Bill Moyers delves into what Project Censored’s national panel of journalism experts have selected as the “10 best-censored stories of 1990.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We’re all so flooded with news every day that it’s hard to imagine how anything worth knowing could escape our attention. Newspapers, magazines, radio, cable, the evening news and around-the-clock news, the specials and the documentaries, the interviews with everyone from the place-kicker to the president you’d think it would be enough to tell us what we need to know. But every year, there are dozens of important stories that the mass media ignore. They show up mainly in small publications or in local newspapers and broadcasts. They expose shady conduct by high officials, by the military, by the CIA, by the press itself. They uncover hidden dangers and warn of crisis to come. Knowing about these stories could change our lives or maybe even save them.
[on camera] I’m Bill Moyers. Every year, these little-noticed but important stories are tracked by a group called “Project Censored.” Just this week, Project Censored released its list of the 10 best censored stories of 1990. In our broadcast, we’ll look at its latest report and talk to some of the journalists, writers and activists who dug up the news we never knew we didn’t know. There’s no committee of bureaucrats armed with blue pencils who pass judgment on the news we see and read every day. Overt censorship is rare in America, at least in peacetime, but a subtle form of censorship takes over when significant stories are buried or ignored by the mainstream press. There are many reasons for this neglect. Editors think some issues are just too dull to sustain public interest or will offend the high and mighty or require too much money, time and space to explain. Project Censored calls attention to these stories in the hope of critiquing media performance and providing readers and viewers with information we need to make decisions as citizens. The project is based at Sonoma State University in northern California. There, the founder has set up an exhaustive process for seeking out, researching and publicizing these stories.
CARL JENSEN, Professor of Communications Studies, Sonoma State University: Originally, when I started the project 15 years ago, we had to search the stories out ourselves, but now we get nominations from across the country, from librarians, from journalists, from educators, general public who send us the stories. And this last year, the best-censored of 1990, we got over 600 nominations.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Communications Professor Carl Jensen directs Project Censored.
CARL JENSEN: We have a class of students at Sonoma State University, advanced students in Communications Studies, who go through the stories. We have a set of criteria that we look at. We winnow those 600 down to 25, we which is a difficult process, as you can imagine, and based on such things as how important is this story, how well documented is this story, how reliable is this source, how much media coverage did the story get. We take those 25, write up a one-page synopsis and we send it out to a panel of judges across the country who are media experts of one sort or another who then select the top ten.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Three of the top 10 Project Censored stories for 1990 demonstrate that if the press fails to dig beyond the official view of reality, the public may never get the straight story. First, the Emergency Anti-Crime Bill introduced in both houses of Congress last year. It proposed measures so restrictive and severe as to sweep aside the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, but virtually no one in the press tracked the progress and eventual defeat of this bill except The Weekly Spotlight. Second, the Iran-Contra role of George Bush, the man who is now our president. He says he has fully explained that he was “out of the loop.”
President GEORGE BUSH: I did not think it was arms for hostages. After all the facts were in and all the disclosures made and all the revelations about the individuals involved known to me, I say, “Hey, this was wrong.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Most of the press went along with that story. Only a handful of publications have pointed out that Oliver North’s notebooks place George Bush, then vice president, at a number of the meetings where the secret plans were hammered out. Third is the question of what really happened in Panama during the American invasion in 1989. Most of the press bought the official propaganda that it was a clean and triumphant operation with minimal casualties. We’ve heard a lot less about the unofficial reports that call it a brutal, messy affair that killed far more civilians and soldiers than the government wanted us to know.
[on camera] Project Censored’s next story is also one the government didn’t want us to know. It’s hard to report because, well, there’s so little to see. It’s the Pentagon’s “black budget,” the money spent on programs and weapons systems the government wants to keep hid· den from view, weapons like the Stealth bomber and MILSTAR.
[voice-over] Every year, the Defense Department prepares two budgets, one for the insiders and a public one in which secret programs are camouflaged under code names, their costs deleted, their goals disguised. By the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, this black budget had quadrupled to $36 billion a year, $100 million a day. No one in the public and only a handful in Washington know where it goes or what it buys. For years now, Tim Weiner, Washington correspondent of The Philadelphia Inquirer, has been trying to shed some light on the black budget. His reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize and recently led to a book, Blank Check, but Project Censored found that few in the general press picked up on the story.
[interviewing] Why did the government grant such a cloak to corporations, individuals, to put all of this money off the books, so to speak?
TIM WEINER, Author, “Blank Check”: I think that in the 1980’s, under President Reagan, there was a kind of a synergy, a coming-together of several phenomena. The Pentagon’s budget doubled. Secrecy strengthened in the White House, in the Pentagon, in the CIA. There was a general trend towards deregulating, towards getting the government off of corporations’ backs and leave them alone [sic]. And this came together in kind of fine flash and allowed the quadrupling of the secret budget, the “black budget.” And under the cloak of national security, I’m afraid that, in my opinion, a field day was held.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the MILSTAR.
TIM WEINER: MILSTAR is a satellite system that, if completed, will cost about $35 billion. It is designed to run a six-month nuclear war against the Soviet Union. The concept is that after Washington is destroyed, after the Pentagon is reduced to smoking, radiating ruins, after our government is, in effect, decapitated, the MILSTAR, which is to be a system of six to eight satellites and thousands of ground terminals, will weave together what remains of our strategic nuclear forces so that they can keep on fighting, keep on broadcasting the launch orders, not for days or weeks after World War III begins, but for six months.
BILL MOYERS: So that President Bush or, if he’s not around, Vice President Quayle could continue to direct a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union?
TIM WEINER: Or whoever survives. It might be a one-star brigadier general cruising down the highway in a lead-lined truck.
BILL MOYERS: And what does MILSTAR cost?
TIM WEINER: If completed, $35 to $40 billion.
BILL MOYERS: And it’s in construction now or in —
TIM WEINER: It’s running into some problems. The estimated cost of it has doubled in recent years. In the only public report ever to mention MILSTAR last July, the Senate Armed Services Committee called it “unjustified and overdesigned” — which I think is a nice piece of understatement — technology, but it continues to roll on, costing about a billion dollars a year for Research and Development.
BILL MOYERS: How did the Stealth bomber develop?
TIM WEINER: The Stealth bomber was designed to nuke the Kremlin, nuke the leaders of the Soviet Union and hunt down and nuke mobile missiles — a task that we have seen is very difficult — after the first day of World War III. The Stealth bomber has proven a probably unworkable system. We are $28 billion down the road on this program. We have one plane that has gone through about 70 hours of testing and its mission, it would seem, is kind of obsolescent.
BILL MOYERS: How did the Pentagon get away, for so long, resisting Congressional scrutiny on the Stealth bomber?
TIM WEINER: They put out phony cost figures for a start.
BILL MOYERS: They lied?
TIM WEINER: Perhaps they were overly optimistic. They brought select congressmen over to Nevada and California for dog-and-pony shows. They concealed test results and they so limited debate _ there was no public debate on the Stealth bomber until it was a fait accompli — and when the truth came oozing out, as it tends to from time to time, we found that what we were buying was not a plane for $280 million a pop, but a plane for $850 million a pop. The plane was untested and the plane remains largely untested, but by the time public debate was permitted two years ago, it was too late. There are usually two stages in a Pentagon program, a major weapons program, and the two stages are “too early to tell” and “too late to stop.” And when secrecy further clouds the development of a weapon, you simply don’t know and I don’t believe the Congress knew what it was buying.
BILL MOYERS: But can you develop these projects without secrecy?
TIM WEINER: I don’t think that I’m arguing that the high-tech designs or state-of-the-art engineering concepts should be revealed, but the costs of weaponry — the cost — that is information that properly belongs to the public and I think there’s always a tug-of-war between secrecy and democracy in our country. I think that we’ve erred on the side of secrecy when we bury this kind of spending away.
BILL MOYERS: Did you find that secrecy, the hidden budget, actually increased the possibilities for profiteering and fraud?
TIM WEINER: Oh, yeah. For example, the Northrop Corporation, which is the prime contractor on the Stealth bomber, is a fairly recently convicted corporate felon, convicted for lying to the Pentagon about test results on other weapons systems. The company is currently under 11 separate criminal investigations, yet it’s been impossible to audit their work on the B-2, on the Stealth bomber, because it’s too secret.
BILL MOYERS: How did you take home this story? How did you come to spend so much time writing about the black budget when you were working for a daily newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer?
TIM WEINER: Well, The Philadelphia Inquirer, under the leadership of Gene Roberts, who, sadly, just left the paper after 18 years, was a paper — and I hope still is a paper — that attacks difficult, complex, strange stories and digs and digs and digs and tries to make the complex understandable. And when I came to Gene in April of 1986, now almost five years ago, and said, “Look, this is a problem, this is a big public policy program. We’ve got a secret Pentagon budget that is growing very fast. People in Congress say they don’t know anything about it and we ought to try to explain what it is and what’s going on.” And he’s a good ole’ boy from North Carolina. He sort of scratched his belly and looked at the ceiling and said, “That sounds real interesting,” and I had the freedom and the time to attack it.
BILL MOYERS: How long did it take you?
TIM WEINER: The initial series of stories, seven months. I went down to Washington with the idea, initially, of getting behind the story of some of the procurement horror tales that were coming out, the $900 hammers and the $6,000 wing nuts and so forth. There was something going wrong in Washington that spring. There was a sense of something burning. I sat in hearing rooms and listened to Air Force generals refuse to answer the most basic questions about the cost of the Stealth bomber, for example. I went to the Pentagon and I picked up their budget and the briefing books that underlay, that explained it — about a four-foot high stack of documents — and started going through it and there were blank spaces where costs should have been. There were code words where program descriptions should have been and combined with the sort of atmospherics of secrecy and deception that were going on at the time, it sort of fused in my head and I came back and told Gene Roberts, my editor, that there was something here to pursue.
BILL MOYERS: Sounds like your motive was as much political as journalistic?
TIM WEINER: Journalism, ideally, is kind of a marriage of politics and poetry. You are obliged to dig for facts in the political theater, whether it be economics, whether it be the law, whether it be social policy — it’s all politics — and then you are obliged to essentially translate that into clear and understandable prose. It doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t have to sing, but it should be coherent to the average reader.
BILL MOYERS: You saw it as a good story and Gene Roberts said, ”Yeah, tell it.”
TIM WEINER: And that’s what it’s all about, a reporter coming to an editor and saying, “There’s something here that’s important,” and the editor saying, “Go. Get it. Dig it up. Take your time. Figure it out. Put it in print.”
BILL MOYERS: Tim Weiner is already back at work on the next chapter of this story because earlier this month, the Pentagon released its proposed budget for 1992. Although the total sum is smaller, the Pentagon is still requesting $34 billion for weapons and programs no one will talk about. The biggest single item in the entire budget is $5.4 billion for “selected activities.” What activities and who selects them? The Pentagon isn’t saying.
[voice-over] Three of the top 10 Project Censored stories deal with the mounting chaos in America’s financial institutions. Most everyone knows by now that it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to repay all the depositors whose money disappeared in the savings and loan fiasco. But Project Censored found that hardly anyone knows about how the Resolution Trust Corporation proposes to clean up the mess. The solution, says The Progressive Review, may be just as bad as the crime. The second of the money stories on Project Censored’s list concerns a potential new financial meltdown just over the horizon. “If you liked the S&L crisis,” writes Dollars and Sense, “you’ll love the banking crisis.” The nation’s banks, it says, are facing the same problems, the same economic conditions and the same accounting gimmicks that brought down the S&1’s. In Texas, Pete Brewton of The Houston Post has been looking into another overlooked angle of the S&L story. In tracking the money, trying to find out what happened to the billions looted from thrift institutions, he has found some shocking clues.
[interviewing] Your story suggests that several failed savings and loan banks somehow had connections to organized crime and the CIA. For what purpose? What was the money used for?
PETE BREWTON, Journalist, “The Houston Post”: Well, we don’t know. That’s one of the big mysteries in the S&L debacle. None of the money has been traced. No one wants to try to find the money. The people with subpoena power, that have the power to do this-journalists can’t. We don’t have subpoena power, we can’t track the money. Once it’s loaned out or invested by an S&L, we can’t, but the Justice Department can and hasn’t. Congress can and it hasn’t. We see money going into big deals on vacant land, where money is loaned — say a building is worth $10 million and the S&L loans $50 million of it — and it just disappears. Someone gets it. You don’t know. You don’t have access to the documents. All of the S&L’s documents are secret, they’re private. The public cannot get to them because of bank privacy laws.
BILL MOYERS: Even under the Freedom of Information Act?
PETE BREWTON: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: So that information is sealed off as far as journalists or ~ citizens are concerned.
PETE BREWTON: That’s correct. Occasionally, it’ll leak out. There was one good example. Adnan Khashoggi — everyone’s familiar with him, the Saudi Arabian arms dealer and middle man — sold a piece of vacant land in Houston, Texas to Mainland Savings, which was a savings and loan in Houston, for $68 million. Mainland put up $22 million and Lamar Savings in Austin put up $46 million. The property itself was probably worth less than $30 million. At the time that the federal government sold it, after Mainland failed, they got $14 million for it. The taxpayers ended up eating $54 million. This deal was closed on August 1, 1985. Khashoggi made $12 million in profit. After he paid off all the underlying loans and liens, mortgages against that property, he made $12 million profit, pure profit. He also got a $5-million letter of credit from Mainland, August 1, 1985. Within a week, he sends instructions to one of his banks in Monaco to begin transferring money to banks in Switzerland to start the first secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran where he ended paying Ghorbanifar $5 million, which exactly coincides with the $5 million letter of credit that Mainland gave him. Now, that’s as far we’ve tracked it. Can you say that-did Mainland’s money go to Gobanifar and ultimately the Iranians for this first deal? Well, all we can say is some of his money in his big pot came from Mainland and ultimately the taxpayers.
BILL MOYERS: We can say that, but we can’t prove it.
PETE BREWTON: Well, yeah. It depends on what you mean by “prove.” These dollars don’t have radioactive tracers on them.
BILL MOYERS: In your stories, you’ve come up on the trail of a CIA contract agent, Robert Corson.
PETE BREWTON: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: How was he involved?
PETE BREWTON: Corson owned a savings and loan in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, Vision Bank Savings. He bought it in the spring of 1986. At the time, he was sort of a small developer in Houston and he got a loan from M-Bank in Houston, a very big bank and purchased this S&L and proceeded to run it into the ground in about three months. And that savings and loan is now under investigation by the Justice Department. Corson is the subject and target of two separate investigations involving FBI agents in Houston, Pennsylvania and Florida. The reason was his big deal he made — it was a $20-million loan on a piece of land in Florida, 21,000 acres in the Florida panhandle and that loan went bad. Vision Bank Savings ended up losing probably $17 million and the taxpayers are going to have to eat that now. Seven million of the $20 million has been tracked through a company in the Isle of Jersey.
BILL MOYERS: Off the coast of England.
PETE BREWTON: Yes. Between England and France. It’s a notorious tax and money-laundering haven. The people who have control of that company, that have that money, were also providing accounts — the same banks, same companies — for drug-money launderers. In fact, the fellow who was convicted for drug-money laundering, an attorney, a man named Lawrence Freedman convicted of laundering drug money, drew up the original papers, the sales contract for this Florida land deal that Corson’s S&L lent money on.
BILL MOYERS: What had Corson done for the CIA?
PETE BREWTON: He was just a mule for the CIA. He took cash from primarily Las Vegas casinos — it was Mafia money — and took it offshore to Panama and the Cayman Islands for the CIA to use in their foreign activities. He just physically carried the cash on a plane.
BILL MOYERS: And then he shows up in the S&L business.
PETE BREWTON: Yes. And in fact, when he got his S&L, it was a record approval. It went through the feds and the state in record time, I’m told.
BILL MOYERS: How did the Mob enter the picture?
PETE BREWTON: Well, we first found the Mob in the form of deposit brokers out of New York City who were brokering large deposits into savings and loans and banks all over the country. The two fellows that we found, Mario Arenda and Martin Schwimmer both of them have been convicted of fraud involving banks and savings and loans and union pension funds. That’s the first indication, when we started looking at Mainland. They were brokering deposits into Mainland. We later found a fellow named Herman K. Beebe who was behind the scenes in the control of a number of savings and loans in Texas and Louisiana. He was Mafia associate of a New Orleans family and he went to jail for a while.
BILL MOYERS: What was Beebe’s connection to the CIA?
PETE BREWTON: That’s a good question. We’ve had indications that he is connected to the intelligence community. The one story we’ve done regarded a bank in Washington, D.C., Palmer National Bank. Palmer National Bank was started by a fellow named Stefan Halper and Harvey McLean. McLean was a Louisiana businessman. The money to start, actually start the bank, came from Herman K. Beebe’s bank, Bossier Bank & Trust. Halper was involved with the Reagan-Bush team and the Debate-gate scandal. Halper was one of the people handling the debate books that were stolen from the Carter campaign. The last, very last entry into Oliver North’s White House diaries, after he’d already been fired by President Reagan, November 26th: “Legal Defense FundStefan Halper.”
BILL MOYERS: We’ve heard a lot about the Silverado S&L in Denver because of President Bush’s son Neil who was a director there. Did that bank have any ties to these activities?
PETE BREWTON: Absolutely. It was one of the-it was in the circle of the S&L’s that are tied in with the Mob and the CIA. It was definitely in that circle, primarily through its borrowers. There’s one story that the Associated Press broke, a very interesting story that the third largest borrower at Silverado was a Houston man named E. Trine Starnes, Junior. Starnes borrowed-his companies borrowed $77 million from Silverado, defaulted on all the loans. The taxpayers are going to have to eat tens of millions of dollars. Starnes was one of the largest donors to the Contras, on record, according to the records of the National Security Archive, through Spitz Channell’s National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, which had its bank accounts at Palmer National Bank. Starnes also borrowed money from a number of S&L’s in Texas that Herman K. Beebe bankrolled.
BILL MOYERS: What’s been the reaction of the administration to all of this?
PETE BREWTON: Well, I think they want it to go away.
BILL MOYERS: But have you felt any pressure, heard any urgings, heard any footsteps?
PETE BREWTON: No, they won’t give me that pleasure of knowing that you’ve gotten that close to them. You don’t hear anything. They’re just down in a foxhole.
BILL MOYERS: So this is pretty hot stuff-CIA involvement, the Mob. Don’t you think that if the evidence were convincing, the national press — The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal — would have pounced on this story?
PETE BREWTON: I don’t know. The CIA-taking it on is like taking on a big prickly pear cactus, you know. It’s dangerous, it’s hard. The documents are not available. There’s no smoking gun yet in the form of a document that says, ”Yes, this money went to one of our activities.” You know, it’s not easy and if it had been easy, they would have already done it. It took us a year to get-just to even start writing the stories. I think if there was some official action, they might have done something, but so far, there have been no officials that want to do anything.
BILL MOYERS: The mainstream press often takes its lead from-I mean, something isn’t news until the government acts on it or reacts to it.
PETE BREWTON: That’s correct. Yeah, it was interesting to note that The Washington Post and The New York Times never ran any stories with the facts that we had uncovered, but yet, when the House Intelligence Committee comes out with a two-page letter full of holes, full of omissions and inaccuracies, saying, “We couldn’t find anything,” then they write that story and put our — you know, “Houston Post said this, but the House Intelligence Committee said there wasn’t anything to it.”
BILL MOYERS: Some journalists have rejected your thesis outright.
PETE BREWTON: Well, I haven’t talked to any that have. I mean, I don’t know what they’re basing it on, whether they’ve read all our stuff or not.
BILL MOYERS: Well, they say that your stories are poorly-sourced, that they’re vague, they unconvincing. They say that you allege ties you cannot prove and that there is — as you yourself acknowledge no smoking gun.
PETE BREWTON: Granted. We based our stories on some sources. I believe they’re quite credible. You can’t write a story about the CIA that’s not based on sources. You cannot write a story about the CIA that’s based on documents. They are not available. And there are only two or three reporters in this country that have done investigative reporting on the CIA. Most papers just don’t touch it and you can count them on one hand. I don’t hear those people criticizing the stories. It’s a body of evidence that builds up. You’ve got to read it, really, all together. You can take any story and one paragraph, you can criticize it — that’s not sufficient evidence — but if you look at the whole thing as a body, the totality of the circumstantial evidence, I think it’s quite persuasive.
BILL MOYERS: Have you reached a personal judgment?
PETE BREWTON: Well, I’m not quite ready to say anything yet. I think that the jury’s still out. I think, though, if we ever track this money, it’s going to be even more fantastic and incredible than we can imagine as to what this money was used for that was taken offshore and controlled by the CIA people.
BILL MOYERS: Carl Jensen told me that Project Censored had turned his students into skeptics. Has this made you a cynic?
PETE BREWTON: I think I probably was born one, s —
BILL MOYERS: A good West Texas boy?
PETE BREWTON: Yes. I’m cynical, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to figure out what happened. I mean, even if we know that the system is not going to change, that people are going go on lying, cheating and stealing, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure out what happened, if not for our own edification.
BILL MOYERS: If you were finishing your stories and writing that huge overall piece that you’d like to do about this, what would the lead be?
PETE BREWTON: “Crime pays.”
BILL MOYERS: It isn’t just journalists who find the news. Sometimes, it’s people whose work or commitment or passion happen to thrust them into the midst of events they find troubling. That was the case with the next two of Project Censored’s top 10 stories.
LAUNCH CONTROL: And lift-off. Americans return to space as
Discovery clears the tower.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] One of the stories on Project Censored’s list was unearthed by scientists in the Soviet Union and the United States. They claim that the NASA shuttle program is destroying the ozone layer that protects the Earth from deadly ultraviolet light. During a single shuttle launch, they say, the solid-fuel booster rockets release tons of hydrochloric acid, damaging the atmosphere as much as years’ worth of emissions from an industrial factory. One Soviet rocket scientist has called for international controls, including a total ban on the use of solid fuels. To find out more, I talked to Dr. Helen Caldicott. A longtime leader of Physicians for Social Responsibility, she turned from pediatrics to activism on behalf of what she calls “the ultimate form of preventive medicine.” I reached her via satellite from her home base in Australia.
[interviewing] Dr. Caldicott, exactly what is the shuttle doing to the environment?
Dr. HELEN CALDICOTT, Environmental Activist: Well, the shuttle is now loaded with solid fuel and each shuttle launch releases about a 120 tons of concentrated hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere, mostly into the stratosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere where the ozone layer resides. And chlorine is the atom that destroys ozone molecules — it’s the same stuff that comes out the spray can — so it’s predicted that if the shuttle launches continue as planned, within 10 years, they could have destroyed about 10 percent of the ozone layer.
BILL MOYERS: And what will be the consequence of that if, in fact, it is so?
Dr. HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, the consequences of this-for each one percent destruction of the ozone layer, there’s a six percent increase in skin cancer. Now, in Australia, where the ozone is very thin, we have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world and, indeed, the dermatologists, who are usually fairly laid-back, conservative people, are getting really quite worried. And the incidence of malignant melanoma, which is a very malignant skin cancer — it’s when a mole becomes malignant — has doubled in the last 10 years and they’re getting extremely concerned. And the ozone continues to dissipate.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how do we know that the motors on the U.S. rockets are doing harm to that ozone layer?
Dr. HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, let me go back to the development of chlorofluorocarbon gas, CFC’s, which we use to propel spray cans, for refrigerants, for air conditioning, for fire extinguishers and the like. That gas was originally thought to be inert and benign, that, in other words, people could inhale it, it wouldn’t damage human bodies and it didn’t react with any other chemical, so it was a great gas. But it was years ago that, as scientists said, that if we continue using CFC’s, they rise up slowly, slowly, through the lower level of the atmosphere, the troposphere, they hit the stratosphere where the ozone resides. The chlorine atom breaks off from the molecule of the CFC and chlorine is like PacMan. One chlorine atom, like a PacMan, can eat up 100,000 to 200,000 ozone molecules over time. In other words, CFC’s and chlorine are like nuclear waste. Once they get up to the ozone, you can’t eliminate them and they stay up there with ongoing destruction. Meanwhile, we keep making more CFC’s. Now, the shuttle fits into this scenario because concentrated hydrochloric acid or HCL — an atom of hydrogen and an atom of chlorine — are admitted in very high concentrations as the shuttle is launched and as it goes through the stratosphere. The chlorine atoms break off from the hydrogen and they, like the chlorine atoms from CFC’s, behave like PacMan and start eating up the ozone. So we’re in very great difficulty and many scientific bodies in the United States and, indeed, in the Soviet Union have called for NASA not to use solid rocket fuel.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Caldicott, we see this story reported in three publications only-one city paper, one campus newspaper and one small-circulation environmental magazine. Why don’t we know more about this if, indeed, it is as serious a threat as you and the Soviet scientists say it is?
Dr. HELEN CALDICOTT: This is the tip of the iceberg. You know, there’s so much information that is not reported widely and which the people of America, let alone the world, have an absolute right to know. It’s our world, we inherited it and I really feel that no person has a right to exclude information that we have to understand. And it’s not just human beings, Bill. I’d have to say that all the world’s species are part of the creation — we’re only one of 30 million — and that our responsibility to them is as great or maybe greater than our responsibility to ourselves. Hence, it’s imperative that we know exactly what science and industry and the military are doing to our planet so that we can save it.
President GEORGE BUSH: The scourge of drugs must be stopped and I am asking tonight for an increase of almost a billion dollars in budget outlays to escalate the war against drugs.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Listen to the generals in the war on drugs and you’ll find it easy to think we’re winning. President Bush, his drug czars and the Drug Enforcement Administration all tell us they’re making great headway in the campaign to cut off supplies at the source, but some foot soldiers in the drug war tell a very different story. One who broke his silence is longtime undercover DEA agent Michael Levine. The war on drugs is a fraud, he says, sabotaged by infighting, incompetence and subterfuge. Its real successes have little to do with drugs and everything to do with political advantage. Project Censored found that the drug war generals have all but ignored this reality. While Levine’s new book, Deep Cover, has made the best-seller list, not a single high-level official would come on television to discuss his charges with him.
[interviewing] Don’t you believe — I mean, I know I believe that the president, William Bennett wanted to win the drug war, wanted to stop drugs coming into this country?
MICHAEL LEVINE, Author, “Deep Cover”: You know, I’m an old-time undercover-I spent 25 years working under cover and learning the fine art of manipulating and watching people and making the judgments that can mean your life and I taught undercovers. And I’ve always learned to judge people only by what they do, not by what they say. And by the actions, by their actions, they haven’t shown me anything other than the most cynical drug war you could imagine, where they know drugs are being used for funding of covert operations, for political reasons, for everything that you can imagine — to win elections. But the reality of the drug war? They know it doesn’t work. In the words of the man who was running Operation Snowcap, the main wedge right now in our South American drug war, “We know it doesn’t work.”
BILL MOYERS: What is Operation Snowcap?
MICHAEL LEVINE: It’s a paramilitary operation. You got
BILL MOYERS: Trying to cut it off at the source?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Trying to cut cocaine off at the source in South America. It’s a complete bust, a total failure.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, first of all, the cocaine economy, as all the Andean nations know, feeds much too many campesinos.
BILL MOYERS: They live off of it —
MICHAEL LEVINE: They live off it.
BILL MOYERS: — the income from it.
MICHAEL LEVINE: And they’re not drug barons. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people who, in one way or another in that area of the world, feed families of four, five and six kids from the proceeds of cocaine, from the proceeds of our hunger for cocaine. And they’re not drug barons. These are people who barely scrape by. Without the cocoa leaf, they’re starving.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s one reason it’s not working. Too many people are making a living from it at the lowest level of society.
MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, if you were the president of each of these countries, you would know you can’t truly be against cocaine because you’re against feeding your people. So, to get as much aid from America as you can, what do you do? You go as far as you can to convince the American people that there is a drug war going on. And the whole thing is sort of ridiculous because DEA themselves know that most of these police are corrupt, that the operations are sold out before they even take off. It’s an operation in futility.
BILL MOYERS: What about Noriega? The invasion of Panama was allegedly mounted to put a stop to Manuel Noriega’s own drug trafficking.
MICHAEL LEVINE: Francis McNeil, this State Department official, testified before Congress, “We looked the other way for years on Noriega’s drug-trafficking activities because he was helping us with the Contras.” That’s the testimony in our own Congress. Now, all of a sudden, we invade Panama to arrest this man who we knew was trafficking in drugs for two decades. Twenty-three Americans die. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of Panamanians — I mean, little babies — died before they arrested this man whom we knew was trafficking in drugs. And the media convinced America, to an 80-percent quota, that it was a drug-war victory.
BILL MOYERS: How do you rate the press coverage of the drug war?
MICHAEL LEVINE: I think it’s awful. I think there’s a quid pro quo between a lot of journalists and the drug war mechanism in that they have to be friendly if they want access. Now, that’s the only thing that would explain why-I’ll give you a great example. Colombia goes to war, allegedly, against the drug dealers. Now, we’ve been told that there’s a real drug war — this is this mechanized drug war — so the first move on our part is we send $65 million worth of military equipment to Colombia to fight this drug war. The Colombians turn around and say, “We’ll take it as a symbolic act, but this is not this kind of a war. All of this equipment is useless.” Now, that was only one little story. If the media was responsible, they’d follow up and find out, “What do you mean, this is not a military-why isn’t this equipment-” America has been led to believe that we need armaments down there. We need heavy machinery, we need weapons. We have already invaded Panama. The New York Times made an announcement that revealed plans for the virtual invasion of South America under the drug war banner. Now, we have a country that’s at the helm, allegedly fighting these drug barons and they’re telling us, “No, it’s not that kind of war,” but yet America is ready to go war with “that kind of war.” Why? Because of the media.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the drug war costing?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Oh, God. I think our budget last year was $10 billion, the federal budget — no, $9 billion — 70 percent of which went to this total waste, which-if you add it up over the last 20 and 30 years, we’ve spent I don’t know how many countless billions of dollars that’s been a total waste. How do you measure a total waste? Drug-trafficking has never been as bad as it is, so obviously, nothing that we’ve been doing for the last 30 years has had any effect whatsoever, so why are we still going in the same direction?
BILL MOYERS: Are you in favor of decriminalizing drugs?
MICHAEL LEVINE: Absolutely not. I’m in favor of doing what Japan and China did, focusing all their resources on the user. And you don’t have to change a comma in the Constitution. A form of mandatory rehabilitation. You give drug users what they’ve been clamoring for-rehabilitation on demand, treatment on demand. The only thing is is the demand of society. We, as a society, demand that you, as a drug user, get into rehabilitation and if you’re off rehabilitation, we’re going to check you constantly and if you’re back on, you’re going back into a hospital. Now, how do you do that without violating anyone’s rights? Over two million arrests are made every year in the U.S., felony arrests. Drug tests show that they’re under the influence or they have drugs in their system.
BILL MOYERS: Many of them
MICHAEL LEVINE: You give them-no, two million with drugs.
BILL MOYERS: With drugs?
MICHAEL LEVINE: With drugs. You give them the choice at the time of their arrest. “Do you want to face the judicial system or do you want to go into rehabilitation?” You sign up for lifetime rehabilitation.
BILL MOYERS: That’s expensive.
MICHAEL LEVINE: Not any more-in any way you measure it-look, the figure I heard is that the average hard-core drug user is arrested 10 or 12 times before he does any time. He has to commit a half a million dollars a year in crimes. Now if you add to that the court costs, all of our society’s good intentions, all the people working with our society’s good intentions that are being paid out of tax dollars to try and straighten out this individual, totally fruitlessly, what you come out with has got to be an astronomical figure each year that each one of these people costs us while they’re on the street-insurance. My God, it doesn’t take much of an imagination. It would be cheaper for us to put these guys in a Holiday Inn free — well, make it a Motel 6, we’ll save a little money, but it’ll be cheaper for our society — and give them all the care in the world.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] One of Project Censored’s top 10 for 1990 grew into a rather different story in 1991. Now that the Persian Gulf war has begun, many journalists are protesting that military censorship is making it impossible for them to do their jobs responsibly, but last year, as the crisis grew hotter and the threat of war intensified, nearly every one of America’s major news outlets seemed to be carried away with enthusiasm for the build-up in the Gulf. Journalists were not asking the hard questions while there was still time for debate. Project Censored found that the press’s failure to acknowledge its own uncritical coverage of the build-up was the number one underreported story of the year. I talked about this with Mike Moore, who, until recently, was editor of the official magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.
[interviewing] What is your assessment of the press coverage of the build-up last fall?
MICHAEL MOORE, former Editor, “The Quill”: I think the press coverage was very conventional. The press is very good at covering events and this was an event. It had human interest, it had drama, it had conflict. It was a pretty impressive job in that respect. The problem, so far as I’m concerned is the press ignored how we got into the war and not only that, it ignored the meaning of the metaphors being used by the administration.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MICHAEL MOORE: The Hitler analogy, for instance. Saddam is clearly a Hitler in terms of his moral views. He’s a bad guy. Allah should call him to his bosom right away, I should think, but Iraq was not Germany. Germany was a populous country, it was a country with a tremendous industrial base. It was a country that was probably the world’s leader in science and technology. Iraq isn’t that. The war machine of Iraq was not Hitler’s war machine. It was a country that could not have posed the kind of threat that Hitler posed in the 30’s and yet the press seemed to go along very nicely with that analogy.
BILL MOYERS: Reading the newspapers you read last fall and watching the television that you did, did you share the criticism that was generally raised that the press was a cheerleader of the build-up?
MICHAEL MOORE: Oh, very, very much. It seemed to me that the press shared in the idea that we were emerging at long last from this Vietnam nightmare and once again, “Sheriff America” is riding and once again, we’re showing that we have power and we can use it and use it for moral ends. And I think there was just widespread agreement — or seemed to be widespread agreement — that we were doing the right thing at the right time. And it could be that we are, or that we were doing the right thing at the right time. My point is not whether the war is a good one or a bad one. My point is that the process is not working properly. You’ve got to get Congress involved, you’ve got to get the American people involved in a decision like this and if Congress refuses to get involved, as it did before the November elections, then it’s up to the press, I think, to prod it a little bit and to write about the kinds of issues that Congress is not raising.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that the media have been caught between charges that we have been warmongers with the president or pawns for Saddam Hussein. Does that say more about the press or more about the public?
MICHAEL MOORE: Well, the latter part, the pawns for Saddam doesn’t mean much to me. Obviously, we have some people in Baghdad who are censored and present a point of view that Saddam wants them to present, but after the war is over — and it’s going to be over fairly soon, I should think — they’re going to be on the scene to report accurately.
BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t it say that the public doesn’t like us in the first place? Either we’re warmongers in their minds or we’re pawns in their minds.
MICHAEL MOORE: When has the public ever liked the press? The public has never liked the press and our job is not to be liked. Our job is to look at the world clearly.
BILL MOYERS: But we had had the kind of coverage of that build-up that you’re talking about, what would have been different about the coverage?
MICHAEL MOORE: Well, you know, the first thing you do as a reporter-again, you’re not a reporter covering the build-up, you’re a different reporter and you’re covering the Congress. And you go to Senator X and you say, “I was reading the other day that the Constitution says that the Congress declares a war. What do you make of that?”
BILL MOYERS: Now, did you see any of that last fall? I saw pieces like that.
MICHAEL MOORE: I saw a little bit, but we tend to read the elite press — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal — and watch national news, but there are 1,600 other newspapers out there and I made a point of going out and buying as many of the other newspapers as I could. And when it came to that kind of an analysis, you saw very little, just hardly anything. You saw the bare bones, the troops going over and digging in and it was hot and then you saw stories about the hostages, but you didn’t see much. You didn’t see much about how the president got us to this point. Now, when Congress did act, to be sure, but it acted on the eve
of war and if you watched the debates — and they weren’t really debates, the members are generally speaking to empty houses but if you watched the congressional debate, you were struck by a recurring theme that so many senators and representatives said that they did not necessarily want to do what they were about to do, but it was too late in the game to debate it. It was simply too late. The prestige of the president and the prestige of the United States was on the line and the Congress gave President Bush the power to go to war in Iraq, but this was right just a few days before the war was scheduled to begin.
BILL MOYERS: But the reporters who made their reputation in this war are reporters who were there on the scene when events were happening-Bernie Shaw and his colleagues at CNN, Peter Arnett. That’s the place to be, isn’t it, if you want to —
MICHAEL MOORE: If you’re reporter, there’s nothing better than a good story, a rapidly-moving story and reportorial instincts are to be there on the scene. And it’s a little bit like being in the army. If you want to advance in the army, you want to be in the thick of battle. You want to demonstrate that you can handle your troops and you’re going to move up. But there must be reporters, there must be writers who are doing the other kind of story.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s say there are, Mike. Do you think that the American people want to read lengthy analyses or watch in-depth reports over their morning oatmeal?
MICHAEL MOORE: No, in general, but if you can reach two or three or four or five out of 100 with a good “thoughtful essay” you’re doing something and you’re raising issues and you’re raising issues that Congress cannot ignore. And again, our job is not to be another branch of government. Our job is to confront issues squarely and not to buy into slogans. And we were too ready to buy into slogans back in the early days and we’re still doing it.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you really talking about the failure of our political culture, as opposed to the particular failure of journalism?
MICHAEL MOORE: No, I’m talking about the failure of both. Journalism reporters and editors like to portray themselves as watchdogs, watchdogs of the government and on behalf of the American people. If you’re going to portray yourself as a watchdog, you’ve got to bark once in a while. You’ve got to bark before the savings and loans get into terrible jeopardy. You’ve got to bark before we’ve got 400,000 or 500,000 troops in the Mideast. We’re not doing much barking. We’re too often lapdogs. We too often take government handouts. We too often accept government analogies and metaphors in a very uncritical way. We’ve got to be more critical. That’s part of our job.
BILL MOYERS: Those were the Project Censored top 10 underreported stories for 1990. Some are shocking, some of them sad. Most of them implicate people in institutions to which we have delegated great power — the CIA, the DEA, the Pentagon, NASA, the president. Others charge the press itself for our easy complicity with authority. But all of them have one theme in common. Not knowing about these stories can hurt us. Not knowing about the financial crisis and scams costs us money. Not knowing about the fraud of the drug war or the dangers of the space shuttle can cost us our health, if not our planet. Not knowing about the violations of the Constitution in the Anti-Crime Bill or Panama or George Bush’s role in Iran-Contra costs us the ability to make informed choices as citizens. And not knowing the true motives, dangers, costs and consequences of the build-up in the Persian Gulf or the options may now be costing us this war, a war difficult to judge for ourselves because the government is controlling what we see and hear about it. The prerogative of individuals to think for ourselves is the very heart of freedom, but it requires an account of the day’s events we can trust. Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of ready-made opinions and those who make them. I’m Bill Moyers for Project Censored. Good night.
This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.