud aka Bob Denard aka Jean Maurin and his men (Les Affreux, The Terrible). Denard and his paramilitary ousted the president (shot dead) and reinstalled its former ruler, Ahmed Abdallah Abderemane.
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In reality, Denard was French secret service, though he also assisted the CIA, and was kept supplied with necessary passports. Denard was a veteran of battles across Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The Comoros archipelago is also famous for its vanilla, cloves, coelacanth, and Mt. Kartala -- the world's largest active crater. But it was its geostrategic importance, its location in the Mozambique Channel -- a tanker route from the Arabian Gulf to the West via the Cape of Good Hope -- that interested Cockburn and Ridgeway, and, of course, Denard et al.
While the archipelago gained independence from France in 1975, it was obviously still up for grabs in July 1978 when Cockburn and Ridgeway published their article for the Voice. New African magazine did not run a piece about the Comoros coup until December 1978. Esquire featured the story the following March. And Soldier of Fortune in 1983.
As the Comoros story continued to be a juicy one, I pursued it as well. I met the most visible Comoran politicians, including Ahmed Abdallah Abderemane. Abdallah was Comoros' longest ruling president, although Denard was clearly the country's de facto leader and converted to Islam (taking the name Said Mustapha Mahdjoub), embraced polygamy and married into the culture.
I still have a handwritten card from President Abdallah wishing me a Happy New Year 1986.
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But I never did travel to Comoros, meet Denard or confirm whether the rumors were true about scorpion pits. Abdallah was himself shot and killed in the 1989 coup when Denard decided again to shuffle the cards. Denard would face court charges in France regarding Comoros. He was acquitted of murdering Abdallah but was sentenced to a year in prison for a 1995 Comoran coup. Denard died in Paris in 2007 while the French court was deciding whether he was well enough to serve the sentence.
Cockburn and Ridgeway concluded the following in their 1978 article:
"No one in Washington appeared to be much vexed by the coup in Comoros, which occurred within a month of the much-denounced attempt in Zaire. Probably, no one in a position of power in the West would be much upset by similar coups in the Seychelles, Mauritius or even Madagascar itself. No one cares how the French behave in Reunion. Indeed, no one made much of a noise when the inhabitants of Diego Garcia were shipped off their native soil so that it could become a U.S. naval base. Tanker routes-natural resouces = Denard and sponsors."
Then there were Alex's priceless jabs at journalists in his Voice news items. Here's one from 1975 involving then-New York Times diplomatic correspondent Leslie Gelb, now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining the Times, Gelb had been in the Defense Department and was project director for the Pentagon Papers, which the Times later published. Gelb went back into government during the Carter presidency as assistant secretary of state. Then he rejoined the Times in the 1980s, leaving in 1993 to run CFR:
"Leslie Gelb's interesting story in the New York Times last week about CIA money channeled to the Portuguese Socialists didn't excite the commotion I thought it would. Maybe it was because he muddied the waters of the story with material about Soviet money being funneled into Portugal too, thus prompting the reaction, "Well, they're all doing it." All the same, the reception to Gelb's story seems to show that people are getting a bit blase. Perhaps that will be the real result of disclosure of secret interference in the affairs of another country. So long as you own up, it does not matter. "I'm tired of secrets," I heard Seymour Hersh say the other day, which raises an interesting question, about journalistic techniques. If you can't get people to listen to a secret, how can you get your disclosures off the ground?"
And this jewel about the late war correspondent Peter Arnett, titled "Great Expense Account Stories." Arnett's career would reach its zenith in Baghdad against the backdrop of Bush II's "Shock and Awe" invasion of Iraq:
"Minstrels round the camp fire sing of Peter Arnett of AP, noted for his collection of Southeast Asian antiquities. He once used an army helicopter to pull a Khmer sculpture out of some temple in South Vietnam. The ropes broke and the 500-pound torso crashed down in a paddy field. Returning the next morning, Arnett found it surrounded by devout villagers."
Alex continued to punctuate the news media and redefine history in the years following his columns at the Voice, later moving out West and starting up CounterPunch, and in 1998, with CounterPunch Co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair wrote Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, a riveting book that in part traces America's narcotics problems back to official US policy, beginning in World War II and a pact with the Italian Mafia and other international criminal organizations. They detailed how journalists attempting to expose such facts, like the late Gary Webb, are marginalized and brutalized by the mainstream media.
I shared their concerns, having made three trips deep into Colombia in the late 1980s reporting on the drug war. During one visit, I spent several days in Leticia at a hotel on the Amazon owned by American adventurer Mike Tsalickis, who had opened up the Colombian Amazon commercially in the 50s and was honorary US consul.
Some months later, Tsalickis was arrested for smuggling into the US 4.4 tons of cocaine inside a shipment of Brazilian lumber, the biggest cocaine bust in US history at the time. The DEA said they'd been tracking Tsalickis' exploits for 10 years, but Tsalickis claimed the feds were in on the Amazon drug business. Doug Valentine in Strength of the Wolf also notes the CIA asked Tsalickis to find useful tropical drugs for the agency.
Sadly, I never knew Alex Cockburn personally. In fact, I had only two conversations with him in the many years CounterPunch has carried my pieces, and those conversations were both in 2003 when I pitched a story about David Rubenstein of Carlyle Group asking George W. Bush to move on. Alex was busy with a script and didn't have time to focus on my story, so I sent it over to Sam Smith at Progressive Review. "How Bush Got Bounced From Carlyle Board" went viral. Alex and Jeffrey later thoroughly supported my successful challenge to the New York Times Magazine -- as did Scoop Media, after the Times stole "Bush Bounced" for the centerpiece of its 2004 election cover article.
I received an email from Alex a couple of years ago, after the posting of my interview with David F. Noble, the late science and technology historian, who argued that science and technolgy were corrupt and rooted in medieval religion and misogyny. It was one of the most intense interviews I've ever done. David, who Noam Chomsky once described as "too radical for MIT," refused to communicate by email with anyone. Said Alex:
"Good work Suzan. Do you have DN's phone#? I lost it."
Alex and David were both dissenters from the popular view about global warming. David questioned the validity of peer reviewed articles, considered peer review censorship and told me so during our interview. Said David:
"When George Monbiot attacks Alexander Cockburn by saying that the stuff Cockburn is referring to was not peer reviewed, and I say what kind of an idiot is Monbiot…A consensus of scientists. Well, when you have a consensus of scientists, that should set off alarms."
Earlier this year, in what would be the last months of his life, Alex along with Jeffrey wrote an editorial note that they were rerunning my 2007 interview with Judith Dushku about Bishop Mitt Romney's sadistic anti-abortion counseling of a pregnant women in danger of dying. That story had inspired part of a recent Romney book (no mention of my 2007 interview in it), and was being hyped in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the mainstream media. Alex was dying, and unselfishly setting the record straight for me.
is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé
the Evolution Industry.Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org