An interview with one of the world's most controversial investigative journalists
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, June 1, 2006
Greg Palast likes to read in the loo. He says he wrote his book with that habit in mind—so that any casual bathroom reader could pick it up, skim around and still glean some bit of knowledge. And so, wanting to experience the shiny new hardback with the truest of intentions, I took his advice and settled down a few weeks ago, volume in hand, ready to flip casually through its pages to discover one of today’s most honest forms of truth to power. It did not disappoint.
Who is Greg Palast? If you were playing a round of “Jeopardy,” it would be the answer to the square for $1,000: “The most relevant investigative journalist of our time.” At least that’s what some of us think.
The more straightforward answer is this: Greg Palast grew up in a Los Angeles house pivoted between a landfill and a power plant; studied economics at the University of Chicago under the guidance of Milton Friedman; worked in New Mexico two decades ago as an investigator in the Attorney General’s Office; went on to become a reporter for BBC television, Guardian, Observer and Harper’s Magazine; is the author of three books, including a New York Times bestseller; and exposed the stories of the 2000 Florida election debacle and the oil company frauds that let to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, among others.
Palast has a knack for acquiring documents most reporters only dream about. That's because Palast is no ordinary reporter. Too controversial to be aired in the U.S., Palast has garnered a following from his investigative news pieces aired and printed in Britain.
Palast’s newest book and my recent bathroom companion, Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats, Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal ’08, No Child's Behind Left, and Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War, hits stands this month. Its pages tackle issues ranging from “Bush's secret plans to control Iraq's oil” to globalization to the political precursors to the devastation of New Orleans, all the way down to the un-votes and ghost votes of New Mexico’s 2004 election.
Palast will be in town Saturday, June 17, to talk about his book. A couple weeks ago, he found the time to sit over the phone with the Alibi and chat awhile. Here’s a sneak preview.
How exactly are you able to get your hands on documents that most reporters don't even try to acquire? I heard you were able to get ex-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to directly fax you top-secret documents implicating Jeb Bush of election fraud. How were you able to do that?
Well, I asked her for them. (Laughs) OK, it's true I tend to use such things as false front identities; I go undercover and wear wires. But the main thing I do is I hunt for this stuff. It's called investigative reporting. And, as you know, investigative reporting is now illegal under Patriot Act III, and so that’s why it's just not done in the U.S. It must be illegal because it’s not done. I mean, real investigative reporting where you actually go and hunt for the documents; and it’s a lot of work. I not only got the documents that basically nail Jeb Bush for election fixing—which, you know, until 2000 was considered a crime—but I [also] got the computer discs from inside Katherine Harris’ office.
You have to crack this stuff and it's very expensive, very difficult. As soon as you tell a corporate news operation that something is expensive, they say, “Wait a minute, don’t we have another clip of Paris Hilton?” That’s cheap, right? And no one threatens to sue you. That’s the other thing: I spend as much on lawyers as I do on plane tickets.
So how do you afford this? How many lawsuits have you gone through? I read somewhere you get a threat once a week?
(Laughs) Well, it’s interesting. My paper gets a threat a day, the Guardian. And it's very expensive; the whole operation is expensive. Behind me is quite a team of a dozen gumshoes, investigators and people with more languages and fake accents than the United Nations. And so we travel the world to try to get stuff on the bad guys; but it is a lot of fun.
For example, in the chapter [in my new book] “Trillion Dollar Babies” about the war in Iraq, I say that conspiracy nuts think Bush had a plan to seize the oil fields of Iraq; which is not true, he had two plans. And we got them. To get those plans took two years of threatening the government. Lawsuits got these things out once we got wind of them, which [the U.S. government] denied. They said, “Secret plans for the oil fields of Iraq? Uh, nope, we don’t see any copies here, sorry, they must not exist.” And then what I did was, through a series of hundreds of calls, I got this woman working for James Baker, who represents Exxon Mobile and represents the Saudi Arabian government, to start talking about the plans for Iraq’s oil field that she was drafting up for Baker and the oil companies the U.S. defense and state dept. She assumed that because I got a hold of her I had authorization to speak to her. And I wasn’t going to disabuse her of this. In fact, I just said, “You know, I don't know if I have the same draft as you do, and what’s yours called?” And so she gave me the name of the plan. She gave me the number of pages and everything else. And so once I had that, then I got my team of lawyers to tell the State Deptartment, “Cough it up or we make it one heck of an issue.” So, yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to get them to drop the truth on the floor, and you have to snatch it up quickly, run for the exits.
In your book you talk about a number of important national issues, but I'd like to directly focus on your discussion of the 2004 election in New Mexico, since right now we are getting ready for another election. Let's start by talking about the un-votes that you discuss in your book.
The nasty little secret of American democracy is that in the last election 3.6 million ballots were cast and never counted. It's not just conspiracy nut Greg Palast—by the way, I’m working with Jesse Jackson on this—it’s not just us. These come from the raw data tapes from the United States Election Information Agency. And going through this with the statistician, what we’re finding is these were votes that were basically thrown in the dumpster. They call them “spoil votes” or “undervotes” or “overvotes.” I mean, you’ve got precincts in New Mexico, for example, where supposedly 1 in 10 voters drove to the polls and didn't cast votes. You basically have an entire precinct of soldiers who sent in absentee ballots and not one of them cast a vote for president—that’s what we’re told. And there’s 3 million such votes. They are votes that are rejected on technical grounds or for some reason the vote just—whooo—it just disappeared into a black hole.
But they aren't just anyone's vote, and that’s the trick. Across the United States, if you're a black person, the chance that your vote will disappear is 900 percent higher than if you’re a white person. Hispanic—500 percent higher than if you're a white person and, strangely, if you're a Native American it's like 2,000 percent higher than if you're a white voter. And, by the way, the dumping of the Native vote has huge implications across the nation. People don’t realize that if you actually get rid of that many votes, it begins to change elections as it did in New Mexico.
I was the reporter that busted Election 2000, when Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush purged tens of thousands of black folk off the voter rolls illegally and gave the election to George. Everyone looked at Florida. This time everyone’s looking at Ohio. I looked at New Mexico and for a good reason: The next demographic they’re targeting for vote disappearance is the Hispanic vote. Take a look at that for 2008.
If you read the book, you get these weird stories—go ahead, go to the Native reservations, go to the Pueblos in New Mexico, and where are these indecisive Native Americans? Where 90 percent, literally, go all the way to the polls, wait in line, and then can’t make up their mind for president. I went there. Go ahead—go and try to find the indecisive Native Americans who don’t know who they want for president of the United States. Well, they do know who they want, and the power elite of New Mexico and the Republican Party sure as hell know who they want. Go ahead—you can’t find a Republican at a powwow, man. And it's not a racial, it's a class issue. They can't take away your Social Security unless they take away your vote first. So it's the game.
And then we found in this election, 2004, one of the weirder ways we found things, we found a false website, GeorgeBush.org, that we were working with. And the Republican Party, instead of sending some of their nastier, incriminating, basically criminal documents to GeorgeBush.com, accidentally sent it to GeorgeBush.org. We got our hands on it and we got something called “caging lists,” in which they had tens of thousands of black people, and a few Jewish voters. They were going to challenge, en masse, to remove their votes because of so-called suspect addresses. And among the suspect addresses, and you’ll love this one, were the addresses of black soldiers because they’d been shipped off to Baghdad or wherever and the Republican Party was challenging them as having suspect addresses.
That's the one side of things, with votes disappearing. There’s the other side of things with extra votes happening, right?
You got a problem with that? You know, the undead have a way of, as they call it, ghost [voting]. [It happens] in Republican areas, and this is nationwide, but we saw it in the suburbs of Albuquerque. In brown and black and red precincts, you have all these votes cast and there are no votes for president of the United States. OK, goofy, weird. Well, it turns out these votes somehow migrated into the suburbs, where you have, in the suburbs of Albuquerque, more votes for president than voters. So the ghosts are voting for Bush. So that’s why I say Bush seems to have locked up the votes of the undead. But it's not just New Mexico. This is national. No one’s talking about it. Who are these people? Who are these ghosts? And why are they always Republican?
It seems like there was a really heavy amount of ghost votes in Bernalillo especially. Do you know how many votes there were in Bernalillo off the top of your head?
You know, it's not that many, but you have to understand that it's equal to about half of Bush's so-called victory margin. That’s the thing; the way to shoplift an election is little by little. The absentee ballots just had the wrong postmark, eh? We had 15 million absentee ballots in the last election; how many were counted? Tick tock, tick tock, no one can tell you. Because the Democrats are still on life support, they are not ready for the theft of ’08, because if you think that 3 million votes of ’04 was something, just wait, man. Just wait.
But that's a lot on elections. I don't want people to think the whole thing is elections, because that's only where they begin. What's the point of stealing an election if you can't do everything else? What do you do with it? Once you've got a White House, what do you use it for?
Well, what do you use it for?
Cash it in. You know, that’s why I said we had a nice war in Iraq. The mission wasn't to get the oil. People think that Bush's mission failed. What went wrong in Iraq? Wake up, Jack! It didn't go wrong. You’re paying $3 a gallon for gasoline. It's mission accomplished.
You also talk about voting machines in the book. It's not so much that people are going in machines and taking off votes, but it's that they are giving the poorer districts the older machines that have a higher chance of failure.
Yeah, we don't give Natives blankets with smallpox anymore to wipe them out. We just give them crap voting machines—same in Hispanic and Black areas. Just like poor folk get the crap hospitals and they get the crap schools. They get the crap voting machines. That's the game. Now, the next game will be [voter] ID, but that's the game. So the [voting machines] simply gum up, don't work, break down. That's how it works. And they go, "Oh, gee, we're so sorry, we'll fix them next time." It's always next time. And then next time they have a new gimmick.
They have things like provisional ballots. Here they passed this great law. After I busted my last story about purging voters, the Congressional Black Caucus said we need a law that allows people to vote provisionally so they don't lose their vote just because their name is missing from the registry. Well, they got the law passed, but they got no addition to the law that required the ballot be counted. That was left up to the secretaries of state.
So how is New Mexico 2004 like America 2008?
Ah, because New Mexico 2004 showed the way for wiping out the Hispanic vote and taking away the Hispanic choice. The Hispanics elected John Kerry as president in New Mexico. It was good practice ground, because it was also not easy territory with a Democratic governor but, you know, they did it while he was napping. [Palast provides an explanation for this statement in his book.]
What are some stories today that no one knows about?
Well, that’s why I had to write a book. You got a couple hours? (Laughs) The big story right this moment is the real war over oil. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has more oil than Saudi Arabia. This file comes from inside the file of the Deptartment of Energy. This is the geopolitical earthquake; this is the big one. This means the Bush family who is all caught up kissing the dictators called the House of Saudi; the Bush Saudi lock up is about to come tumbling down. This is why George Bush's little buddy Reverend Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, this is our next war.
So what’s next? What are you working on right now, or what's around the corner?
I'm definitely going to be going deeper. I'm a war correspondent, in that I cover the class war. I'm going back to the front line. There are two places I'm going. First, I want to dig deeper into the president's war on teachers and kids. Which I call "No Child's Behind Left," which you will see in the book. The testing industrial complex that's terrorizing the classrooms of America. And I go through the great voucher hoax, I go through who’s cleaning up on this whole scheme of basically winnowing out the winners and losers in American society.
Then I'm also digging deeper now into New Orleans. There they got rid of a very difficult group of voters in one fell swoop. They elect a Democratic governor and Democratic senator which is all based out of a black vote of New Orleans. That problem just got washed away. Did they dynamite the levies and plan the hurricane? Nah, nah, nah, that's not how it works. It's a very brilliant and strategic neglect.
You've been interviewed many times by a number of very talented writers and reporters. Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you wish you had?
Besides, “How did I get so handsome?” (laugh) God, I feel like I'm being given one wish from my fairy God interviewer.
I might be putting you on the spot with that one.
OK, I want to ask Mr. Redstone, the head of Viacom, the owner of CBS—and remember, most people think of CBS as an independent organization, but that little eyeball of theirs is actually a pimple on the corporate rectum of Viacom—“What are you afraid of? Why not let Greg Palast on the tube? Why not let this information out?” I guess the question to me is the question I’d like to ask to the powers that be. The other is … what can I say? Nah, I’m stumped. I’m rarely stumped. And I’m a professional interviewer and I don’t even know what the hell I should ask myself.
I think it a great answer; it's also the end of my questions. Is there anything you would like to add?
The reason [my new book, Armed Madhouse,] has the longest subtitle in American publishing history is because you have to look at the whole ball of wax together. It's not just about stealing elections, it's about stealing the truth. I look at this complete, monstrous fuckin’ evil that they have here, like Viacom apologizing, CBS apologizing, for saying that our president really was a war hero who didn't step in front of anyone else to get out of the war in Vietnam and here I have the documents in my hand, and in the book where I show you the evidence of a fix. You do have to say to yourself, “Why don't they show this stuff?”
You know, there are a lot of books out there that take a shot at the Bush Administration and that's not what I'm trying to do here; I'm trying to give you the stuff that you're just not allowed to have otherwise. I don't want the progressives to just be screaming and hollering “blood for oil” and slogans; I think we actually have to have the info. You can't just assume that they have a secret plan for Iraq’s oil, I want you to read it, I want you to know it, I want to count the votes with you that they wouldn’t count. So my whole thing is, “just the facts, ma'am,” and some very bad jokes throughout. I hope you notice I was able to con my capitalist pig publisher into doing a very expensive color insert at the front of the book.
I saw that.
Yeah, beat people up [for it]. And there's also a great recipe for shrimp curry on page 164.
Greg Palast Comes to Town
Saturday, June 17, 7 p.m.
Cathedral Church of St. John (318 Silver SW)
Tickets are the price of the book ($25.95) and include a copy of the book. A companion ticket can be purchased with each regular ticket for $10 and can be redeemed at the event for $5 off the book price. Tickets available at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) or by phone at 344-8139. Cosponsored by Voter Action, Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Democracy for New Mexico and the League of Independent Voters.