Damning evidence of Blair's dishonesty

28 April 2005 |

I have never told a lie, Tony Blair insisted on Sky TV last night. But within half an hour, a devastating bombshell on Channel 4 News blew his credibility to smithereens and proved conclusively that over Iraq he was again lying through his teeth.

No longer is there any room for doubt. This Prime Minister not only took Britain to war on false pretences. He also misrepresented the confidential legal advice from Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to give a dishonest summary to MPs and even his own Cabinet.

Mr Blair has insisted all along that the war was unequivocally legal, that he had been given no caveats or conflicting advice and that the Attorney General had never changed his mind. But those words are now exposed as utterly false.

Lord Goldsmith warned that failure to secure a second UN resolution authorising war would force the Government 'urgently' to reconsider its legal case.

He warned that to invade Iraq without a second resolution, "we would need to demonstrate hard evidence of noncompliance and non co-operation."

Yet no such 'hard evidence' existed. Indeed, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix was at that very moment making it clear that Saddam was starting to comply.

Consider what happened next in this squalid saga.

All the Attorney General's doubts were sent to Mr Blair on March 7, 2003. Yet somehow none of them appeared in the 'summary' of his advice given to MPs and the Cabinet ten days later, on March 17.

'Stinks to high heaven'

This affair stinks to high heaven. It is now clear that the Government's chief legal officer - the very cornerstone of a healthy democracy - has prostituted his office for political ends.

We also have ineluctable evidence that the Cabinet was denied the opportunity to see his full report - in itself a flagrant breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

Make no mistake: If Blair had told the truth about the legal reservations, it is very possible that Parliament would never have voted for war. The lives of 86 British troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians might not have been lost.

So what happened in those ten days to produce such a dramatic change in Goldmith's legal advice? Were his arms twisted in Downing Street by his friend Charlie Falconer and Baroness Morgan? One thing is sure. Unless he can come up with a very convincing explanation, his reputation is damaged beyond repair.

And the Prime Minister? The BBC spent all yesterday trying to denigrate the latest Tory poster. It shows Blair's picture with the lacerating slogan: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election".

Never were words more prescient. It is difficult to remember any precedent in recent times for such an attack on the personal integrity of a party leader. But then, it is hard to recall any recent Prime Minister who has so demeaned his office.

And it isn't simply because of his record on Iraq, with its dodgy dossiers, his denial that he had any part in hounding weapons expert Dr David Kelly to his death and now his lies about the legal case for war.

He once claimed he would be 'purer than pure', but has been up to his neck in sleaze, from Bernie Ecclestone to the Hindujas and Mandelson (twice) to Lakshmi Mittal.

This is the man who has politicised the civil service, undermined the integrity of our intelligence agencies, disdained the Commons, neutered the Lords, opened the way to electoral fraud through a reckless expansion of postal voting, promoted useless cronies and encouraged his liar-in-chief Alastair Campbell to corrupt decent standards in public life.

Mr Blair's mendacious behaviour over the Attorney General's memorandum brings shame and discredit to his office. He is unfit to be Prime Minister.

Gut Check

25 April 2005 |

Chris Floyd
Published: April 22, 2005
With fresh indictments last week, the UN oil-for-food scandal took an unexpected turn into the Labyrinth -- the tangled skein of war profiteering and state terrorism that has seen the Bush Family's lust for blood money emerge in three of the darkest criminal episodes in modern American history: Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and the BCCI affair.
Texas oil baron David Chalmers of Bayoil and his partners were hit with criminal charges for allegedly cutting deals with Saddam Hussein in the notorious skim operation that outflanked UN sanctions and diverted funds intended for humanitarian relief. Prosecutors were shocked -- shocked! -- to find such collusion and corruption in the oil business.
Of course, the fact that three U.S. presidents -- the two George Bushes and their new best pal, Bill Clinton -- actually brokered massive backroom oil deals for Saddam that dwarfed Bayoil's petty chiseling, plus the fact that Saddam's nation-strangling thievery has since been eclipsed by the epic rapine of Bush II's Babylonian Conquest, in no way mitigates the seriousness of the Chalmers indictment. But somehow we doubt you'll be seeing those august statesmen sharing leg irons with old Davy anytime soon.
Chalmers is a longtime denizen of the Labyrinth. In the mid-1980s, he joined up with Chilean gun-runner Carlos Cardoen, the Financial Times reported. Cardoen was a CIA frontman used by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush I to funnel cluster bombs and other weapons secretly to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. At Reagan's direct order, Saddam received U.S. military intelligence, billions of dollars in credits and a steady supply of covert "third-country" arms to sustain his war effort, even though the White House was fully aware of Saddam's "almost daily use" of illegal chemical weapons, The Washington Post reported. Later, Bush I, as president, would also mandate the sale of WMD material to Saddam, including anthrax -- long after Saddam notoriously "gassed his own people" at Halabja.
As in the present UN scandal, Saddam paid for his covert cluster bombs with oil. Chalmers would move the actual black stuff and broker its sale for the CIA and Cardoen, taking a cut in the process. Since 1999, Chalmers has been doing the same thing on behalf of Italtech, owned by another crony in the old Cardoen gun-running scheme. The Texas baron must be aghast to find himself in hot water for an activity that was once blessed at the highest levels. Perhaps he neglected to cross the requisite Bushist palms with sufficient silver -- or else, as with many a Bush minion, he's just been tossed overboard as chum for the sharks when he's no longer of any use.
But let's be fair. Helping Saddam kill people with chemical gas was not the only reason why Reagan and Bush I aided their favorite dictator. They had bigger fish to fry -- using the Constitution as kindling for the feast.
In 1986, George Bush I visited the Middle East with a secret message to be passed to Saddam via Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: "Drop more bombs on Iran's cities." How do we know this? From the sworn testimony of Howard Teicher, the National Security Council official who accompanied Bush and wrote the official "talking points" for the trip. Ostensibly, Bush urged this mass killing of civilians as a strategy to halt Iran's gains at the front. But as The New Yorker reported -- 13 years ago -- there was another layer to this covert plot.
A fierce aerial offensive by Saddam would force Iran to seek more spare parts for its U.S.-made planes and anti-aircraft weapons, inherited from the ousted Shah. Bush was already waist-deep in the Iran-Contra scam, which involved selling Tehran U.S. military goods through back channels, then funneling the secret profits to the Contras, the gang of right-wing insurgents and CIA-trained terrorists in Nicaragua. Congress had forbidden U.S. aid to the Contras, so Reagan and Bush used the mullahs (and Central American drug lords) to run their illegal terrorist war. More innocent deaths in Iran meant more backdoor cash for the Contras. A win-win situation!
When Bush I became president, he clasped Saddam even closer, sending him billions in U.S.-backed "agricultural credits" through BNL, an Italian bank tied up with BCCI -- the international "financial consortium" that was actually "one of the largest criminal enterprises in history," according to the U.S. Senate. BCCI laundered money and financed arms dealing, terrorism, smuggling and prostitution, while corrupting government officials worldwide with bribes and extortion.
As Bush well knew, Saddam was using the BNL cash for arms, not food; indeed, that was the point of the exercise. When some honest U.S. officials threatened to unravel the BNL gun-running scam, Bush appointed Cardoen's own lawyer to a top Justice Department post -- overseeing the investigation of his former boss. Under heavy White House pressure, the case was quickly whittled down to the usual "bad apple" underlings carrying out some minor fraud.
But perhaps Papa Bush was just being fatherly. Earlier, another BCCI offshoot bank had bailed out one of Bush Junior's many business failures with $25 million in cash. That deal had been brokered by mysterious Arkansas tycoon Jackson Stephens, one of the Bush family's biggest campaign contributors. Curiously enough, Stephens was also a top moneyman for another leading politician: Bill Clinton. When Clinton took office, he obligingly deep-sixed the continuing probes into BCCI, Iraqgate and Iran-Contra.
That's how the system really works. All the guff about law, democracy and morality is just cornball for the yokels back home -- and for the cannon fodder sent off to die in the elite's commercial and dynastic wars. The Labyrinth -- that knotted gut of blood and bile -- has poisoned us all.

Message in a Bottle

17 April 2005 |

How Coca-Cola Gave Back to Plachimada


Plachimada, Kerala.

Whizzing along the road in the little Tata Indica, driven prestissimo by Sudhi, we crossed the state line from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, branched off the main road and ended up in the settlement of Plachimada, mostly inhabited by extremely poor people. There on one side of the street was the Coca-Cola plant, among the largest in Asia, and on the other a shack filled with locals eager to impart the news that they were now, as of April 2, in Day 1076 of their struggle against the plant.

Coca-Cola came to India in 1993, looking for water and markets in a country where one third of all villages are without anything approaching adequate water and shortages are growing every day. Indeed India is facing a gigantic water crisis, even as Coca Cola and other companies haul free water to the cities from the countryside and water parks and golf courses metastasize around cities like Mumbai.

The bloom was on neoliberalism back then when Coca-Cola came in, with central and state authorities falling over themselves to lease, sell or simply hand over India's national assets in the name of economic "reform". They still are, but the popular mood has changed.

The apex posterboy of neo-liberalism, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, feted by Bill Clinton, John Wolfenson and Bill Gates and such nabobs of nonsense as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, was tossed out in elections a year ago. Naidu's fans in the west and indeed in India's elites, were thunderstruck. The reason was simple. Below the top tier, hundreds of millions of Indians went to the polls last year to register a furious No. There are hundreds of parables to explain this. Here's one, courtesy of Coca-Cola.

Across India's give-away decade Coca-Cola took over some 22 Indian bottling companies, capturing their marketing and distribution systems and easily beating back various legal assaults for predatory practices to eliminate competition. Senior civil servants and politicians, some of them pocketing covert subventions, made tremulous speeches about the New India. Meanwhile out in the real world of the Indian countryside, Coca-Cola's bottling plants were getting less enthusiastic reviews.

Coca-Cola had sound reasons in zoning in on Plachimada. A rain-shadow region in the heart of Kerala's water belt, it has large underground water deposits. The site Coca-Cola picked was set between two large reservoirs and ten meters south of an irrigation canal. The ground water reserves had apparently showed up on satellite surveys done by the company's prospectors. The Coke site is surrounded by colonies where several hundred poor people live in crowded conditions, with an average holding of four-tenths of an acre. Virtually the sole source of employment is wage labor, usually for no more than 100 to 120 days in the year.

Ushered in by Kerala's present "reform"-minded government, the plant duly got a license from the local council, known as the Perumatty Grama panchayat. Under India's constitution the panchayats have total discretion in such matters. Coca-Cola bought a property of some 40 acres held by a couple of large landowners, built a plant, sank six bore wells, and commenced operations.

Within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, even run dry. The water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes,a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families have been directly affected, and well water affected up to a three or four kilometers from the plant.

The locals, mostly indigenous adivasis and dalits had never had much, after allocation of a bit of land from the true, earth-shaking reforms of Kerala's Communist government, democratically elected in 1956. And they had had plenty of good water. On April 22, 2002 the locals commenced peaceful agitation and shut the plant down. Responding to popular pressure, the panchayat rescinded its license to Coca-Cola on August 7,2003. Four days later the local Medical Officer ruled that water in wells near the plant was unfit for human use, a judgement reached by various testing labs months earlier.

All of this was amiably conveyed to us in brisk and vivid detail by the villagers. Then Mylamma, an impressively eloquent woman, led us down a path to one of the local village wells nearby. It was a soundly built square well, some 10 feet from side to side. About five feet from the top we could see the old water line, but no water. Peering twenty feet further down in the semi-darkness we could see a stagnant glint.

Today, in a region known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women in Plachimada have to walk a 4-kilometer round trip to get drinkable water, toting the big vessels on hip or their head. Even better-off folk face ruin. One man said he'd been farming eight acres of rice paddy, hiring 20 workers, but now, with no water for the paddy, he survives on the charity of his son-in-law.

The old village wells had formerly gone down to 150 to 200 feet. The company's bore wells go down to 750 to 1000 feet. As the water table dropped, all manner of toxic matter began to rise too, leaching up to higher levels as the soil dried out.

The whole process would play well on The Simpsons. It has a ghastly comicality to it. When the plant was running at full tilt 85 truck loads rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, 24 bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset, water, now enhanced in cash value by Cola's infusions of its syrups.

Also trundling through the gates came 36 lorries a day, each with six 50-gallon drums of sludge from the plant's filtering and bottle cleaning processes, said sludge resembling buff-colored puke in its visual aspect, a white-to-yellow granular sauce blended with a darker garnish of blended fabric, insulating material and other fibrous matter, plus a sulphuric acid smell very unpleasing to the nostrils.

Coca Cola was "giving back" to Plachimada, the give-back taking the form of the toxic sludge, along with profuse daily donations of foul wastewater.

The company told the locals the sludge was good for the land and dumped loads of it in the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation canal, heralding it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so badly it made old folk and children sick, people coming in contact with it got rashes and kindred infections and the crops which it was supposed to nourish died.

Lab analysis by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board has shown dangerous levels of cadmium in the sludge. Another report done at Exeter University in England at the request of the BBC Radio 4 (whose reporter John Waite visited Plachimada and broadcast his report in July of 2003) found in water in a well near the plant not only impermissible amounts of cadmium but lead at levels that "could have devastating consequences", particularly for pregnant women. The Exeter lab also found the sludge useless as fertiliser, a finding which did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian vice-president Sunil Gupta who swore the sludge was "absolutely safe" and "good for crops".

Plachimada is in a district, the Perumatti
Panchayat, ruled by the Janata Dal (Secular). M.P. Veerendrakumar is the President of the Kerala state unit of this party and represents the constituency of Kozhikode in the Indian Parliament. Veerendrakumar is also chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi, a newspaper which sells over a million copies a day in Malayalam, Kerala's language.

Veerendrakumar, a forceful man in his late sixties and a former federal minister, tells me that for the past two years Mathrubhumi has refused to run any ads for Coca-Cola and the company's other brand names drinks such as Mirinda, 7 Up, Sprite, Fanta, Kinley Soda, Thums Up. Veerendrakumar's group includes in its ban ads for Pepsi, which he says has a plant ten kilometers from Plachimada that has produced the same problems. He says his company's net loss of advertising revenue amounts thus far to some 30 million rupees, more than $700,000, a very hefty sum in Kerala, though far, far less ­ as he told India's parliament in Delhi, than what farmers around Plachimada have collectively lost through crop failure consequent on the loss of water.

"The cruel fact", Veerendrakumar told the Indian parliament as he handed over a well-documented report on the toxic outputs of the plant, "is that water from our underground sources is pumped out free and sold to our people to make millions every day, at the same time destroying our environment and damaging the health of our people. For us rivers, dams and water sources are the property of the nation and her people."

The locals won't let the plant reopen, to the fury of Kerala's present pro-Coke government, which has tried, unconstitutionally, to overrule the local council (it told the panchayat it could only spend $5 a day in public money on its case) and hopes the courts will do the right thing and grease Coca-Cola's wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that last week, and the panchayat, helped by private donations, is now taking its cased to India's Supreme Court. K. Krishnan, President of the Perumatti Panchayat, where the Coca-Cola plant is situated, has withstood all blandishments, which is more than can be said about many other individuals.

Drive along almost any road in Kerala and you'll see cocoanut palms. What Keralites term as tender cocoanut water really is good for you. Ask any local rat. A trio of biochemists at the University of Kerala recently put rats on it and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides sank significantly, with anti-oxidant enzymes putting up a fine show. For the rats dosed on Coca-Cola the tests readings weren't pretty, starting with "short, swollen, ulcerated and broken villi in the intestine and severe nuclear damage".

"What is the use of the Coca-Cola Company," cried Phulwanti Mhase of Kudus village, in Maharashtra state, where women wash clothes in dirty puddles after Hindustan Coca-Cola built a plant there. "These are outsiders. They take our water, filter it and then resell it to us at a price."

Phulwanti is cited (in a very useful pamphlet put out by the All India Democratic Women's Association) as issuing this brisk précis of Marx's Capital from the vantage point of her teashop from which can be descried the outlines of the plant, which churns out sodas including a mineral water called Kinley. Phulwanti has one bottle of Kinley in her store for people passing through, remarking, "I get angry. This is our water and they sell it to us for 12 rupees, which is what a tribal woman would make for eight hours' work."

Taking a leaf out of the self-realization catechism, Coca-Cola flaunts its slogan in Hindi, "Jo chahe ho jahe", meaning "Whatever you want, happens" , translated by the local women as "Jo Coke chahe ho jahe", "Whatever Coke wants, happens."

But not in Plachimada.


14 April 2005 |

Oliver Stone


Interviewed by Jen Foley

“ I think honestly, without blowing my horn he did respect me ”

JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers... Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from controversial topics. Now he turns his hand to documentary filmmaking with Comandante, a portrait of Fidel Castro. Getting a cinematic release in the UK, the film was dropped by American TV network HBO in the wake of the Cuban leader's decision to imprison 75 dissidents and execute three hijackers earlier this year.

You've made many films about historic icons, but this is the first time you've used the documentary format. Why now?

In 1999 I did Any Given Sunday, which was a very exhausting feature film for me, and it was time to take a little bit of a break. As you know, in the 90s the budgets in Hollywood movies got so big - what was costing $19m in the early 90s was shooting up to, like, $50m. So it was more and more about marketing, bigger budgets, bigger egos. It's just very difficult to work inside that system - not that I've given up on it, but I just wanted a break from it.

Fernando Sulichin [producer] offered me a chance to interview Fidel Castro for Spanish TV. We had good access. We saw him in February 2002 and spent 30 hours with him. Originally it was just going to be for Spanish TV, and it grew and we thought we had more material because he was so forthcoming. We had American interest and European interest and people have responded well. HBO bought it for American distribution but it was indefinitely postponed. It was supposed to air on 5th May this year, when there was an uproar about some recent events in Cuba in April. The film is still postponed.

Do you think it will ever be seen in America?

That is a good question. HBO asked us to go back to Cuba and interview Fidel Castro again about this most recent incident - the imprisoning of 75 dissidents, and execution of three hijackers so quickly. We went back and Fidel Castro gave us the same amount of time, if not more, than the first time. He's passionate and concerned and he was upset by the accusations and he's very specific in denying them, and so on. The resulting film is called Looking For Fidel, it has a narrower focus than Comandante. It's more about this particular situation this year, so it's more of a grilling.

Did Castro rise to your expectations of him?

I didn't have many preconceptions, and I did not present myself as an expert. He's presented as a bad guy, and it all stems from Nixon's meeting with him, calling him a communist and anti-American. That set off the whole chain of distrust of Castro. He had to go to the Soviets for support. He was very paranoid at that time about the island being invaded by American forces.

The abuse, the attacks on Cuba have not really been played up. I tried to do this a little bit in Looking For Fidel, just to show the American people what is really going on. Castro is isolated in the hemisphere and for those reasons I admire him because he's a fighter. He stood alone and in a sense he's Don Quixote, the last revolutionary, tilting at this windmill of keeping the island in a state of, I suppose, egalitarianism, where everyone would get the break, everyone gets the education, and everyone gets good water.

In the film Castro seems to accord you a certain amount of respect, because of your military record and your service in Vietnam. Were you surprised by that?

No, we left that in because it was necessary to establish why he was talking to me like this. I think honestly, without blowing my horn, he did respect me. Part of the reason he respected me was that I had been in combat. He had done guerrilla war for years, and he feels that there is a truth in combat, that we can talk as men, as equals. I left that in to give an idea of why he was talking.

Have you been following the Hutton inquiry here in the UK? How do you see the British political landscape at the moment?

What amazes me about the whole thing is that the British are much more conscientious than Americans. The people are more educated, they are not as led by the media as they are in America. It seems that the British people do have a sense of independence from the media. Goebbels once said that the bigger the lie the more likely people are to believe it, and in America it's so big that once the story goes out on a national network and that's the story. The words are controlled, the thinking is controlled and it's just amazingly conformist to me.

If you had 30 hours with George W Bush, what would you be trying to get out of him?

The truth: I don't think it's possible to get 30 hours with Bush. I think he's scared of the camera. I saw a documentary with a young woman he did, and he just joshes with her all the time. He never confronts anybody, and he never looks you in the eye. It's all "Hey buddy, how are yah?" all that American slang language. It's not dialogue, it's not feeling. He has a shallow manner, which is a complete contradiction to Castro. Castro will talk to you. He's a real human being. I see George Bush as a synthetic person. As I once said, he's an ex-alcoholic who believes in Jesus. What could be more dangerous!

Your next film is about Alexander the Great. How do you feel about Baz Lurhmann tackling the same topic?

It's the biggest challenge of my life. It's just a great story, and I hope I can do it some justice. My race was always with the script. It was 'how do you make a story', because it's a great story, but if you go for surface events it will never work. You have to get into a theme, and find the character. It's very hard to do. I'm not sure I have, but I'm about to take the shot.

Baz has got a great vision, a very strong director - very interesting, I particularly liked his Romeo + Juliet. No doubt, he can do something extravagant and beautiful. I don't know his theme, what he's going to do, but it certainly would have been more difficult for them if they'd gone first with Leo DiCaprio because he's a bigger star [than Colin Farrell]. But I really believe in Colin Farrell. I think Colin's got true grit, and I think he will surprise people as Alexander.