"Governments don't keep secrets to protect the public, but to deceive the public."
Greg Palast happens to be talking about a certain Big Oil-friendly blueprint for the future of the Iraqi oil industry when he makes this point, almost in passing, in his just-released book, Armed Madhouse (Dutton), but he could be stating the general premise of the whole book, or of his career as a journo-sleuth in the Jack Anderson mold and stand-in for the little guy in the global economy. His raison d'etre is to ferret out those secrets and those deceptions and present them in all their cynical glory to the people for whom such knowledge is vital: you and me.
In my humble opinion, Palast, an American investigator better known beyond our borders, through his BBC current-affairs show "Newsnight," than here at home, is exactly what a journalist is supposed to be -- a truth hound, doggedly independent, undaunted by power. His stories bite. They're so relevant they threaten to alter history -- simply by letting the hoodwinked public in on the game while it's happening, which is precisely the role America's mainstream media have abdicated.
"The irony is that, in the U.S. we have something precious," he told me. "The First Amendment. The problem is, we don't use it."
On second thought, you might want to avoid reading Armed Madhouse -- it's too infuriating, too heart-breaking. If you don't think ordinary citizens should be players in the high-stakes games of governments and big corporations, stick with the feel-good, celebrity-fawning media that keep us preoccupied with trivia and assured that America is on track and so is the war in Iraq and we're still the world's greatest democracy.
What I'm saying is, enter these pages at your own risk. The First Amendment isn't for sissies. A guy like Palast, who wears secret wires in high-level interviews and winds up mysteriously in possession of classified and otherwise shrouded documents and doesn't blow-dry his hair (or even have much hair), wields freedom of speech, at times, like a rapier: "Reverend Pat Robertson has a tough time with the separation of church and hate."
And, at times, like a grenade-launcher: "The Reagan-Bush Frankenstein Factory is still producing new models. (Pakistan President) Pervez Musharraf, personal protector of the atomic bomb salesman, Dr. Khan, can be seen in photos arm in arm with our president as if they were going together to the senior prom. Given our experiences with Saddam and Osama, our monsters tend to get out of control after about eleven years."
Or: "A whole list of corporate gimmes sought by lobbyists before Sept. 11 are now marketed to Congress as protection from Al-Qaeda. To cover this extreme greedismo, we've been sold a new Red Scare, and that is certain to bring us the new McCarthyism. Get ready. . . .
"From his bunker, Mr. Cheney has created a government that is little more than a Wal-Mart of Fear: midnight snatchings of citizens for uncharged crimes, wars to hunt imaginary weapons aimed at Los Angeles, DNA data banks of kids and grandmas, even the Chicken Little sky-is-falling Social Security spook show.
"In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt calmed a nation when he said, 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.'
"Today, George Bush says, 'We have nothing to sell but fear itself.'"
Palast's book defies simple description. It takes on a range of contemporary horrors, and I'm serious in issuing a warning about it. Like his 2003 book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which, among other things, exposed the "Jeb Crow" purges of the Florida voter rolls that kept so many African-Americans from voting in the 2000 election, Armed Madhouse will leave you shaking with anger -- particularly about Big Oil and pervasive GOP-instigated election fraud -- and crying, "Where the hell is the New York Times?"
Why indeed are the media failing to protect us and our democracy? This is the fundamental question Palast raises, simply by asking impolite questions, combing through reports, hunting down secret documents with whatever-it-takes persistence and ignoring every tacit agreement on what constitutes "acceptable discourse."
"What's most frustrating," he said to me, "is that my reports will get picked up -- years later." The Times, for instance, finally got around to acknowledging the Florida voter purges in 2004, in the larger context of assuring us that everything's OK now. "The story (only) comes out when it can't bite."
Ouch, I say. It's excruciatingly painful to watch a crime unfold and be helpless to stop it. The crime, as always, is against the American promise. Yet the book is not without hope.
"Damn right America is exceptional," Palast says at the end of Armed Madhouse. "It is America that defiantly walked out of the first 'world trade organization,' known as the British Empire, announcing: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .'"
Remember that spirit, that audacity? Palast, bless his heart, is goading us to break the glass case in which the ideal of citizenship lies embalmed and re-embody it by demanding accountability from the fear salesmen and war profiteers who seem to show up whenever our backs are turned.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2006 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.