Will We Ever Learn the Truth About Iraqgate?


Thanks to this fall’s contentious election, the BNL court hearing for Atlanta banker Christopher Drogoul, and Congressman Henry Gonzalez’s lonely vigil in the well of the House of Representatives, the public got a peek at the sub-rosa realm of U.S. intelligence and the Bush administration’s clumsy cover-up of the multinational scheme to finance Iraq’s war machine.

But now the election is over and the media is poised to let George Bush grace­fully exit as the man who brought us more information on food labeling and fed starv­ing Somali children. The pace of reported lraqgate disclosures has slacked off, while the cover-up has only widened.

The biggest setback in the investigation came last week when Judge Frederick Lac­ey, who had been appointed by Attorney General Barr to investigate the scandal and was expected to call for a special prosecu­tor, instead issued a report calling the alle­gations “arrogant nonsense” and castigated the press for having raised them.

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Though the Clinton administration could help get the momentum back again, Lacey’s whitewash buys more time for the Bush crowd to cover its tracks. In fact, just two days after the election, counsel to the presi­dent C. Boyden Gray sent a memo instruct­ing executive branch staff that visitor and phone logs could be destroyed before the transition of power. Also covered, in the broad category of what he called “non-rec­ords” were notes on meetings. It is precise­ly these kinds of records that proved so invaluable during Watergate.

Justice, meanwhile, is trying to slam an­other door closed. When the news first broke that an Atlanta branch of the Italian state-owned bank Banca Nazionale del La­voro had used fraudulent loans to finance Saddam Hussein’s military buildup, Atlan­ta branch manager Christopher Drougul be­came the fall guy. That move seemed to backfire at first, as Drogoul’s attorney un­covered all sorts of information embarrass­ing to both Washington and Rome. But now Drogoul’s trial has been postponed and Justice has filed a new motion to use national security as a cover to prevent further embarrassing revelations.

Further, an even more blatant attempt to thwart public disclosure of the tangled Iraq­gate network is underway in Britain. Three executives of Matrix Churchill, a machine tool and die maker with ties to BNL that served as the chief procurer for Iraq’s buildup, were to go on trial for violating British export law. But that case, which promised to expose links between Ameri­can and British corporations arming Iraq, collapsed when it was revealed that the British government, like the Bush adminis­tration, knew about the sales all along — and even took moves to encourage them.

“There is great significance in the col­lapse of the case against Matrix Churchill because it was the key Iraqi company charged with nuclear and conventional weapons procurement,” says Marianne Ga­sior, a whistleblowing attorney, who went to Congress when she learned that her for­mer employer, Kennametal, was involved with the company. “By closing this door, by keeping evidence from Congress, the Brit­ish Parliament, and both nations’ legal sys­tems, other cases related to the U.S.­-U.K.-Iraqi link are shut down as well.” All these developments — Lacey’s report, the truncated case in Atlanta, and the col­lapse of the British customs case — mean the chances of unraveling Iraqgate have greatly diminished. What’s lost is not just the opportunity to right past wrongs. With­out a complete multilateral investigation of how these covert networks function, they remain in place and the pipeline will con­tinue to carry components of weapons of mass destruction to anyone with the cash to pay for them. Or in the case of Iraq, the credit to charge them.

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Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had been rocked by scandal before. In the ’70s, there was an exodus of top brass tied into the P2 Lodge, a clandestine group of corrupt busi­ness interests with far right-leanings. But that was at home. In Iraqgate, the scandal involved parties in several countries, and damage control had to happen in the U.S.

Dozens of Fortune 500 companies had huge letters of credit with BNL and big­-volume business with Iraq. There were Iraqi front companies in the U.S. set up to procure weapons and nuclear technology that were heavily tied into BNL, like the Matrix Churchill subsidiary in Ohio. Also implicated was a Turkish trading company and a Jordanian businessman, who was a good friend of King Hussein. The New York branch of the Yugoslavian bank LBS, where Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was once a director, used BNL start-up capital and had provided a mortgage loan to a key figure in the scandal. And there was strong evidence that intelligence services in both the United Kingdom and the United States were fully aware of the Iraqi network all along.

So it was crucial not just to the Italians for the BNL central bank to be cast as an unwitting victim of a single yuppie loan officer from Atlanta.

What was supposed to be Drogoul’s sen­tencing hearing, however, turned into a fiasco for the Bush administration. Bobby Lee Cook, the brilliant lawyer who de­fended Drogoul, kept the U.S. Attorney breathless as he produced bombshells like internal BNL-Rome diaries that included day-by-day accounts of how the bank brass lobbied the highest levels of the U.S. gov­ernment to limit the criminal investigation on grounds of political expediency. The CIA and the Justice Department started blaming each other after getting caught sup­plying incomplete and misleading evidence to the federal judge in the case.

But then the judge, Marvin Shoob, grew so suspicious of the government’s handling of the investigation that he called for an independent prosecutor and ultimately withdrew from the case. Cook, who was working pro bono, withdrew when the case dragged on and Drogoul was unable to pay him. And now Drogoul, who remains in federal prison in Atlanta with no bail set, has been ruled an indigent and was as­signed court-appointed counsel for a new trial in April.

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Meanwhile, the Justice Department, smarting from its humiliation at the hands of Cook, sent in the same national security specialists who had seen to it that former CIA employee Manuel Noriega got put away without the government having to air too much of the CIA’s dirty laundry. This litigation SWAT team wasted no time in filing a motion with the court to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act for Drogoul’s upcoming trial.

CIPA, passed by Congress in 1980, makes it much harder to get the govern­ment to release classified documents during a trial. The government can substitute for the actual document a statement of the prosecution’s own creation that has to suf­fice as a true and accurate summation of the document’s contents. What the CIPA protocol insures is that the flood of infor­mation about Iraqgate, including the role of U.S. intelligence and high-level Bush ad­ministration figures, will dry up, leaving some burning questions unresolved:

Who in the U.S. government invited three Iraqis from Hussein’s top explosive research and development facility to attend a federal seminar on nuclear detonation in 1989 held in Portland, Oregon?

Where is the followup on the former USDA official who federal prosecutors sus­pected was soliciting bribes from compa­nies exporting to Iraq?

And why, in the midst of a massive mul­ti-agency investigation that alleged the BNL criminal enterprise included high-level Ira­qis as well as Drogoul, did Secretary of State Jim Baker push for another $500 mil­lion in Commodity Credit loans for Iraq?

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But the most pressing unanswered ques­tion is, just how high and how wide does the coverup reach? The Justice Department contends it first knew about the criminal activity at BNL when two bank employees, who worked closely with Drogoul, decided in July 1989 to turn him in. They got im­munity. BNL U.S. branches were raided on August 4, 1989. An indictment was not handed down until February of 1991.

Initially a team comprised of representatives from the USDA, the Federal Reserve, the FBI, and the Atlanta U.S. Attorney’s office conducted the investigation. But something just was not right. On February 6, 1990, Federal Reserve official Ernest Pa­trikis wrote in a “restricted” internal memo, “Obviously, the indictments that were expected to come down in January did not materialize. A planned trip to Italy by criminal investigators was put off because of BNL-asserted concerns regarding the Italian press.”

On April 5, 1990, Federal Reserve offi­cial Thomas Baxter wrote New York Feder­al Reserve boss Gerald Corrigan: “The res­ignation of the United States Attorney in Atlanta has led to a number of difficulties in that investigation. These difficulties have been compounded by what is per­ceived as interference from the Justice De­partment in Washington.”

Eventually a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer, Joe Whitley, was ap­pointed to be the chief U.S. attorney from Atlanta. The only problem is that he didn’t go directly from one Justice job to the next. He was in private practice for a while work­ing for none other than Iraqi weapons front company and BNL customer Matrix Chur­chill of Ohio. Whitley has said he withdrew from the BNL prosecution in June 1990, but the Financial Times reports that Justice Department memos dated September 1990 and February 1991 “make specific references to his involvement in the BNL case.” All of this seems at odds with the party line from Attorney General Barr that Jus­tice’s investigation was properly conducted. U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff, whom Barr brought in to review the prosecution’s conduct before denying Congress’s call for an independent prosecutor, told the Voice that the time lag from the initial raid in August of 1989 to the indictments in Feb­ruary of 1991 was the result of an internal debate between the Fraud Section of Jus­tice in Washington and the U.S. Allorney’s office in Atlanta. The Atlanta contingent had the theory that Drogoul had victimized the bank. Chertoff said some people in Washington thought the bank had to have known about Drogoul’s high-volume trans­actions.

When Atlanta won out, there certainly must have been glee over at former attor­ney general William Rogers’s law firm, Rogers and Wells, which had worked back channels for the Italians.

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During Judge Lacey’s press conference last week, he noted that the Atlanta prose­cutors were fully aware of Matrix Chur­chill’s operations but decided there was “no sense” in going after the Iraqi front corpo­rations because they had already been seized by Customs. In fact, U.S. attorneys had granted immunity to one of the Ameri­can principals in Matrix Churchill, Gordon Cooper. According to the Financial Times, it was a document signed by Cooper and certified by then Secretary of State Baker in March of 1989 that permitted Matrix Chur­chill to solicit Iraqi contracts.

As for the CIA and Justice Department’s mishandling of classified evidence in the BNL case, Lacey was generous to both agencies: “The fiasco in September was a series of mistakes by well-meaning and well-intentioned and ironically very experi­enced prosecutors and CIA persons.”

Lacey dismissed implications that the ad­ministration tried to influence the Atlanta BNL prosecution with the famous phone call from White House attorney Jay S. By­bee to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gale McKenzie on November 7, 1989: “I am not concerned with what’s on Mr. Bybee’s mind when he makes the call. My own instincts are what happens to the person who receives it … I am convinced [McKenzie] didn’t detect any sense of pres­sure being imposed on her by this call.”

To support his characterization of McKenzie as independent, Lacey described how she fought Jus1ice in Washington to go with her theory 1hat BNL Rome was a victim. In fact, if Rome had authorized Drogoul’s actions, Justice might not have had a case, because at the time, foreign agency banks enjoyed a high level of crimi­nal immunity. “You know what would hap­pen to this case?” Lacey asked. “Drogoul would wind up with some regulatory slap-on-the-wrist punishment. But even worse, lhe Iraqis [would not be] guilty of a crimi­nal conspiracy.”

Of course, this line of reasoning had an­other gain for the administration: limiting the case to Drogoul almost from the start kept not only Rome but Washington out of the spotlight.

No matter how often the judge answered questions with “I don’t know” or “we did not have time,” he was emphatic that the BNL prosecution had not been corrupted. But he did allow that his “process was fallible in this respect: We were unable to determine who at Justice saw what and when … I was unable to penetrate with any precision where responsibility lay.”

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While Barr and Lacey, et al., try to close the book on Iraqgate here in the U.S., the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major has struggled to keep the lid on its part in Iraqgate. The cabinet worked hard to suppress a considerable paper trail that illustrates how the government allowed the sale of sophisticated military technol­ogy and provided financing for Saddam Hussein up until a few days before the invasion of Kuwait.

The British government has a much easi­er time keeping documents out of public domain than the U.S. does. There is no Freedom of Information protocol; all slate papers become public 30 years from their date of origin. That would be like our entire government filing system being on the JFK document release schedule.

Major suffered a setback when the three Matrix Churchill executives on trial for selling military technology to Iraq success­fully blocked the government’s attempt to prevent the use of the files on British ex­port policy and military technology in their defense. The judge admitted the papers, which illustrate how exports of all kinds were first in the ministers’ minds and how the Thatcher and Major governments fully supported Matrix Churchill’s exports to Iraq as well as the exports of other U.K. machine tool and die makers. In fact, they would rarely reject an exporter’s request out of hand. If they really felt there might be some serious proliferation issues they would tell the exporter the decision was pending.

As its turned out, however, the three exutives did not need all the evidence. One of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Alan Clark, former minister of trade and de­fense, switched his testimony, conceding that the government was well aware of the exports and that officials had given Matrix Churchill ideas on how to get around the export laws. The Conservative spin on it was that, by maintaining the Matrix Chur­chill-Iraqi connection, British intelligence could better estimate the Iraqi threat.

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But a read through the Matrix Churchill evidence and British military export files gives quite a different impression about what Britain thought it could do in Iraq. British export bureaucrats wrote with great optimism as late as March of 1989 that the British displays at the Baghdad Internation­al Exhibition for Military Production would really boost business. “Minister will recall that there is a proposal to set up an aircraft factory in Iraq based on the Hawk trainer. BAe [British Aerospace] have been keeping the pot boiling on this project throughout the [Iran-Iraq war], and are committed to bring it back to Ministers if it looks as though the Iraqis wish to sign a contract,” wrote A.W.H. Barrett.

Starting in 1987, the British allowed that up to 20 per cent of loans to Iraq could be spent on military procurement from British suppliers, providing a windfall for the sup­pliers. But British taxpayers would be left holding the bag for $1.5 billion in bad Iraqi debts — almost matching the nearly $2 bil­lion U.S. taxpayers must pay. Meanwhile, the English exporters were able to spread their action around, thanks to BNL. Down in Atlanta, over 100 English companies got listed on the bank’s letters of credit worth over $250 million. Now that’s real trans­atlantic cooperation. ■

Research assistance: Maggie Topkis 


Pardoning the National Security State

Pardoning the National Security State
January 12, 1993

As an ex-CIA officer who has twice battled the CIA all the way to the Supreme Court, I’ve learned some bitter lessons about how accountability does and doesn’t work in the national security community. But nothing I’ve learned quite prepared me for President Bush’s recent decision to par­don six Iran-contra figures. The action sends the worst possible signal to spy-bu­reaucrats, even as Congress and the courts work overtime to pamper them. It is not an auspicious coincidence.

Admittedly, none of Bush’s parolees es­capes unscathed; you don’t need a pardon if you’re guiltless. Still, the six former Rea­gan-Bush officials who benefited from his Christmas Eve proclamation clearing them of all Iran-contra charges are sure to claim exoneration, thus tempting others to believe they too can skirt the law and get away with it.

Bush seemed oblivious of this danger when he expressed hope in his statement that this would put Iran-contra behind us. Indeed, his very rationale for clemency invites further mischief. To judge from what he said, any hint of lawlessness can be redeemed if undertaken unselfishly for patriotic reasons. It’s an argument that would have warmed Nazi hearts at Nuremberg.

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Though accountability remains, of course, the essence of American law, the Iran-contra prosecutions were never about this, at least not in any pure form. Because Con­gress immunized so many witnesses during its 1987 investigations, independent coun­sel Lawrence Walsh was never able to find enough “clean” evidence to prosecute the principal crimes, including violations of export law and congressional restrictions on contra aid. Even the lying and cover-up charges he pursued instead were bowdler­ized in court, leading to convictions for lesser crimes like “withholding information from Congress.”

Not that the offenses obscured by such shorthand or forgiven by Bush’s pen stroke were ever marginal. Robert McFarlane, while Reagan’s national security adviser in 1985, helped draft letters to Congress whitewashing Oliver North’s contra activi­ties. CIA officials Clair George, Alan Fiers, and Dewey Clarridge diddled Congress about their own Iran-contra roles, and for­mer assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams lied about what he knew and didn’t.

Worst of all, Bush’s most prominent pa­rolee, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, denied under oath the exis­tence of 1700 diary notes, including one that seemingly implicates Bush in crucial Iran-contra decision making. Bush and other Republican fans have sought to trivialize Weinberger’s wrongdoing by citing his many years of public service. Will they of­fer the same apologia for Clark Clifford, the Democratic elder statesman who has been charged in the BCCI affair? Don’t count on it.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the pardons, in fact, is their aura of selective justice. Pity Richard Secord and Albert Ha­kim, North’s cohorts in crime who received not an honorable mention from Bush. Simi­larly shortchanged were many lesser vic­tims of the cover-up he now forgives. Few of us, for instance, have heard of Arif Dur­rani, a convicted gunrunner who argued throughout his 1987 trial and five-year pris­on term that the White House had been moving arms to Iran at the very moment he was accused of doing so. The government denied his claims, and denied any evidence to support them, and thus cinched his con­viction. Had Weinberger, McFarlane, or any of Bush’s other favorites come clean during Durrani’s trial and appeals, he might have walked.

And what of Jack Terrell, a self-styled mercenary who was hounded through the courts on neutrality violation charges for helping contras? The case against him was ultimately thrown out, but exoneration would have come faster if the evasions ex­cused by Bush had not been so effective. In his pardon statement Bush cast his beneficiaries as selfless souls who had sought no profit from their actions. But in fact, by staying mum to avoid justice, they profited quite nicely even as others paid dearly for the same misdeeds. There is scarcely any integrity in that.

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In his pardon statement Bush cast his beneficiaries as selfless souls who had sought no profit from their actions. But in fact, by staying mum to avoid justice, they profited quite nicely even as others paid dearly for the same misdeeds. There is scarcely any integrity in that.

What makes the pardons most troubling, though, is the larger pattern they sanctify. Iran-contra was never merely an attempt to duck inconvenient legal restrictions on arms exports and contra aid; conceptually it was an elbowing aside of the very princi­ples of shared power and accountability en­shrined in the Constitution and reinforced through Congress’s investigations of the CIA in the mid ’70s.

Oliver North’s spiritual godfather, the late CIA director William Casey, deplored those investigations and the strictures born of them, in particular the injunction to share secrets, and hence power, with Con­gress. So it was that he and other Reagan­ites farmed out their most sensitive dirty work to private operatives, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council, all of them beyond the scrutiny of Congress. The subsequent excesses of Iran-contra were merely the offspring of this imperial dodge. In granting clemency to the half-dozen surviving ringleaders, Bush cannot help but embolden like-minded loyalists everywhere in Washington.

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This is not to say that he or other Reaganites are solely responsible for the loosening of Congress’s grip on the intelligence establishment. Congress itself has con­spired in the process. When the first com­prehensive intelligence oversight bill was passed in 1980, legislators included a loophole allowing the president to withhold the most sensitive operations from the full oversight committees. The president also was permitted to postpone disclosure of lesser activities as long as he “found” in writing that they were vital. Reagan turned this exemption into a license for excess, even writing a post-facto “finding” to give a patina of legality to the CIA’s first arms delivery to Iran.

Once this and other transgressions were discovered, Congress did little to recoup. In drafting a new oversight bill over a year ago legislators ruled out post-facto “findings” like Reagan’s, but agreed to let the presi­dent go on avoiding timely consultation with watchdog committees. Even more as­tonishingly, they formally approved use of oversight-proof private operatives or for­eign allies in intelligence operations.

Later, at the nomination hearings of CIA director-designate Robert Gates, the intelli­gence panels passed up a second chance to home in on Iran-contra. They seem no more inclined to open that door now. A House Judiciary subcommittee is mum­bling about holding hearings on the par­dons, but the incoming chief of the Senate intelligence panel, Democrat Dennis De­Concini, has urged leaving well enough alone. Ditto House Speaker Tom Foley, who rumor has it helped hasten the pardons by promising not to oppose them publicly. If this is the dawn of a new era in congressional assertiveness, there’s not much light on the horizon.

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Even more distressing is the growing pas­sivity of the only other force for account­ability in national security disputes, the federal judiciary. Long ago Gerald Ford tried to bring the courts actively into intel­ligence oversight. In 1976 he canceled a 22-year “gentleman’s agreement” between the CIA and the Justice Department that had allowed the agency to decide whether a crime committed by a U.S. intelligence offi­cer would be prosecuted.

More recently the independent prosecu­tor act took such decisions out of the hands of often politicized attorneys general. But in practice the law often played out like a latter-day gentleman’s agreement. While al­lowing the independent counsel to pursue cases on his own, for instance, it left the attorney general and the spooks free to determine which official secrets could be released for trial.

The Reagan administration used this es­cape hatch to deny evidence needed in the trial of Oliver North. As a result, Walsh was forced to drop charges arising out of the diversion of Iran arms profits to the con­tras. Never again did his prosecutions re­turn to his key issue. One CIA operative, Joe Fernandez, even had the case against him dropped because of the agency’s refus­al to release intelligence to his lawyers. So much for the principle of equal justice un­der law.

Had federal judges themselves been less taken with national security claims in re­cent years, such developments would be less troubling. But often, in intelligence matters, the judiciary has been more catho­lic than the pope. In 1980 I had the dubious distinction of provoking a U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped accelerate this trend.

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The case, brought by liberal Carterites, many of whom are now heading back to Washington, was designed to punish me for publishing a book without CIA clearance and censorship. But the larger issue was whether in the absence of express congres­sional authorization (a law) the president can wield broad powers (like censorship) that cut into constitutional rights. The Su­preme Court pronounced a resounding yes, thus buttressing an expansionist interpreta­tion of presidential power that some ex­perts believe led to Iran-contra.

At the same time, the court made clear in its ruling that the work of the intelligence community is too complex and important to be second-guessed. For any workaday federal judge, that’s a chastening thought, and sure enough, few federal magistrates have been willing in recent years to challenge the CIA on any intelligence issue. In simple Freedom of Information cases, the tide has run consistently against disclosure because judges refuse to question CIA ex­perts who warn against it. In the Noriega case (where I was an investigator for the defense), the judge chose repeatedly not to inconvenience the CIA with ticklish evidentiary demands.

Even when I went back to court four years ago to seek redress for a costly censorship abuse by the CIA, I got no sympathy. The trial judge declared portentously that the agency is too busy to be held to strict clearance deadlines, and the Supreme Court refused to intervene, thus proving again that there is little legal comfort for anyone trying to bring the intelligence community to heel.

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Some would say that this judgment is too harsh. But against the backdrop of the Bush pardons and Congress’s continued coddling of the spooks, any distortion of judicial impartiality in the same arena merits con­cern. If our lawmakers and law-enforcers won’t keep the scales balanced, who will?

How comforting it would be to conclude that the incoming Clinton team promises to remedy things. The president-elect himself did object to Bush’s apparent willingness to elevate certain individuals above the law. Still, Clinton’s candidate for defense secre­tary, Les Aspin, a man who earlier worried about presidential excesses, reportedly fa­vored the pardons. Is there something about being invited into Washington’s most privileged circle that makes even reason­able souls quiver with imperial zeal? If so, Iran-contra is not some piece of medieval history, but a metaphor for an inevitable way of doing business in Washington. ■


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Iran-Contra: What Do We Know, and When Did We Know It?

“The Iran-Contra Scandal Ends In a Whimper”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unlike Watergate, in which the resigna­tion of the president created an ending of sorts, there is no suc­cessful conclusion to the Iran-contra scandal that tore the government to pieces during the mid-1980s. The release last week of the report of the independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, marks a frustrat­ing anticlimax to what clearly is a continuing crisis of American gov­ernment, based not in the execu­tive branch, but in Congress, which has been steadily under­mining its own ability to govern.

In their own investigation and subsequent report, the congressio­nal committees investigating the affair blamed the Reagan admin­istration, but never said a word about Congress’s own complicity, instead making it into a victim of the Reagan plot when in fact it was an accomplice.

There was never any official recognition of the Iran-contra scandal until November 25, 1986, when then-attorney general Edwin Meese made his “discovery” of the so-called diversion memo that for the first time officially ac­knowledged the funneling of mon­ey from the sale of arms to Iran to the rebels in Nicaragua.

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U.S. backing for the rebels was well known in Washington and co­piously reported in newspapers and on television from at least 1984 on. The National Security Archive, the independent, nonprofit watchdog outfit in Washington, which has led the way in investigating the Iran-­contra scandal, has compiled de­tailed chronologies of how the scan­dal unfolded. A simplified version, along with key documents, is con­tained in Iran Contra Scandal: A Declassified History, which should be taken as a reader’s guide to the Walsh report.

Here are a few of the events that everybody in Washington during that period of time knew about: On April 9, 1984, The Wall Street Journal revealed the CIA had se­cretly mined Nicaraguan harbors. The next month, contra rebel lead­er Eden Pastora held a press con­ference in the Nicaraguan jungle to denounce the CIA’s pressure to align his followers on the southern front with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force operating out of Hon­duras. In the midst of the confer­ence, a bomb exploded, killing eight journalists and wounding 17 others. The assassin escaped.

In April 1985, five members of the Civilian Military Assistance team, a U.S.-based mercenary operation, were arrested in Costa Rica. In prison interviews, they began to spell out details of the National Security Council’s sup­port of a southern front operation run by John Hull along the Nicaragua border. In August 1985, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the National Security Council’s role in supporting the contras. On June 25, 1986, the CBS program West 57th Street aired a documentary on the contra resupply mis­sion, identifying Robert Owen as “the bagman for Ollie North” and John Hull as the key American working for the NSC in Costa Rica. Within a year, the Associat­ed Press, Miami Herald, and CBS News had chipped away, exposing the basic outlines of the National Security Council-run enterprise.

Even though some of these re­ports caused an outcry on Capitol Hill, they had little lasting impact. Indeed, the House, in June 1985, passed legislation authorizing hu­manitarian assistance to the contras, which was well understood at the time as a way to build up the military infrastructure.

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In August 1985, Michael Barnes, then chairman of the House western hemisphere affairs subcommittee, and Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote Robert McFarlane, Rea­gan’s national security adviser, demanding an explanation of press reports that North was en­gaged in activities that violated the ban on contra aid. Together with North, McFarlane drew up a reply, stating that “at no time did I or any member of the National Security Council staff violate the letter or spirit” of congressional restrictions. That was that. Con­gress accepted this bald lie on its face.

A year later, in June, Represen­tative Ron Coleman from Texas introduced a Resolution of Inqui­ry directing the president to pro­vide documentation relating to the National Security Council contacts and support for the con­tras. By way of response, Vice-Admiral John Poindexter agreed to allow North to talk in secret to Hamilton’s intelligence commit­tee. At that meeting, on Aµgust 6, 1986, in the White House Situa­tion Room, North was all charm, denying any intention to violate the spirit, principle, or legal re­quirements of the Boland amend­ment. According to administra­tion notes of that meeting, the committee members seemed more concerned at the threats North and his family were receiving because of the newspaper exposes about his job.

Far from concerning itself about how the executive branch had methodically violated the laws it passed, in June 1986, the House passed President Reagan’s request for military and nonmili­tary support for the contras.

Three months later, on October 5, 1986, a planeload of arms was shot down over Nicaragua, and when the lone survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured by the Sandinistas, the CIA station chief in Costa Rica cabled Washington that the situation requires we do necessary damage control.” Administration officials issued cate­gorical denials to three congressio­nal committees that sought answers about the flight. Elliott Abrams, in an appearance before the House intelligence committee, was asked by Hamilton: “Just to be clear, the United States govern­ment has not done anything to facilitate these private groups, is that a fair statement?” Abrams replied, “Yes, to the extent of my knowledge that I feel to be com­plete, other than the general pub­slic encouragement that we like this kind of activity.”

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The fact is that the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight over intelligence generally are boosters for both spooks and covert action. The intelligence committees are supposed to sort out and stop what Senator Patrick Leahy has called the intelligence community’s more “cockamamy ideas” be­fore they happen. They should have stopped Iran-contra before it happened.

But these committees sat by as the CIA mined Nicaragua’s har­bors and wrote up a murder man­ual for the contras. They watched passively as the CIA bungled a plan to assassinate a Lebanese radical religious sheikh with a car bomb that instead killed 80 by­standers. As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive has observed, “the senators and con­gressmen who sit on the intelli­gence committees effectively become members of the covert club of government, the select clique of men and women privy to the se­crets of state. The intoxication of this privilege has transformed the committees into advocates as op­posed to counterweights.”

Michael Harrington, the former congressman who was censured in 1975 for revealing classified CIA testimony on the destabilization of Chile, said the oversight system is a “seductive game of shared secrets,” adding, “It starts with the pleasant feeling of being privy to things unknown to the ordinary citizen, but it works very much like blackmail. The more you know about dubious secret opera­tions, the more you are responsi­ble for hiding, and the more you hide, the tighter the grip of the State Department, or the CIA, or the Pentagon.”

The spooks hand-feed the com­mittees, telling them what they want to hear. And the committees can’t do anything about the spooks even if they wanted to. The CIA contingency fund allows the agency to finance whatever operation it desires until legisla­tion is passed specifically banning that operation.

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On April 26, 1984, the Senate intelligence committee put out a press release claiming Casey and the committee “have agreed on the need for more thorough and effective oversight procedures,” and that the CIA “pledged its full cooperation in this effort.” But as Congress’s subsequent investiga­tions revealed, at the same time Casey was feeding this line to the intelligence committees, he was collaborating with the National Security Council, soliciting funds from the Saudis, and meeting with retired general Richard Secord — all part of the administration’s ef­forts to get around congressional restrictions on aid to the contras.

What happened in Congress be­fore the Iran-contra scandal broke is bad enough, but the behavior by Congress after that is hard to believe. It was Congress that placidly doled out waivers of immunity to the leading participants, which everyone knew at the time would make any future criminal prosecution next to impossible.

Walsh’s report puts it in the most polite terms: “Immunity is ordinarily given by a prosecutor to a witness who will incriminate someone more important than himself. Congress gave immunity to North and Poindexter, who in­criminated only themselves and who largely exculpated those responsible for the initiation, supervision, arid support of their activi­ties. This delayed and infinitely complicated the effort to prosecute North and Poindexter.”

George Bush himself did as much as anyone could to ham­string the Walsh inquiry. In De­cember 1992, after he lost the election, Bush belatedly discov­ered notes for a political diary he had been keeping, which showed he knew about the Iran-contra arms deal from the get-go. Under an agreement with the Reagan White House, Walsh had first re­quested such documents back in 1987. And in one of his final acts as president, on Christmas eve, 1992, Bush pardoned former sec­retary of defense Casper Weinber­ger, 12 days before Weinberger was to go on trial, along with five other principal defendants. It was the first time a president ever par­doned someone in whose trial he might be called as a witness.

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During the Iran-contra hearings, Oliver North argued that the American people “ought not to be led to believe, as a consequence of these hearings, that this nation cannot or should not conduct covert operations.” And having heard the testimony, the congres­sional committee seems to have agreed: “Covert operations are a necessary component of our Na­tion’s foreign policy,” the congressional report says, and maintains that ”history reflects that the prospects for peaceful settlement [of international conflict] are greater if this country has … the means to influence developments abroad.”

A decade earlier, the Church committee had inquired into the intelligence scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, considered proposing a ban on all forms of covert action, and declared that “covert action must be seen as an exceptional act, to be undertaken only when the national security requires it  and when overt means will not suffice.”

By the time the congressional committees on Iran-contra took up the issue, such a principle nev­er occurred to the members. There never has been the hint of legislation aimed at curbing the use of covert action. And under the current administration the structures of the national security state remain in place.

It is certainly not for poor Walsh to sort out this mess. He can only gesture toward it in frus­tration: “The underlying facts of Iran-contra are that, regardless of criminality, President Reagan, the secretary or state, the secretary of defense, and the director of cen­tral intelligence and their necessary assistants skirted … the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the President’s willful activities.

“What protection do the people of the United States have against such a concerted action by such powerful officers? … [I]n the give and take of political community, congressional oversight is often overtaken and subordinated by the need to keep government functioning, by the need to antici­pate the future, and by the ever­-present requirement of maintain­ing consensus among the elected officials who are the Government.”

He goes on: “Time and again this Independent Counsel found himself at the mercy of political decisions of the Congress and the Executive branch … Despite ex­traordinary efforts to shield the OIC from exposure to immunized testimony, the North and Poin­dexter convictions were overturned on appeal on the immunity issue…

“Congressional action that pre­cludes, or makes it impossible to sustain, a prosecution has more serious consequences than simply one less conviction. There is a sig­nificant inequity when more peripheral players are convicted while central figures in a criminal enterprise escape punishment. And perhaps more fundamentally, the failure to punish governmen­tal law breakers feeds the percep­tion that public officials are not wholly accountable for their actions.”

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Although it is seldom seen as such, the United States has main­tained since the early part of the century what amounts to a centralized, federal police that has operated in numerous occasions as a political force lodged in the FBI, beginning with efforts aimed at expelling dissenters — at first, anarchists and commu­nists — then, from the ’50s on, used to spy on black civil rights activists including Martin Luther King, and during the ’60s to spy on student leftists and radicals.

During the 1980s, the govern­ment spied on and harassed those who dissented from the war in Central America, and when that dissent became mainstream and Congress outlawed aid to the contras in the Boland amendment, the White House entered into a conspiracy against Congress, and employed what amounts to a counterinsurgency operation against it.

Not only did the Reagan administration secretly deploy a well-heeled publicity campaign to overturn the amendment, but it built a private, sub rosa foreign policy in the basement of the White House with Oliver North as the point man. In its guide to the scandal, the National Security Ar­chive dug up and printed State Department documents describ­ing how the Reagan White House used members of the army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group to organize PR, including among other activities funneling phony wire service stories to “people like Newt Gingrich to read on C-Span during the open orders and enter into the Congressional Record.”

So the techniques of covert ac­tion designed to pacify and win guerrilla war in the Third World — those parts of the world then perceived to be on the periphery of the Soviet empire — were employed within the United States against the citizenry through a mostly unsuspecting and seemingly disinterested Congress.

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If ever there was an assault on the Constitution, this was it. But Congress, itself so caught up in the process of covert action, seems not to have recognized the challenge to its own authority, let alone to have much cared. Now everyone is willing to let bygones be bygones. With Reagan and Bush gone from government, the argument is, government will once more right itself.

But Clinton himself is now en­gaged in a crime bill that effec­tively employs the same techniques of counterinsurgency against the inner cities of America. ­

And Congress? Within a weak and vestigially corrupt executive, Congress is the most important bulwark of democracy. Yet it swings aimlessly, verging as time goes on towards the irrelevant. Af­ter the lengthy fight over NAFTA, which held out the prospects of being resolved — one way or another — on the basis of actual na­tional debate, the president just stepped in and bought the votes.

This sort of erosion of credibil­ity and democracy can be sus­tained for years, but in the end it will come to a head in a pointed crisis of the state. The anarchy that grips Europe may not be so far away. ■


Ward Harkavy, 1947–2020

Ward Harkavy, a Voice stalwart who left the paper before he had the opportunity to aim his editorial scalpel at the Trump regime, died from Covid-19 this morning, at age 72.

Below, we resurrect a classic Harkavy essay, surveying the departing George W. Bush administration — a hit parade of an inept commander-in-chief’s aggressive, unilateral wars; economic chicanery; and world-class propensity for gaffes. Ward didn’t find it necessary to specifically remind his readers of the ways in which earlier Republican POTUSes — Ford, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush — had carried on their party’s grand old tradition of comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted. He did, however, write a headline that specifically recalled a whiny Richard Nixon declaiming to the press, after losing the California governor’s race in 1962, “But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

A true journalist, Ward had no favorites — he would call bullshit on anyone and everyone (including himself). But he would also deliver the hardest of facts with humorous insights — although in this particular case, W made it easy by providing the writer with such quotes as “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

In every sentence Ward wrote (along with the untold thousands he edited for the Voice and other papers over the decades), he never forgot that “our people” were his readers, and that they deserved the truth.

And a laugh. —R.C. Baker


Ward Harkavy writes about the failures of George W Bush

Don’t Leave, George!
January 20, 2009
By Ward Harkavy

The Constitution says George W. Bush can’t remain in the White House past next week, but as we’ve learned during the past eight years, the Constitution is just a piece of paper. So it’s not too late to make a final plea: Bush, don’t leave us journalists hanging.

Don’t pardon our behavior during the past eight years. Don’t make us commute our sentences. Bail us out. Don’t leave.

George W. Bush has set a standard that’s unmatched in the history of the U.S. presidency.  And now, with the bar he’s set, he’s leaving us in limbo?

That’s low.

Bush is abandoning reporters when we need him the most. The newspaper industry is in the tank, and no other bailouts are in the offing. Survival depends on a sense of humor, and what will journalists do without Bush?

He’s been the problem. He’ll never be the solution. And that’s why he needs to stick around.

It’s a selfish argument, but what’s more American than selfishness, or haven’t you been following the Bernie Madoff saga?

For journalists accustomed to feeling dumbstruck, this goes beyond selfishness to true double-pronged satisfaction: self-expression and a strong sense of duty to lick the roadkill clean so the public doesn’t step in it.

Face it: Reporters are vultures, and Bush is the carcass that never stops putrefying.

Carry on without Bush? Can’t imagine how journalists will do it.

Barack Obama may be the first black person elected president, but compared with Bush, he’s colorless. Reporters certainly won’t be catching Obama frequently flub-a-dubbing at press conferences or getting stumped on the stump.

The days are over when drooling reporters will get to pick at such presidential bone mots as “Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again” or the more recent “Let’s make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times in our economy.”

So the question is not whether “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully,” as Bush once philosophized, but whether reporters can live without Bush as life drags on.

Fun and excitement make time pass so quickly. Where have the past eight years gone? They’ve just flown by, except maybe for the families of the thousands of U.S. soldiers killed, maimed, or shell-shocked in Iraq since Bush declared, “Mission accomplished!”

The shoe. My Pet Goat.
Yellowcake. The flight suit. Curveball.
Katrina. Brownie.

OK, so it’s not strict haiku, just a few “symbols of Bush’s reign” that The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank threw out there recently that I tried to convert to a metric system.

Poetry doesn’t usually put food on the table, but poetry editors sometimes do well, and Slate’s Jacob Weisberg elbowed his way to the front row at the parade of politics and words with his meticulously collected Bushisms archive. Somehow, I don’t see Weisberg gaffing similar gaffes from Obama, who never seems to be in over his head as a communicator.

Which gives journalists a serious problem: The new president is as eloquent as Bush isn’t, but how many different ways can reporters note that for their readers? That’ll get old quickly.

And if Obama’s not the man of peace lefties hope he is (don’t worry, he isn’t, if he’s installed Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross as his Middle East peacemakers), you can bet that he’s not going to start many, if any, wars.

That’s right, no more unilateral invasions. That means rough times ahead for writers. As Thomas Hardy—a serious writer, not a journalist—once noted, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.”

There have been no worries on that score while Bush has been president. Just a few months (or minutes) after 9/11, the Bush-Cheney regime abandoned the hunt for Osama bin Laden and started plotting how to justify an invasion of Iraq.

Only now have Afghanistan and Pakistan resumed their rightful places as the prime battleground for U.S. troops into the frightening future.

Maybe it doesn’t matter where the politicians send a generation or two to die. If the Iraq invasion was built on lies, well, politicians will always lie; it’s just that some lies are bigger than others, and when they are, reporters have more to gnaw on.

But it was when Bush accidentally spoke the truth that he truly took our breath away. Like when he said in August 2004, while signing a gigantic Department of Defense bill, “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

Hold that thought, Bush. And good luck to reporters who are waiting for the next president to say something like that. In fact, covering Obama will be tor­ture for the traveling White House press corps. Instead of going to Crawford, Texas, where there were no distractions and they had to focus on work, they’ll have to tag along with the Obamas to Hawaii during presidential respites from D.C.

Waterboarding’s out; surfboarding’s in. Boring.

The liberal media and lefty activists have already abandoned their carping at Bush for the even more futile flurry of “suggestions” to Obama about how he can “change” things.

A suggestion box. Boring. In any case, the early returns indicate that Obama is not a conservative Democrat, like the Clintons, but he may not be a lefty, either. So far, he seems to be just to the center of center.


As for the incoming vice president, Joe Biden has no chance of filling the vacuum, the black hole, that is Dick Cheney. Biden is so unexciting that he’s likely to be re­membered mainly for his charter mem­bership in the Hair Club for Senators.

Reporters will have a whole lot less fun traipsing off to Delaware with Biden than bird-dogging Cheney while he hunted for his next victims.

Will Biden tour the country, as Cheney did only a few short years ago, trying to hoodwink Americans into letting Wall Street handle their Social Security accounts? I don’t think so.

That’s fortunate for the public, but style is more important to reporters than substance. Biden’s weird little smile can’t compare with Cheney’s lip-curling sneer.

Biden as the imperial vice president, the Rasputin, the man behind the throne, the puppet master, the bender of the Constitution to his will?

No, that dog won’t hunt — with or with­out the Chief Justice of the United States. Here’s $100 that says Biden will never shoot a hunting partner. And another $100 that says Biden will never mutter, “Fuck yourself,” as he brushes past a senior senator from the other party.

On the sanctimonious end of the scale, there were Bush’s Jesus freaks. You may have already forgotten that his first attorney general, John Ashcroft, ordered a modesty shroud for a naked ­lady statue in the Justice Department. But in the 9 /11 aftermath, he rounded up thousands of Muslims on American streets who were wearing their own modesty shrouds.

Forget that nonsense. No more hillbilly evangelists or Pat Robertson law-school grads making important decisions at Justice. Just take my word for that.

Deep in its bowels, the Obama White House may move with much the same rhythm as the Bush White House. But no matter how much of a shark-like en­forcer Rahm Emanuel is sure to be, it’s hard to imagine that Obama will give him a nickname like the one that Bush lov­ingly gave Karl Rove: “Turd Blossom.”

Or that Emanuel will have to continually hiss in Obama’s ear, as Rove did with Bush, “Stick to principle! Stick to principle!”

One of Bush’s Farewell Tour ’08 speeches last month did hold out a glim­mer of hope that there would continue to be 24/7 excitement for political reporters. He told his American Enterprise Institute friends at a Mayflower Hotel banquet in D.C., “Under ordinary circumstances, failed entities — failing entities should be allowed to fail. I have concluded these are not ordi­nary circumstances for a lot of reasons.”

Bush was referring to Detroit’s automak­ers, but he could have been hinting that he himself was one of those failed entities who should be saved — at least for four more years. Of failing. One bad term deserved another. Why not another after that?

Yet it seems clear that Bush is going to back up the Mayflower to the White House.

Mike Bloomberg abolished term limits so he could run for mayor again and continue walking the beat on Wall Street, making his business pals keep their market stalls clean and orderly. The mayor took his failure to do so in his own hands and decided he wanted to keep failing.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s situation was different, but he did flout tradition by grabbing an unprecedented third term after pulling the country out of a depression. Why can’t Bush have a third term, even though he’s driving us into one?

And he’s jumping out just as we’re going over the cliff? It’s not fair.

Not that life should be fair. We know the public’s not going to be rescued. But if Cheney doesn’t mount a coup to keep Bush in office, who’s going to bail out America’s journalists?

After eight years of a president who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, followed by eight years of a president who couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth, reporters are spoiled.

Now, after 200 years of toiling for highly profitable, ad-rich media outlets, the working press, gravy stains on its cheap ties, is rapidly being displaced by bloggers in bathrobes.

Tough luck for journalists still intent on getting paid for their work. At least Bush’s presence has provided enough of a distraction to take their minds off the industry’s collapse.

Now, journalists face at least one unavoidable change: Obama will screw up some things, but he doesn’t seem like a screw-up who can’t control himself He seems like … an adult.

And adults are so boring.


When the Lights Went Out in New York City

It was a Thursday afternoon and most of the Village Voice staff was going about its business at 36 Cooper Square. Then the lights — and everything else electrical, including the desk phones — went dead. Flip phones flipped open, but dialing out was a crapshoot — the lines were jammed, if you could get a signal at all. Editors sent writers out across the city to research stories for the following week’s edition, which would come out just a few days later, on Tuesday evening. There was still plenty of time for reporters such as Wayne Barrett, James Ridgeway, and Cynthia Cotts to dig into the history of infrastructure neglect that led to the August 14, 2003, blackout.

Barrett zeroed in on New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki: “There he was on Larry King Live, the governor of a state that couldn’t even watch him, promising to get to the bottom of the first 21st-century blackout, looking for any culprit but himself. After eight and a half years of the most disastrous energy policies in New York history, George Pataki spent the last few days frantically turning himself into a human floodlight, scanning an eight-state collapsed grid for a blameworthy glitch, when he needed only to shine the klieg on himself.” Barrett also noted that other parts of the Northeast region dodged the outage because they had avoided aligning their systems with New York’s: “Pataki policies have turned New York into a ‘regional pariah,’ with manic deregulation, skyrocketing prices, and both transmission and capacity disinvestment driving other, sounder systems away.” Additionally, Barrett ferreted out the campaign contributions from energy suppliers and the political favoritism that led to the catastrophe. Read Barrett’s full article.

New York Gov. George Pataki listens to a question at a press conference outside the New York State Emergency Office in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Aug. 14. 2003, where he said that 60 percent of New York State was still without power.

James Ridgeway’s mordantly headlined “Power to the People? Hardly.” had a local and federal perspective: “Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don’t turn off the light when leaving the room and don’t want power lines running through their backyards.”

And then he pointed out the ways in which Bush the Second’s administration had set the stage for the blackout: “Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what’s worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn’t have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers. If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies.”

And then Ridgeway delivered a conclusion that could have been written last year when Republicans rammed through yet another tax cut for the richest Americans: “Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal’s social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.”

Cynthia Cotts’s “It’s Deregulation, Stupid” highlighted a Daily News headline, “Experts know zip over zap,” and then went on to remind readers that New Yorkers were not the only ones without power that summer of 2003: “The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, ‘We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.’ He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.”

Cotts referenced a Times story that said one of the blackout’s causes was “an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules.”

Which sounds very much like the deregulatory dream of Trump and the current Republican Congress.


Apocalypse Numb

I was about two-thirds of the way through Avengers: Infinity War when I realized just how tired I was. Not “tired” as in bored, but “tired” as in exhausted, depleted — maybe even a little depressed. That’s not, for the most part, a qualitative assessment of the movie — for the record, I found it significantly more engaging than the last Avengers film but not nearly as entertaining as the first. Rather, it’s a response to the constant, bludgeoning promise of repeated apocalyptic devastation.

Some say we go to the movies to get away from the problems of everyday life. But what do you do when allegedly escapist entertainment traffics in endless visions of doom and gloom? Just a little over a month ago, I saw alien dinosaur monster thingamabobs lay waste to Tokyo and other cities as they attempted to seize control of the planet in Pacific Rim Uprising. A few months before that, I witnessed a supervillain try to enslave and replace the Earth, in November’s Justice League. Two X-Men movies ago an ancient, godlike Egyptian mutant literally named Apocalypse came back and nearly wiped out civilization. The villains of Transformers: The Last Knight wanted to turn our world into the planet Unicron. That was, I think, the fourth time that someone in the Transformers movies tried to terraform the Earth. Of course, they also tried to do that in Man of Steel, and the first Avengers. By contrast, the bad guy in Avengers: Age of Ultron merely wanted to raise an entire city miles up into the sky so he could drop it down to Earth and destroy all of humanity.

For the moviegoer — or the film critic — who dutifully trudges out to these pictures all year long, the effect is a seemingly ceaseless, soul-eating series of global and cosmic calamities that mostly stopped being bracing or suspenseful or even all that interesting some time ago.

But this is about more than movies. If there’s a boundary in our minds between reality and fiction, visions of cataclysm have begun to obliterate it. Not only are we constantly subjected to end-times scenarios onscreen, we continually face them outside the theater as well — via presidential tweets, responses to presidential tweets (sometimes, our own), screaming news updates, absolutist language across the world, and a constant stream of deeply alarming (and, sadly, often accurate) reporting about all the ways in which our planet and society are totally, irretrievably screwed.

Like I said, I’m tired.

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Apocalyptic stories (as well as post-apocalyptic ones) have been with us forever; as a species, we are uniquely fascinated with our own annihilation. Such tales have, throughout history, served to remind us of our mortality, which in turn has tended to focus human thought and action. This can happen on both the molecular and cultural level. People have ways of helping themselves deal with “the threat of demise,” says psychology professor Jeff Zacks, director of the Dynamic Cognition Lab at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies. “When you get cues that make it clear that your life could end, you have some mechanisms that kick in.”

Physiologically, threatening circumstances can cause a “fight or flight” (or “stress”) response, when a flood of hormones boosts our heart rates, dilates our pupils, and unleashes stored energy. Such circumstances can also have an impact on a broader, cultural level. “Terror Management Theory,” developed by a group of social psychologists in the 1980s, posits that the fear of death can prompt people to act in ways that bind them closer to others with whom they share certain values — or, as one of the authors of the initial study once put it, “to maintain faith in their own culture’s beliefs and to follow the culture’s paths to an enduring significance that will outlast their own physical death.” That can, of course, be a mixed bag, as it also leads to increased tribalism and heightened prejudice against those who think, look, or act differently.

But surely made-up stories about the apocalypse and actual apocalyptic beliefs or threats are two totally different things? Yes and no. Zacks points to what psychologists call the “sleeper effect,” which posits that exposure to a message, even when you know it’s bogus, can over time still persuade you. The idea was developed during World War II, with draftees who were shown scenes from Frank Capra’s government-financed wartime documentary series Why We Fight. The soldiers were initially highly skeptical of the film, recognizing it as propaganda. When questioned some weeks later, however, they were a lot more convinced of the truth of its message; they had retained the point, but had forgotten its dubious origins.

The sleeper effect suggests a potentially troubling truth about the human mind: Our brains have to work harder than we realize to distinguish between fiction and reality. “Wordsworth had this idea that to appreciate literature we had to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief,” Zacks explains. “But it’s actually the opposite: As humans, we have to engage in a willing suspension of belief.” He tells me that as humanity evolved, “we got really good at being able to populate our models of the world with information from disparate sources. I can get a sense of what’s happening around me not just from cues that I observe, but from information you tell me. So, if story-like stuff gets into our brains, we have to treat it as part of the environment. We have to work harder to make it clear to ourselves that it’s fictional. Of course we can distinguish between reality and a movie — but it’s harder than we realize.”

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Does that partly explain my exhaustion? Or the elevated rhetoric we hear on seemingly every issue of controversy? It’s not like I now think that the Battle of Sokovia is a real thing that actually happened, or that the armies of Chitauri that invaded New York through a wormhole in Avengers are now part of the historical record — but somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I feel like I’m living in the midst of an ongoing cataclysm, one in which CGI images of a ruined world have joined forces with constant headlines about rogue nuclear states and a dying planet to produce a sense of numb, dead-eyed helplessness.

During the closing days of the 2016 election, Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, co-author of How to Survive the Apocalypse, took a look at the seemingly nonstop cycles of cataclysmic hysteria on both the left and the right. Remember, that campaign was seen as the Flight 93 election by some on the right, the final chance to save a doomed country. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric took things to a whole new level. But the left also used such absolute imagery for its own ends. Wilkinson noted that the “apocalyptic tenor…[is] pervasive in American political rhetoric.” It can sometimes even be used for positive ends, since “apocalypse” means more than destruction; Wilkinson points out that the original Greek word, apokalypsis, also means “the dismantling of perceived realities — an ending of endings, a shocking tremor of revelation that [remakes] creation in its wake.”

Of course, Americans have tended to view the present in such dire terms almost since the founding of the country, says Alison McQueen, a Stanford professor of political science and the author of Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. “The Puritans thought they were literally escaping the Antichrist and founding a New Jerusalem,” she explains. Over the years, she notes, such language has been a persistent feature of our political speech; Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan have not been unique in their extensive use of it. “At its best,” McQueen wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2016, “the tradition of apocalyptic rhetoric in the United States has sought to unite rather than divide…to rouse citizens to confront injustices in which they may themselves be implicated — from slavery to environmental catastrophe.”

But over the past couple of decades, this sort of rhetoric has become relentless, finding easy purchase in a culture whose growing fondness for overstatement is matched only by its blistering capacity for amplification. McQueen notes that after the events of 9-11, George W. Bush became quite fond of apocalyptic rhetoric; in his second inaugural address in 2005, he referred to the attack as a “day of fire,” and spoke of the liberating power of “the untamed fire of freedom.” But the “apocalyptic mirror-game,” as the feminist theologian Catherine Keller called it, existed on both the left and the right in the wake of 9-11 — in part because it offered an opportunity to eschew complexity in favor of indignant certainty. Was this terror management kicking in, triaging such energy-depleting things as nuance and humanity in an effort to deal with a perceived existential threat?

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As Bush launched multiple wars, our political discourse continued to become a zero-sum game of absolute good and evil, with the fate of the planet and human civilization metaphorically hanging in the balance in every election or policy debate. Since then, the drumbeat of imminent cataclysm has not relented, as everything from the 2008 financial crisis to the rise of ISIS to the Ebola outbreak of 2014–16 has been consumed and processed through the rhetoric of world-ending catastrophe. Overwhelmed by it as we all are, it’s hard sometimes to understand when such fervor is justified. There’s certainly unrelenting real-world horrors on a massive scale: Ebola killed thousands around the world, and would have killed millions more were it not for the heroic efforts of doctors, aid workers, and many others. The wars in the Middle East have destroyed cities and upended — and ended — countless lives. Meanwhile, there is a very real chance that the Pacific Northwest will be devastated in our lifetimes by an immense earthquake. And then, you know, there’s the other thing.

Still, one person’s very real apocalypse is another person’s overreaction: I admit, I did give a bitter chuckle a couple of months ago at an op-ed declaring that apocalyptic language in the gun debate was uncalled for upon seeing that it was written by Michael Gerson, the Bush speechwriter generally credited with the “day of fire” inaugural, as well as some of the former president’s more biblically inflected pronouncements. (For the record, U.S. gun deaths in 2017 claimed five times the number of lives that 9-11 did.)

In some senses, our cultural products are merely reflecting the anxiety of the times. “Hollywood picks up, in a semi-Jungian way, whatever is going on in the culture and transmits it back to us in all kinds of strange scenarios,” says Dr. Harvey Roy Greenberg, a psychoanalyst and journalist, and the author of Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch. Obviously, there have been entries in the cataclysmic canon since the dawn of cinema; the 1950s and ’60s saw monster movies that echoed anxieties about the nuclear age in the U.S. and abroad. In the 1990s, advances in computer graphics breathed new life into the disaster movie — especially ones in which the destruction was caused by the vicissitudes of nature (who can forget the competing volcano movies of 1997, Dante’s Peak and Volcano?), the indifferent cruelty of random astronomical phenomena (who can forget the competing asteroid movies of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact?), or the nebulous motivations of unfriendly extraterrestrials (who can forget the competing alien invasion movies of 1996, Independence Day and Mars Attacks!?).

Even so, much as it did in the political realm, 9-11 represented a major inflection point in Hollywood’s growing love affair with the apocalypse, as the movies rediscovered the box-office power and cultural impact of evil itself, often abstracted into fantasy or supervillainy. Greenberg evokes the Freudian concept of “narcissistic injury”: “We keep ourselves going by our deepest feelings about who we are in the world, and an assault is anything that harms our core belief in who we are — whether it’s the parent who slaps you, or Osama bin Laden. All human development has evolved to protect that sense of self. And 9-11 was a red-hot pipe plunged into the center of the American self.”

I’m dwelling on 9-11 a lot. In many ways, it continues to feed the apocalyptic thinking that has overwhelmed our culture. (The Marvel movies, by the way, understand this; their constant references to “the Battle of New York” from the first Avengers evoke the impact of 9-11.) Maybe because the wars that were launched in the wake of 9-11 never really ended, we never really got the period of pause and reflection that’s required to process all that we’ve lived through. Maybe the imagery just proved too powerful, too profitable, too alluring. In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., we all wondered how mere entertainment could possibly matter when held up against the horror of that time. And yet, not long after, audiences were ready to welcome epic, elemental battles between the forces of light and dark for the fate of the world.

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And the movies delivered. Fortuitously, many of the films that would come to rule our future were already waiting in the wings. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was starting its press rollout in advance of the December release of the first installment, and would soon be garlanded with awards and acclaim, treated with the kind of reverence generally reserved for historical monuments. The first Harry Potter movie would hit in November of 2001. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, one of the movies to inaugurate the age of the superhero movie, had been shot, but not yet released. (The studio famously erased the image of the World Trade Center from its advertising; I still have an old poster with the Twin Towers reflected in Spidey’s eyes.) Soon, it was all good and evil, and absolutes, and the end of the world — in theaters, on TV, in the papers. And it doesn’t appear to have stopped. None of these film series ended. Even the ones that ended came back. We got three more Hobbit films, and we’re now getting a Lord of the Rings TV show. The Potterverse won’t go away. There are going to be Star Wars movies every year for the rest of our goddamn lives.

I don’t think that we were wrong to have embraced these films. Shared horror like 9-11 does demand metaphors of appropriate immensity, consequence, and universality. We escape into fantasy that seems somehow significant. It may well be reflections of a societal “stress response” — humanity as an organism, responding to the threat of collapse by focusing its attention and looking for something greater than itself, which of course includes cultural products.

However, there’s something else to know about the stress response: Its power to protect us only really works in short bursts. If it’s repeated and sustained for too long, it results in exhaustion and paralysis. That would explain the paradox at the heart of my dilemma — the fact that even as I feel a constant sense of anxiety about the fate of the world around me, I am increasingly numb to the imagery and rhetoric of collapse, even bored by it. Indeed, there’s an ongoing debate in the environmental community about whether all the cataclysmic language around climate change might be counterproductive when it comes to convincing people to do something to combat it.

And what about this issue of terror management? As noted earlier, all that apocalyptic language and rhetoric may well be feeding various bigotries, pushing like toward like, balkanizing our society into warring clusters of cultural uniformity. Not to mention making us susceptible to the cynical promises of opportunistic demagogues — scaring the shit out of people is a good way to get them to give up their freedoms and accrue power, and it’s hard not to feel that the relentless heightened rhetoric all around the world has sent so many democracies to willingly drift into the arms of corrupt, ridiculous strongmen and wannabe savior-gods. And maybe — just maybe — the nagging sense of incipient cataclysm we feel in real life is being fed, albeit subconsciously, by repeated visions of the apocalypse on our screens and elsewhere in our cultural products.

Where does that leave the movies? Beyond the multiplex, some filmmakers are wrestling with the realities of apocalyptic obsession. Paul Schrader’s upcoming First Reformed follows a troubled priest (played by Ethan Hawke) who counsels a young parent-to-be reluctant to bring a child into a fallen, dying world; soon, the priest himself becomes consumed with the poisoning of the planet. Tense, grim, and electrifying, the film tackles these issues of helplessness, exhaustion, and despair head-on — and finds no easy answers. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here also gives us a soul on the edge — an abused man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who has fought in America’s overseas wars, then served in law enforcement, and now works to save kidnapped children from enslavement. The film isn’t ostensibly about any kind of doomsday, and yet, as I watch it, the protagonist’s soul-corroding anxiety and quest for oblivion feels both personal and cultural — an intimate apocalypse of sorts. Both films testify to the fact that movies need not hammer viewers with spectacle to speak to the horror of our times. Meanwhile, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, for all its cute talking pups, is effectively an allegory of genocide, plague, and political calamity.

And believe it or not, for all my cry-uncle exhaustion during Infinity War, I was impressed that the film’s most tragic moments came quietly, mournfully. That gave me momentary hope that even the Marvel movies might be starting to move away from the mind-numbing grandiosity of onscreen devastation. Of course, that’s a silly hope. Loud CGI spectacle is what Hollywood does best, and it’s one of the few things that the global audience still looks to American movies to provide. Besides, there’s a new Jurassic World coming, and the next Avengers has already been shot.

To those of us who grew up during the Cold War, with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, fears of the end are nothing new. But when we were presented with images of global calamity during the years it seemed imminent, it rarely felt so casual, disposable. (Well, most of the time.) There’s a reason why Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s satire about the end of the world, has endured — it was a chilling, magnificent outlier, an alien presence that dared to laugh at the prospect of humanity getting wiped out. And in so doing, it reinforced the situation’s gravity.

Today, however, references to the end aren’t what we use to convey urgency and gravity; they’re merely part of the landscape now. Meanwhile, competing blockbusters play games of one-upmanship, raising the stakes so that each catastrophe is bigger than the last. But in so doing, they are again merely mirroring the culture at large — a culture in which such language and imagery have been debased. The apocalypse is now a punch line, and a tired one at that.


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In Hank, a Flashback to 2008’s Economic Nightmare

Maybe it’s the influence of his Bloomberg Businessweek collaborators or maybe it’s the subject matter, but Joe Berlinger’s Hank: 5 Years From the Brink is more workaday and less transfixing than projects of his like Brother’s Keeper or Paradise Lost.

Still, as former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s story (and it is his story, told from an uncomfortable chair in a broadcast newsroom) unfolds, so does the realization that President George W. Bush seems to have accidentally tapped the multimillionaire with the very patience and intestinal fortitude — if not the level of expertise — that it would take to handle the batting-cage onslaught of the 2008 financial crises.

The former Goldman Sachs CEO had to play economic whack-a-mole, cajole fellow bankers and Wall Street honchos into making brink-of-disaster, economy-saving deals, and face Congress amid withering criticism and his own dry heaves.

This film is not fun; it’s a bit of a nightmare reliving the relentless news reports of financial failures and bailouts. Paulson was often photographed poorly in those. His image during the crisis brought to mind Skeletor, so it’s kind of nice to discover that he seems to be a caring, careful man of some integrity.

There may have been some whiz kid out there who could have done better, but considering his boss was capable of hiring real villains and buffoons, Hank will make you grateful for Hank.


Filled with Excess, The Broken Circle Breakdown Crashes as It Soars

Blending cliché-prone genres — disease-of-the-week tearjerker, marital melodrama, musical — into an unwieldy but distinctive hybrid, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown holds you even as it flies off the tracks.

The Flemish-language film revolves around banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who fall in love, make music together (the actors do their own singing, delivering soulful performances of bluegrass classics and original compositions), and lead a happy life with their daughter — until tragedy strikes.

As in his previous feature, The Misfortunates, the story darts around in time, and the jumbled chronology works; the contrast between the couple’s initial exuberance and the sorrow that follows is devastating, while the leads convey careening emotions with rawness and nuance.

The director pulls you in close to the physical and psychological spaces these people inhabit — sometimes too close. In one sequence, as a character drifts in and out of consciousness, we get a breakneck montage of flashbacks shot through colored filters, leading me to wonder if Danny Boyle had momentarily grabbed the camera. Van Groeningen has not yet mastered the adage of less is more.

That’s especially evident in the film’s second half, when tasteless narrative motifs involving George W. Bush, stem-cell research, and a symbolic bird make repeat appearances, and a stirring concert scene is punctuated by a tirade so unnecessary I literally smacked my forehead. Still, buried beneath the movie’s excesses is a deeply lived-in portrait of passion (artistic, romantic, parental) and grief.

The Broken Circle Breakdown crashes as frequently as it soars, but the ache at its center feels real.

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Sure you’ve heard of karaoke, but what about Spokaoke? Created by Obie-winning director Annie Dorsen, the event puts 100 texts—political speeches, eulogies, philosophical writings—into a karaoke machine for you to interpret and read however you like (options include Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” and George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech). Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, hosts this opening event to the Crossing the Line Festival, the French Institute Alliance Française annual fall festival of contemporary arts and culture, which runs through October 13.

Mondays-Sundays, 9 p.m. Starts: Sept. 21. Continues through Oct. 13, 2013


The Trials of Muhammad Ali Reminds Us That Athletes Once Stood for Something

The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with two contrasting bits of archival footage: a 1968 television appearance by the eponymous boxer in which David Susskind calls him “[in]tolerable,” and a later clip of the Parkinson’s-riddled legend about to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor from George W. Bush. With its subject now canonized and rendered safe for white America, Bill Siegel’s breezy doc takes us back to the days when the media—and much of the country—didn’t know what to do with the outspoken champion. Evincing little interest in Ali’s in-the-ring feats, the film focuses instead on his involvement with the Nation of Islam, his political activism, and his legal troubles, reminding us that athletes once stood for something larger than their ability to overcome personal adversity. With his inspired use of archival footage, Siegel not only bolsters his case with vintage clips of Ali’s famous pronouncements and his detractors’ counterclaims, but mixes in some surprises as well (the champ acting in a Broadway musical about the Middle Passage). Still, the film never lingers too long on any one thing, instead functioning as a survey in which several fascinating cultural moments are vividly evoked, but then left insufficiently probed.