Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Auschwitz said, "In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"
Over the next few days, months and years -- many are going to write more about what the Pope uttered at Auschwitz. The real meaning, the hidden meaning or the complete nonsense.
Benedict, a German himself, has had to use the papal propaganda machinery to sanitise his Nazi Past.
How soon will we get to see a far-right extreme Xian bin-Laden? There is a good chance that he will come from Poland.
Poland digs in against tide toward secularism
BY TOM HUNDLEY
WARSAW, Poland - Poland could be Europe's first red state.
The 25 members of the European Union do not think of themselves in terms of blue states and red states, at least not yet. If they did, the map of Europe would have a decidedly blue hue. Even countries with conservative governments, such as France and Germany, are blue when it comes to the "values" debate.
But Poland cuts against the grain. Lech Kaczynski, winner of last October's presidential election, is opposed to abortion and gay marriage. He has instructed his education minister to come up with guidelines for the "proper upbringing of children." And lately, he has been spending a lot of time cozying up to conservative Christian groups.
While Christianity appears to be in a steep decline across most of Europe, in Poland the faith still burns brightly. The question is whether Poland is an anomaly, a quirky throwback to another era, or whether it is harbinger of Europe's coming culture war.
Poland's churches are packed; its seminaries still are churning out healthy numbers of priests. According to census data, 96 percent of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic; 57 percent say they attend Mass every Sunday. There now seem to be as many statues of Pope John Paul II as there once were of V.I. Lenin.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI paid homage to his predecessor with a visit to Poland, and Poles responded by modestly covering up some of the racier lingerie ads along the processional route. The pope's stops included Warsaw, the Auschwitz death camp and Wadowice, John Paul's hometown.
It was the late pope's fervent hope that the intense spirituality of his native Poland would spark a "new evangelization" of Western Europe. During most of his papacy, there was scant sign of that happening. But more recently Poland has emerged at the fore of a fledgling movement to restore Christian values to Europe.
"What's new in Poland is that political parties want to express their Catholicism," said Pawel Spiewak, a Polish sociologist and expert on right-wing politics. "A few years ago, a typical Pole was Catholic in his private life. Now he's expressing it openly and wants to express it as public policy. It's atypical for Europe."
Beginning in 2003, the Polish government led the push - ultimately unsuccessful - to include some reference to Christianity in the new EU constitution.
Aleksander Kwasniewski, the reformed communist who was Poland's president at the time, told a British newspaper that "there is no excuse for making references to ancient Greece and Rome, and to the Enlightenment, without making reference to the Christian values which are so important to the development of Europe."
An unusual argument coming from a self-professed atheist, but Kwasniewski always has grasped the importance of religion in Polish political life.
Last year, the Polish delegation to the European Parliament made waves by setting up an anti-abortion display in the corridors of the parliament's headquarters in Strasbourg, France. A scuffle ensued when guards attempted to remove it.
"We follow the teachings of the church and the advice of the bishops," said Piotr Slusarczyk, a spokesman for the League of Polish Families, a conservative Catholic party that was behind the anti-abortion display.
In addition to abortion, Slusarczyk said the league opposes gay rights and euthanasia. It also favors large families and takes a dim view of the EU in general.
"Our goal is to defend Catholic values and to defend Poland against Western tendencies that are being promoted by a vocal EU lobby," he said.
Religion and politics blend naturally in Poland. For more than a thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has been the chief guardian and repository of the Polish national identity. During the years of partition, when Poland didn't have a territory, it was the church that kept the nation alive. Under communism, the church served as a bulwark of moral resistance.
The papacy of John Paul II applied the coup de grace to East European communism, and when the decrepit Polish regime collapsed in 1989, the church proclaimed itself the victor and assumed a privileged position in the new democracy. At its behest, Poland's liberal abortion laws were abolished and the Catholic catechism was introduced to public schools.
But when Polish bishops tried to use the pulpit to sway the 1995 presidential elections, it backfired badly. Incumbent and former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the bishops' choice, was humiliated by Kwasniewski.
"It was a misunderstanding. The church had no experience with democracy," said Maciej Zieba, a Dominican priest and one of Poland's leading social thinkers.
After the 1995 fiasco, the church hierarchy maintained a studied neutrality and much lower profile in politics, Zieba said.
But last year's election brought a new wrinkle. President Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party ran on a populist reform platform but veered sharply to the right after its victory when Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, who heads the party, began courting the League of Polish Families and Samoobrona (Self-Defense), a populist party sometimes described as xenophobic.
"The leading party, Law and Justice, wants to engage the church in politics, especially this extreme wing in the church," Zieba said. "This is a real danger."
Lech Kaczynski's first visit as head of state was to the Vatican; his second was to Washington. Andrzej Dominiczak, co-director of the Polish Humanist Federation, an organization that aims to maintain a separation of church and state, said the president's itinerary was meant to send a message.
"The politicians from Law and Justice use America as an example of a democracy that is also a very religious state," he said. "And it's effective because Poles are incredibly fond of the America."
Certainly, the League of Polish Families makes no secret of its admiration for America's religious right. "I like what I see happening in the United States - the emphasis on the family, the emergence of so many pro-life groups," said Slusarczyk, the league's spokesman.
"I feel much closer to the United States than to Europe. I'm very concerned about France, Germany, even Italy - they've lost their way in terms of moral development," he said.
In some ways, the League of Polish Families could be the doppelganger of U.S. groups such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family or the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, but this kind of religious activism in politics is a recent phenomenon in Poland, and Polish religiosity is different from that in the United States.
"Poles are religious, but they are not passionate about it the way Americans are," said Anna Hejka, an investment banker in Warsaw who worked on Wall Street in the 1980s. "In America, there's this need to immerse yourself fully in religion. ... You have all these sects and born-agains and charismatic groups."
Although the anti-abortion lobby in Poland is deeply committed, Hejka said, the idea of bombing an abortion clinic "would never happen in Poland."
But as conservative Catholic activists begin to flex their political muscles in Poland, liberal Catholics and secularists have become increasingly alarmed. Recently, media attention has focused on the growing influence in Poland of Opus Dei, the Catholic lay organization that is invariably described as "secretive."
According to Polish media reports, several ministers, deputy ministers and key advisers in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz are members of Opus Dei, including Roman Giertych, director of the League of Polish Families, who this month was named education minister.
Later this year, Opus Dei, whose IESE Business School in Barcelona is considered one of Europe's best, plans to open a branch in Warsaw. Radoslaw Koszewski, director of the Warsaw program, insists the school will not mix business and religion.
"No priests or bishops will be teaching there, and we don't pay attention to the religion of professors or students," he said.
The fuss about Opus Dei appears to be overblown. The one European country where Opus Dei members have held positions of influence over the years, Spain, continues to barrel down the path of secularization. The government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recently legalized gay marriages over the protests of the Vatican and Spanish bishops.
More disturbing for Poles is the growing influence of Radio Maryja, an ultranationalist Catholic radio station with a decidedly anti-Semitic worldview.
Radio Maryja has been an embarrassment to the church for more than a decade. This year, the Vatican and the Polish Bishops Conference issued separate condemnations of the station's involvement in politics, but to no apparent effect.
"In the beginning, (Radio Maryja) was treated as a necessary evil in a pluralistic society ... but now it is really hurting the image of the church," said Kazimierz Sowa, a priest and journalist.
During the 2005 election, Radio Maryja embraced the cause of Law and Justice and helped sway a close vote. The Kaczynski brothers have repaid the debt by snubbing mainstream media outlets and making the radio station and its television affiliate the quasi-official voice of the government.
"Imagine if George Bush appeared only on the televangelists' news? Well, that's what's happening here," said the Humanist Federation's Dominiczak.
The rise of a religious right in Poland has set off alarms in Western Europe, according to Krzysztof Bobinski, director of Unia i Polska, a research center in Warsaw.
"When they started out, the Kaczynski brothers were fairly mainstream ... but now they've gotten into bed with the League of Polish Families and Samoobrona. They are moving to the right, and it's a pretty intolerant right," Bobinski said.
"Poland risks losing the sympathy it has in the West as a freedom-loving, freedom-fighting nation. You lose that goodwill if you are seen as intolerant," he said.
Given the shadows of the Holocaust that linger over Poland, its leaders can ill-afford to be seen as intolerant, nor do they have much to gain by antagonizing other members of the EU.
Zieba, the Dominican priest, said Poland's place is not to lead the charge in a culture war but to show, simply, that a modernizing society and strong democracy also can have a deep Christian faith.
"Faith is not an ideology," he said. "Faith has to inspire people, to offer them possibilities."
Interview with Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan.
The Left Democratic Front has won an enjoyable victory and a lot of people think it was authored by V.S. Achuthanandan on his own terms. Do you also see it as a personal victory, one that could therefore also pose a challenge to the new government in Kerala?
A number of important policy initiatives and decisions taken by the United Democratic Front government were against the interests of the State, especially against its economic interests. As the Leader of the Opposition I had intervened personally to expose several such activities meant to rob the State of its scarce resources. This included illegal transfer of forest land, large-scale felling and sale of forest trees, sandalwood smuggling from government land, encroachment of prime beach-front property by hotel owners, and the government's promotion of online lottery agencies at the cost of the State lottery. Similarly, I had forced the government to act on the corrupt and the racketeers - for example, in the kidney racket, against the spraying of the pesticide endosulphan in cashew plantations in Kasargod district which posed a serious threat to the health of the local people - and most important, to take action against sex racketeers.
Sex rackets had become a major threat to the dignity and security of women in Kerala. This was why I had to intervene on several occasions, seeking justice during the course of the Kozhikode sex racket case. The response of the government was always to turn the other way or to try and protect the guilty. It is as a reward for the silence of the two Chief Ministers A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy that the [Indian Union] Muslim League as a party decided not to fight against several controversial decisions of the UDF that went against the interests of the disadvantaged sections in Muslim society. The fight has not ended and we will have to pursue it, perhaps in the Supreme Court, and we have the example of the Best Bakery case in which witnesses reneging on their statements, as in the ice cream parlour' [sex racket] case, are being punished.
Similarly, it was the Opposition that took up the cause of the farmers of the State reeling under the impact of a sharp fall in prices as a result of the trade liberalisation policies of the Central government and that of the growing army of unemployed youth in Kerala. In fact, the UDF government, which had promised to create 15 lakh jobs in five years, went ahead and imposed a ban on government recruitments.
Therefore, all such instances of effective intervention seeking justice whenever the government failed had resulted in the people looking up to the LDF Opposition in general and to me with a lot of interest.
Is the rout of the IUML the result only of the failure of leaders such as former Industries Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty? Or do you think it reflects the growth of communist counter-influence among minority communities in Kerala? Will the Left then be able to sustain it in future?
The Muslim League leadership has proved time and again that it exists only to protect the interests of an affluent section among Muslims, to provide them more business opportunities, more contracts, more schools and colleges, and the League leadership thrives on keeping them happy. But a large majority of Muslims in Kerala are poor and are suffering under the impact of neoliberal policies. The Muslim League offers no solution to such people. In fact, what is significant is the failure of the UDF government to address the problems of the poor sections of people all over Kerala, not just among Muslims in Malappuram. The Opposition struggles were aimed at helping such people, among them farmers, farm labourers, and other ordinary people of the State. By ensuring at least temporary relief to them, the Opposition was able to obtain their trust. They have come to know that if the LDF comes to power, it will protect their interests in a better manner. That is why the influence of the Left among all sections of people, not just among Muslims, is set to grow further.
It was from the early 1980s that the Left movement began to look critically at what was until then called the Kerala "model" of development and the crisis of stagnation in agriculture and industry, the worsening fiscal situation and the growing unemployment that had come in its wake. But the problems persist, perhaps more sharply, even as a new LDF government assumes power in 2006. What is your perspective on these problems and their solutions?
We will give priority to work out measures to help the farmers of the State who are suffering under the impact of falling prices, mounting debts and, as a result, suicide of family members. We want to help them stand on their feet, to overcome their debts. We propose to put pressure on the Central government to impose tariffs on the import of agricultural commodities that directly affect our farmers. There is certainly a solution to their problems, the important aspect of which is to attract the attention of the Central government to their suffering. We will organise the people of the State and conduct struggles in the context of this important need. Similarly, we will take all effective measures possible for the rejuvenation of our traditional industries such as coir, cashew, handloom, fisheries, khadi and so on. We are also thinking of imposing controls on the self-financing college managements that demand huge donations from students, making higher education inaccessible to the children belonging to the poorer sections.
While over 49 per cent of the voters supported the LDF in this election, a substantial section, over 43 per cent seems to have favoured the development agenda put forth by the UDF. As Chief Minister now, will it not be your responsibility to accommodate the aspirations of these people too and will it not restrain you from implementing the LDF agenda in its true spirit?
It is true that during the reign of Oommen Chandy there was this resounding sloganeering, "Development!" "Development!" But what went on was the surrender of the State's resources before profiteers and the sharing of the spoils. Actually, Oommen Chandy's policies were all anti-development. The UDF may have succeeded in convincing a large section of trusting people otherwise. The State's resources were protected only because of the effective intervention of the Opposition. The UDF failed wretchedly in employment generation, though it had promised to create 15 lakh job opportunities during its tenure. The Global Investors Meet [GIM] organised with much fanfare failed to attract investors, though the promise was to bring in at least Rs.26,000 crores of investment that provided jobs. Not even 25 jobs were created. The `investors' who did come were only interested in the government's offer for the sale of our natural resources, including water from the Periyar river and the Malampuzha dam.
The flagship development initiative of the previous LDF government was the People's Plan Campaign it undertook soon after coming to power. Will the new government continue to pursue that initiative or do you think it ought to be reworked?
That programme had attracted a lot of criticism and complaints when it was implemented. We will examine those criticisms, remove any room for complaints and try to implement real decentralisation in its true spirit for bringing democracy and development to the people at the grassroots.
Oommen Chandy's argument was that the "UDF believes in creating wealth first and then distributing it while the LDF is merely trying to distribute poverty and unemployment". Economic stagnation being the most important problem that Kerala faces today, how is your government going to tackle it?
They did say that there was the need for creation of wealth, but did they create wealth? The wealth that they created went into the pockets of corrupt politicians and officials. Public debt mounted from Rs.23,000 crores to Rs.54,000 crores during UDF rule. I challenged them to explain to the people where exactly they had utilised the additional Rs.34,000 crores that they accumulated as debt. There was no answer at all from the government. The UDF did not offer relief even to the 1,500-odd families of farmers who committed suicide because of mounting debts in the wake of falling prices and drought. Thus the UDF tried to sell dreams, the LDF proposes to gather maximum resources from a variety of sources here itself and improve tax collection to help farmers and farm labourers, fishermen and those engaged in traditional industries and for the development of our education and health sectors. We will not discourage investors. We will ensure that their investment is safe and that they will get their due income from it. This is how we propose to go ahead.
While in the Opposition, you had been highly critical, for example, about the Smart City IT mega project proposal and existing ventures such as the Coca-Cola unit in Palakkad district. Are you against all such mega projects?
We will accept all mega projects that are useful for the development of the State. The units of Coca-Cola and Pepsi are located in a drought-prone area where the water shortage is made worse by the draining away of the scarce resource under the Parambikkulam-Aliyar river water agreement. It is in such a locality that people's drinking water sources are further depleted by the large-scale utilisation of ground water by the units of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Such projects allow investors to exploit people for profits and are of no use to the people themselves. The Smart City proposal has several clauses in it that are harmful to the interests of the people of Kerala and we will go ahead with it only if the promoters of the project are willing to reconsider them. If this condition is met, we will welcome any project that will help achieve at least some progress for the people of the State.
There is a view that the Left Front government in West Bengal is able to attract a lot of foreign direct investment and private investment for development and move with the times in a globalised economy for the development of that State, while the LDF in Kerala lags behind or perhaps chooses to resist such opportunities.
You may recall that even as early as 1967, Birla, the biggest capitalist in India, was invited to Kerala by the most prominent communist leader in the country, EMS [Namboodiripad], to provide direct employment to 5,000 people and indirect employment in ancillary industries to 15,000 people. Similarly, the country's first land reforms legislation was the initiative of the EMS government. Similar reforms were subsequently introduced in West Bengal, which helped the Left movement there to spread its influence in the rural areas of that State. But in Kerala, land reforms could not be implemented as intended because the Centre dismissed the EMS government. That weakness still exists in Kerala. Similarly, industrialisation initiatives of the Left in Kerala too have been weakened by the frequent change of power in Kerala. Therefore, the Left in Kerala, unlike that in West Bengal, could not implement its programmes in their true spirit and could not claim credit for them as true-blood Left initiatives.
You are now about to lead a new LDF government in which the two communist parties together claim 78 of the total 140 seats and smaller coalition partners have been denied a berth in the Cabinet or are offered insignificant roles. Do you believe that smaller partners, with their own divergent priorities, also have been responsible for diluting the development agenda, mainly of the Left coalition governments in the State? If you may remember, this was one of the vehement suggestions and points of conflict at the Second Kerala Studies Congress organised by the CPI(M) in Thiruvananthapuram a few months back.
The main reason for such a perception is that the LDF government that came to power in 1996 could easily be shown in a bad light because of the encouragement that the then Education Ministry gave to private educational institutions at the cost of government institutions. Moreover, there were also allegations of large-scale corruption in the sanctioning of private educational institutions. At the same time, because of interventions of the then Finance Ministry, which handled the finances of the State, a situation arose in which cheques issued by the government began to bounce. The Opposition could use all such negative aspects of the then government to eclipse effectively that administration's good deeds and gain the affection of a majority of people in the 2001 elections. But, in general, if you look at the reforms implemented in Kerala, whether it be in land reforms, total literacy, industrialisation, public distribution system or decentralisation, you can see that they were all undertaken by Ministries led by communist parties or the coalitions led by them. [In 1996, the Education portfolio was handled by the only Kerala Congress faction in the LDF led by P.J. Joseph, while the Finance Ministry was run by the CPI(M) itself.]
In the context of your reply, then, another question may be relevant. In popular perception, your role in the victory of the LDF in this election is undeniable. But already an impression is gaining ground that in your Ministry you are being surrounded by colleagues who may not entirely agree with your views on many important issues. Will this be a hindrance for you in doing what you intended to do with the new government?
I think it need not become a hindrance. Because, as the person who played the main role from within the LDF to expose the anti-people and anti-democratic policies of the UDF government, especially as one who took a strong stand against atrocities on women openly, even in the courts and elsewhere, I think people have a lot of admiration for my role. I think they have a good opinion about the LDF in general and, as the person who led it, about me too. But as a result of some subsequent steps, doubts have been created whether the things that I brought forth can be implemented. But I am the Chief Minister and therefore I have a supervisory role on the others handling different portfolios and nobody can prevent the implementation of the things that I intended to do.
Ken Lay Will Get Away with His Real Crimes
By GREG PALAST
Wednesday, May 24, 2006 -- Al Capone cut throats, machine-gunned people to build his gang and went to jail -- for not filing his taxes properly. Likewise, Ken Lay, buccaneer of the power industry, will go down -- if the jury doesn't buy his alibi -- for not filing his SEC forms properly.
And just as Capone went up the river leaving us a permanent legacy of organized crime, so Lay, whether or not he's sent to the slammer, has left us, with the connivance of a few well-placed politicos, an electricity system that is little more than a playground for power-industry predators.
We've been here before. In the 1930s, a character named Samuel Insull created the first giant power holding companies. Insull played fast and loose with his account books, fast and loose with cash for politicians and pocketed millions by gouging electricity customers. Insull was indicted, like Lay, for crimes against his stockholders.
In 1933, President Roosevelt made Insull's power piracy a crime. FDR signed the Public Utility Holding Company Act and laws that capped the profit of electricity monopolies. The act required them to keep lights on by accounting for all maintenance expenses, barred "trading" electricity and, most important, banned donations by the power giants to politicians.
Fast-forward to January 2001. The George W. Bush administration, within 72 hours of his inauguration, issued an executive order lifting the Clinton Energy Department's effective ban on speculative trading in the California power market. The state was still in crisis, facing blackouts and 300 percent increases in power bills, the result of "deregulating" its electric system, as first suggested by Lay.
Instead of a "free" market, California's electricity bidding system became a fixed casino where Lay's operatives and a tight-knit cabal of corporate cronies jacked up prices through such tricks as "death star," "ricochet" and "kilowatt laundering."
In one instance, Enron "sold" the state 500 megawatts of electricity to go over a 15-megawatt line. Enron knew that sending that much power through those wires would have burned them to a crisp. To prevent this Enron-designed blackout, the state scrambled for other sources of electricity, which Enron and friends sold them at a big mark-up.
California's Independent System Operator put the cost to consumers of this "gaming" at $6.3 billion in a six-month period. Under the Roosevelt rules, when utilities were regulated to a fare-thee-well, the gaming rooms would have been busted.
Instead, the games have been institutionalized. For example, TXU, the corporate alias of Texas Utilities, has seen earnings per share rise 500 percent in five years. The reason: So-called deregulation allows the company to sell electricity at a price based on the sky-high cost of oil although much of its power is produced from cheaper coal or uranium. In effect, deregulation has become de-criminalization of price gouging.
Even more sinister than Bush's hasty executive order allowing Enron to resume speculation in the California power market was his appointment of Pat Wood as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the government's electricity cops. The choice of Wood was suggested, in secret, by Enron.
This put Lay one step ahead of Al Capone who had to buy the cops. Lay just had them appointed.
Wood may have been as honest as the day is long, but on his watch, Enron and the industry treaded through the power market like Godzilla through a kindergarten. And it continues under a new chairman, also suggested by Enron.
What about the $6.3 billion filched from the wallets of California consumers, let alone the larger sums taken in by power profiteers nationwide? The Lay-blessed federal regulators barely batted an eye.
Lay's brainchild of deregulation was coupled with his other grand idea: a massive increase in industry largesse to politicians. By unsubtle, but perfectly legal, means around FDR's prohibition on political donations, Enron PACs and its executives became the top Bush funders.
Capone never lived to see armed robbery made legal. But Lay, even if convicted, can leave the courthouse for the Big House knowing power profiteering is now as legal as prayer. On July 14, 2005, Roosevelt's Public Utility Holding Company Act, bulwark of consumer protection, was repealed by a Congress fattened with utility industry cash.
Former Enron bosses found guilty
Mark Tran and agencies
Thursday May 25, 2006
Enron founder Kenneth Lay flanked by his lawyer George 'Mac' Secrest and his wife Linda at the end of his trial. Photograph: Pat Sullivan/AP
A jury today found Kenneth Lay, the founder of Enron, guilty on all six counts of fraud and conspiracy in one of the biggest financial scandals in US history.
The jury of eight women and four men also found the company's former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, guilty of conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed, but that's the way the system works," Skilling said in a brief comment to reporters.
Enron's collapse came to symbolise the excesses of the dotcom era.
Together with subsequent Wall Street scandals - encompassing the even bigger collapse of WorldCom - the Enron case paved the way for legislation on tighter corporate governance and accounting rules.
However, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which followed the scandal, has led to complaints of too much red tape from US companies.
The legislation has been cited as the reason for many foreign companies preferring to list on the London Stock Exchange instead of in New York.
The defendants awaited today's verdict outcome away from the federal courthouse in Houston - Lay at his nearby office and Skilling in his legal team's "war room" across the street.
Both were accused of repeatedly lying to investors and employees about Enron's health before its collapse in December 2001.
Prosecutors said the two knew of the various accounting subterfuges used to mask debts and failing ventures.
The defendants denied any wrongdoing, attributing the company's failure to bad publicity and a loss of market confidence.
Skilling faced 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors, with a maximum sentence of 275 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Lay faced six counts of fraud and conspiracy, with a combined maximum punishment of 45 years.
During cross-examination, Lay claimed he had done all he could to avoid the company's collapse, which he described as the "most painful thing" in his life.
In the last of a series of bruising exchanges, the federal prosecutor, John Hueston, attacked Lay's refusal during his evidence to accept the blame for what had happened to the company.
"Sir, you have a long list of people to blame for Enron's collapse, and it gets longer and longer as you testify. And your list of people to blame and events to blame did not include yourself, did it, sir?"
Lay responded: "I did everything I could humanly do [at] this time. Did I make mistakes? I'm sure I did ... I had to make real-time decisions based on information I had at the time."
Questioned by the defence lawyer, George McCall Secrest, 64-year-old Lay denied keeping Enron's holding in Wessex Water at a fraudulently high value on the books. He said Enron believed the stake was worth keeping and would provide a return.
Enron began life as a regional natural gas pipeline company, the result of a merger between Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth in 1985. Lay, its former chairman, transformed it into the world's largest energy trading company and the seventh-biggest corporation in the US.
Scandal is an inevitable consequence of a bull market
May 25, 2006
The jury has just thrown the book at the two men who led Enron to its rise and fall. The energy company's founder, Kenneth Lay, and its former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, have both been found guilty of fraud and conspiracy. They could spend the rest of their years in prison.
At its zenith, Enron, which began life as a humble regional gas pipeline company, won praise from Wall Street analysts for its "innovative" approach in marrying hi-tech and complex finance to the dull business of supplying energy.
Under Lay, Enron became the world's largest energy company and America's seventh largest corporation. But it was all sleight of hand. The financial wizardry that so bedazzled Wall Street consisted of creating "special entities" to hide the company's huge debts.
When the gig was up, Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001, in what was then the biggest financial collapse in US history, a dubious distinction that was subsequently transferred to WorldCom and its cowboy boots-wearing boss Bernie Ebbers.
In the Enron collapse, lots of investors lost their shirts, and many of Enron's 19,000 employees lost their savings because they belonged to retirement plans based on Enron shares.
The consequences of Enron are still with us. Enron, WorldCom and other Wall Street scandals moved Congress to introduce legislation to tighten up corporate governance and accounting rules.
The Sarbanes-Oxley bill, a direct legacy of Enron, is a bane of US companies. They complain about the pendulum going too far the other way to ensure against scandal and about too much red tape. Many foreign companies cite the rigours of Sarbanes-Oxley for their reason to list on the London Stock Exchange rather than New York.
Perhaps America's lawmakers overreacted, but they had to respond to public pressure to clean up Wall Street. In all this, one lesson stands out. Scandal is the inevitable handmaiden of a bull market. In the 1980s, Wall Street also saw shares rise to giddy heights. That bull market also gave us Michael Milken, usually referred to as "the junk bond king". Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling now rank alongside Milken and Ebbers in notoriety.
1985 - Houston Natural Gas merges with InterNorth to form Enron.
1986 - Kenneth Lay becomes chief executive of Enron.
1990 - Lay hires former management consultant Jeffrey Skilling to look after the companies energy trading operation. Andrew Fastow, who later becomes the architect of the firm's dubious accounting practices, is one of his first hires.
1997 - Skilling is promoted to be Enron's president and chief operating officer. Fastow creates a series of companies - codenamed Chewco and Jedi - designed to keep debt away from Enron's books while inflating the firm's profits.
1999 - Fastow sets up the first of the LJM partnerships, which generate huge windfalls for him and his associates, while hiding Enron's many poorly performing assets and investments.
2000 - In August Enron shares reach a peak of $90.
2001 - The year of Enron's downfall.
- March - business magazine Fortune first raises the question "How, exactly, does Enron make its money?"
- August - an Enron employee, Sherron Watkins, meets Lay to alert him to her concerns about dodgy finance and accounting practices at the firm..
- October - On 16 October Enron shocks the markets by announcing a $638m loss for the past three month, and write-offs worth $1.2bn; three days later the US stockmarket watchdog launches an inquiry into Enron's finances. A week later Fastow is sacked.
- November - Enron agrees to be bought by rival firm Dynegy. Shortly thereafter Enron announces even further losses and previously not disclosed debt. As Enron's share price falls below $1, Dynegy breaks off the takeover talks.
- December - Enron declares itself bankrupt.
- January - Lay resigns.
- March - Enron's auditor, Arthur Andersen, is indicted over the shredding of tons of Enron-related documents; the multinational company is later fined for its actions and falls apart as customers depart in droves.
- October - Fastow indicted for conspiracy, money laundering, fraud and other chargers
- January - Fastow pleads guilty and agrees to a 10-year prison sentence
- February - Skilling indicted on 30 charges, including conspiracy, fraud and insider trading.
- July - Lay indicted
The Times and USA Today have Missed the Bigger Story -- Again
by Greg Palast
Friday, May 12, 2006
I know you're shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that George Bush is listening in on all your phone calls. Without a warrant. That's nothing. And it's not news.
This is: the snooping into your phone bill is just the snout of the pig of a strange, lucrative link-up between the Administration's Homeland Security spy network and private companies operating beyond the reach of the laws meant to protect us from our government. You can call it the privatization of the FBI -- though it is better described as the creation of a private KGB.
For the full story, see "Double Cheese With Fear," in Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf and Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War." ********************
The leader in the field of what is called "data mining," is a company, formed in 1997, called, "ChoicePoint, Inc," which has sucked up over a billion dollars in national security contracts.
Worried about Dick Cheney listening in Sunday on your call to Mom? That ain't nothing. You should be more concerned that they are linking this info to your medical records, your bill purchases and your entire personal profile including, not incidentally, your voting registration. Five years ago, I discovered that ChoicePoint had already gathered 16 billion data files on Americans -- and I know they've expanded their ops at an explosive rate.
They are paid to keep an eye on you -- because the FBI can't. For the government to collect this stuff is against the law unless you're suspected of a crime. (The law in question is the Constitution.) But ChoicePoint can collect if for "commercial" purchases -- and under the Bush Administration's suspect reading of the Patriot Act -- our domestic spying apparatchiks can then BUY the info from ChoicePoint.
Who ARE these guys selling George Bush a piece of you?
ChoicePoint's board has more Republicans than a Palm Beach country club. It was funded, and its board stocked, by such Republican sugar daddies as billionaires Bernie Marcus and Ken Langone -- even after Langone was charged by the Securities Exchange Commission with abuse of inside information.
I first ran across these guys in 2000 in Florida when our Guardian/BBC team discovered the list of 94,000 "felons" that Katherine Harris had ordered removed from Florida's voter rolls before the election. Virtually every voter purged was innocent of any crime except, in most cases, Voting While Black. Who came up with this electoral hit list that gave Bush the White House? ChoicePoint, Inc.
And worse, they KNEW the racially-tainted list of felons was bogus. And when we caught them, they lied about it. While they've since apologized to the NAACP, ChoicePoint's ethnic cleansing of voter rolls has been amply assuaged by the man the company elected.
And now ChoicePoint and George Bush want your blood. Forget your phone bill. ChoicePoint, a sickened executive of the company told us in confidence, "hope[s] to build a database of DNA samples from every person in the United States ...linked to all the other information held by CP [ChoicePoint]" from medical to voting records.
And ChoicePoint lied about that too. The company publicly denied they gave DNA to the Feds -- but then told our investigator, pretending to seek work, that ChoicePoint was "the number one" provider of DNA info to the FBI.
"And that scares the hell out of me," said the executive (who has since left the company), because ChoicePoint gets it WRONG so often. We are not contracting out our Homeland Security to James Bond here. It's more like Austin Powers, Inc. Besides the 97% error rate in finding Florida "felons," Illinois State Police fired the company after discovering ChoicePoint had produced test "results" on rape case evidence ... that didn't exist. And ChoicePoint just got hit with the largest fine in Federal Trade Commission history for letting identity thieves purchase 145,000 credit card records.
But it won't stop, despite Republican senators shedding big crocodile tears about "surveillance" of innocent Americans. That's because FEAR is a lucrative business -- not just for ChoicePoint, but for firms such as Syntech, Sybase and Lockheed-Martin -- each of which has provided lucrative posts or profits to connected Republicans including former Total Information Awareness chief John Poindexter (Syntech), Marvin Bush (Sybase) and Lynn Cheney (Lockheed-Martin).
But how can they get Americans to give up our personal files, our phone logs, our DNA and our rights? Easy. Fear sells better than sex -- and they want you to be afraid. Back to today's New York Times, page 28: "Wider Use of DNA Lists is Urged in Fighting Crime." And who is providing the technology? It comes, says the Times, from the work done on using DNA fragments to identity victims of the September 11 attack. And who did that job (for $12 million, no bid)? ChoicePoint, Inc. Which is NOT mentioned by the Times.
"Genetic surveillance would thus shift from the individual [the alleged criminal] to the family," says the Times -- which will require, of course, a national DNA database of NON-criminals.
It doesn't end there. Turn to the same newspaper, page 23, with a story about a weird new law passed by the state of Georgia to fight illegal immigration. Every single employer and government agency will be required to match citizen or worker data against national databases to affirm citizenship. It won't stop illegal border crossing, but hey, someone's going to make big bucks on selling data. And guess what local boy owns the data mine? ChoicePoint, Inc., of Alpharetta, Georgia.
The knuckleheads at the Times don't put the three stories together because the real players aren't in the press releases their reporters re-write.
But that's the Fear Industry for you. You aren't safer from terrorists or criminals or "felon" voters. But the national wallet is several billion dollars lighter and the Bill of Rights is a couple amendments shorter.
And that's their program. They get the data mine -- and we get the shaft.
HOT TAGS: BUSH, TERRORISM, FREEDOM, DEMOCRACY, COLLATERAL DAMAGE, NEOCON, GREG PALAST, NEW YORK TIMES
REVOLUTION IN THE ANDES
Wednesday May 3, 2006
Evo Morales went for a characteristically theatrical gesture when he sent in troops to seize Bolivia's natural gas fields, pipelines and refineries on May Day. As global energy companies struggle to digest the consequences, it is clear that the president of Latin America's highest, poorest and most isolated country intends to keep on trying to redistribute the region's wealth. It is less clear how far he is likely to succeed. Morales's nationalisation coup followed a meeting with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venzuela's Hugo Chavez, splashing happily in the "pink tide" that is lapping away at US influence. To underline the point, they signed a "People's Trade Agreement" to try to counter attempts by Washington to bolster its plan for a "Free Trade Area of the Americas".
Morales, a former coca farmer and the continent's first indigenous president, pledged last year to become "George Bush's worst nightmare" and to end what he called "the pillage of our natural resources by foreign companies". His move is another example of what is dubbed "oil nationalism", as practised by Mr Chavez in Caracas and Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Ecuador is making similar moves. Gordon Brown has raised taxes on North Sea oil and gas too. But the case for a leftist surge across Latin America can be overstated; Colombia and Peru are striking bilateral trade deals with the US while Uruguay and Paraguay are unhappy with Mercosur, the Brazil-dominated Latin American common market, and considering making their own agreements with Washington.
Low-key responses to the announcement that foreign companies have six months to hand over majority control suggests the move is designed to secure better terms rather than drive them away. Bolivia, landlocked as well as desperately poor, must avoid endangering exports, especially through Brazil, whose state-owned corporation Petrobras is the biggest single investor in Bolivian energy. The Brazilian president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva - a more market-friendly leftwinger - is unhappy with Mr Morales. Still, Bolivia's natural resources are highly sensitive political issues; protests over gas have brought down two previous presidents. Now investors are concerned that the new arrangements may leave foreign operations in the country economically unviable. Repsol, the Spanish energy company, was already scaling back its growth forecasts. Economic nationalists, even those elected by what Mr Morales has called "the most disdained and discriminated against", have to think through the full consequences of their actions.
BOLIVIA STUNS ENERGY GIANTS
Duncan Campbell and Terry Macalister
Wednesday May 3, 2006
The occupation of foreign-owned gas fields in Bolivia by troops sent by President Evo Morales shocked global financial markets yesterday and provoked a hostile response from energy companies and international economic bodies.
Mr Morales, who took office earlier this year, ordered the occupation with a decree to "retake absolute control of our natural resources".
Although the president, Bolivia's first indigenous leader, had always made clear his intentions when he was elected with 54% of the vote last December, the peaceful arrival of troops on May Day still made a dramatic international statement. Companies were told to turn production over to the state firm and given six months to comply. Mr Morales described the move as "a historic day" for Bolivia.
The European commission made its unease known yesterday. "The commission took note with concern the decree ... which nationalises the Bolivian industry," said spokesman Johannes Laitenberger. "We had hoped there would be a process of discussion and consultation before it adopted such measures."
"We're still analysing it," said Eric Watnik of the US state department yesterday. "We're concerned with its potential impact on Bolivia's economy, on private investment and existing contracts."
"It is a symbolic message of sovereignty," said Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The very fact that he sent troops in, he was heightening the sense of urgency and dash. He is reaffirming his commitment to the indigenous community. He has remained constant and he is fulfilling all of his pledges. This could be a manoeuvring position to raise taxes and royalties but it's a rather bold demand."
Mr Birns said President Morales was conscious of the fact that many previous Bolivian leaders had made promises to the indigenous population, only to renege on them when in office.
"He doesn't have [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez's purse to spend on infrastructure or a sophisticated state-owned oil company so he has to get these resources from somewhere," he said. "He has done some notable things since he took office by not going to the US but instead going to Europe, India and Brazil. What he seems to be doing is positioning himself at the centre of the true believers. The state department are certainly going to be unhappy but the question is how they are going to handle this."
Shares in BG, spun out of the former state-owned British Gas, were down in early trading on the London stock exchange. Spanish oil group Repsol YPF, the most exposed of the western oil majors in Bolivia, lost 3% of its stock market value although other key firms such as BP and Total remained unscathed. BG has around 100 British staff working inside Bolivia and produces 3% of its global gas output from the country. A spokesman for BG said it was too early to say exactly how it would be affected by the moves in Bolivia.
BP, which has interests in Bolivia through stakes in Pan-American Energy and Empresa Petrolera Chaco, also played down the impact of the nationalisation. "Pan-American and Chaco have expressed their willingness to work with the Bolivian government over the transition phase as the latest decree is implemented over the next six months," he said.
A leading London oil analyst, who asked not to be named, said both BP and BG were privately furious at the developments but felt powerless to stop them at this stage. Legal action, he believed, could follow later if deemed necessary.
"This is most serious for Repsol, which has around 18% of its hydrocarbon reserves in Bolivia, but clearly oil companies are worried that governments from Bolivia to Russia are taking back oil and gas into state ownership," he said.
FAQ: Poverty and a president's promise
How poor is Bolivia?
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and the third poorest in Latin America, with an average income of $900 (£525) a head. Two-thirds of Bolivians live below the poverty line and a quarter are malnourished.
How is the economy fuelled?
The mining industry has been a cash cow for the government, accounting for about 45% of export earnings. In the 1920s the advent of mass car production and demand for vacuum-packed cans sent Bolivia on its way to being the world's No 1 tin producer, a position it still holds. More recently it has exploited its energy resources. Last year the G8 announced a $2bn debt forgiveness plan.
What did Morales say he would do before his election?
"We will renegotiate all contracts - they are illegal, since Congress has never ratified them. The state will recover the property of its natural resources, but we are open to foreign investment in exchange for a share of the business."
HOW MORALES WON HIS PEOPLE BACK
Stand-off after Chávez-inspired leader sends troops into gas fields
Dan Glaister in Santa Cruz
Saturday May 6, 2006
The lady behind the reception desk at the Palmasola refinery smiled sweetly. "We're just carrying on here as normal," she said. "There's nothing to report."
Horses ambled by on the dusty road outside. A few oil tankers stood idly, their drivers asleep. Only the presence of half-a-dozen soldiers, guns at their sides, revealed there was, indeed, something to report.
For Palmasola, a Brazilian-owned refinery 15 miles west of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the most prosperous city in Latin America's poorest nation, was at the centre of an international storm this week that saw the country nationalise in all but name its foreign-owned gas and oil industry, pitting neighbouring countries against each other and wrongfooting foreign investors.
On May 1, Bolivia's recently elected president, Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader, put on a tin hat and made the declaration that much of the country had been waiting to hear. "The time has come," he said, announcing "a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of our natural resources". Mr Morales spoke of "looting by foreign companies" and said it was time the armed forces "occupy all the energy fields in Bolivia". But he was off pace. The army had already moved into Bolivia's foreign-owned energy fields, refineries and distribution depots.
International capital did not like what it saw. Even Bolivia's allies, such as Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, looked displeased. But on the streets of Bolivia, it was a different story. "It's been up and down," says José López, a Santa Cruz native. "For the first 100 days of his rule, Evo didn't do the things he said he would. But this was much better. Now everyone is behind him again."
Such was the swing of popular support behind Mr Morales this week that a general strike planned for Thursday in the Santa Cruz region was called off. Sitting on a dusty traffic island outside the gates to the refinery, Eduardo González was charged with militant fervour and a sense of economic injustice. "It's good they want something for us," says Mr González, who services the tankers outside the gates. "If Bolivia owns the refinery it means there will be more jobs for Bolivians. Most of the people working in there," he nods at the distance, "are foreigners - Brazilians and Peruvians. We should have 100% ownership of it as a resource to help build the country."
Private and public
While foreign governments and the 25 foreign energy companies in Bolivia - including BP and BG from the UK, France's Total, Spain's Repsol, Brazil's Petrobras and ExxonMobil from the US - expressed their "consternation" at Mr Morales' "sad and worrying" decision, really only the timing should have taken them by surprise. For the president was doing that most unfashionable of things, delivering on a campaign promise.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Morales and his running mate said they wanted to renegotiate foreign ownership of Bolivia's natural resources. This would not be appropriation, they said, it would not be nationalisation, it would be a renegotiation of existing contracts on terms that would provide a greater share of the revenues for the state.
Throughout the campaign, hydrocarbons were the most frequently mentioned natural resources. Bolivians have long been sensitive about foreigners exploiting their resources, and not without reason. First came the Spanish, to rid the country of its silver, starting at Potosí in 1545. By the 20th century, tin mining had taken over. Today, Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in Latin America after Venezuela; 45% of it is exported to Brazil at a low price. But in the late 1970s, faced with crippling debt, Bolivia began to place its public assets in private hands: the mines, the railways, electricity, water, the state airline, hydrocarbons all went through a process delicately termed "capitalisation" in order to avoid the word "privatisation".
But the economic rigour demanded by the neo-liberal orthodoxy failed to produce the expected results. Poverty remained rampant, as did political instability. By the end of the 1990s, popular protests became the preferred method of political engagement. Mr Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism party proved adept at harnessing these pressures. "Twenty years on, people see the grand deception," said José Mirtenbaum, sitting in his tiny office in a dismal building in Santa Cruz's University Gabriel René Moreno.
"After all the great promises of the 1980s, what sort of planet do we have? It's also cyclical: there has been 20 years of neo-liberalism. Twenty years is enough, we shouldn't be too surprised."
But what is taking the place of neo-liberalism and privatisation? Is it the good old-fashioned leftist thirst for nationalisation and state control reasserting itself, as many feared this week? "It's an adjustment," says Mr Mirtenbaum. "It's a sort of gradual nationalisation. The next 180 days will be very difficult."
The decree announcing the army would seize control of the gas installations gave foreign firms 180 days to renegotiate their contracts. "They're still going to get a decent return," says Mr Mirtenbaum. "It's a good business. These are irrational fears on the part of shareholders who think Bolivia cannot be a good partner, a good capitalist."
The vice-president, Alvaro García, speaking the day after the announcement, sought to assuage investors' fears: "The decree doesn't confiscate or annul the production capacity of the companies, what it does is reduce the extraordinary profits." Mr Morales, however, had already signalled his next move: "This is just the start," he said on Monday. "Tomorrow or the day after it will be mining, then forestry and eventually all the natural resources for which our ancestors fought."
For some, Mr Morales is reasserting the Bolivian state, a state that all but disappeared under the strains of financial policies imposed from afar. The notion that the state was ill-suited to running anything took deep root in Bolivia. For others, it is not the might of the state that is being asserted but the might of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. His hands were all over the hydrocarbons announcement: presidents Morales and Chávez were in Havana last weekend to meet Fidel Castro and sign up to the latest instrument of hemispheric influence, the Alba trade agreement. Then Mr Chávez popped up in La Paz to, in the words of the Santa Cruz paper El Nuevo Día, hold the president's hand as he travelled to a summit meeting with the leaders of Brazil and Argentina.
For the US it could mark the fulfilment of another of Mr Morales' pledges, to be "Washington's worst nightmare". After a lot of bellicose comment during the campaign, the Bush administration has adopted an unexpectedly conciliatory tone.
"The US never had much confidence in Morales," says Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "Some were prepared to give him a chance, but when he starts behaving like this it strengthens the hardline groups who think he's an ally of Chávez. I don't think Venezuela can be unhappy about this because the more the region is unsettled, the more they look like the leader."
Indeed Mr Chávez is not averse to stirring things up in the region. He has intervened in the forthcoming Peruvian and Mexican elections; his presence at the Mar del Plata summit was almost as divisive as that of President Bush; and his efforts to spread his munificence has sometimes been counterproductive.
But others wonder if presidents Castro or Chávez did have a hand in Mr Morales' move. The announcement that he is obliging foreign investors to renegotiate the terms of their business certainly echoes moves made by Mr Chávez with foreign oil companies, but Venezuela has a lot of valuable assets: it sends 1.5m barrels of oil a day to the US. Bolivia, on the other hand, has two clients for its natural gas: Brazil and Argentina, and some see naivety in Mr Morales' failure to balance the interests of his domestic base with the demands of foreign policy to maintain good relations with his neighbours.
Those differences seemed to be partly healed at Thursday's summit. The four leaders - of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela - managed to move beyond the minor scuffle over gas prices. Indeed, they came close to enacting much of Mr Chávez's rhetoric: they all agreed to get behind Bolivia and support it as it tried to correct the woes of neo-liberalism and build a new country.
They also agreed to join in the "gasoducto del sur" which, as Mr Chávez grandly declared, "will bring cheap, clean gas to all the people of South America for the next century".
But Larry Birns, of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, believes the rhetoric and the reality might herald some sort of shift in the region. Alba, the gasoducto, Mr Morales taking on the energy companies, suggest, he says, that "a lethal threat is being posed by the school of thought that says development is not merely a matter for the economists.
"Social issues have to be considered too. There is a direct challenge to the notion that what is private is good and what is public is bad. Enron put an end to that. If Morales has a successful administration, it will bring up some very heavy questions for Washington.
"It's going to be difficult for the Republicans to resist saying, what are we going to do now? The commies are running amok in Latin America. But the truth now is that the US has run out of options. There's not much it can do, short of killing the leaders."
Back at the refinery, the nice lady shrugs when I ask what the soldiers are doing. "They're guarding things," she says, helpfully. "Making sure everything's in order. That's all we know."
Freedom is a wonderful thing. Call it liberty to live an honourable life. One of the reasons why we are law-abiding citizens. The law which protects and nourishes human rights.
The world, it seems, is in real danger of becoming a Guantanamo, a shameful prison for gross human rights violations. This is not the world Abraham Lincoln dreamt of, bor the founding fathers. If Ronald Reagan was alive today, even he wouldn't accept what the current administration in the US is doing to the world.
Inflated oil price means inflated cost for energy to produce almost every single thing in this world, transportation too has gone expensive... in a few months inflation will soar sky-high!
We have to protest, we need to protest, it is a must that we protest and fight. Fight the honourable fight as Jesus would want us to, as every God, prophet, child, would want to... fight for what is right, just and decent.
Fight the terrorists who kill and destroy - yet hide behind the thin veil of religion. Educate and reform the terrorists who live in our society. Throw out governments which support terror and killing. Throw out governments who wage wars without being attacked. Let the pre-emptive strikes without the sanction of UN be punished.
without peace there is no liberty. America should wake up and lead this new war against organised terror.
Or, we will all - ALL human beings - be living in Planet Guantanamo.
My Guantanamo Diary
Face to Face With the War on Terrorism
By Mahvish Khan
Sunday, April 30, 2006; B01
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba
The sailor at the entrance to Camp Echo peers through the gate as Peter and I hold up our laminated blue cards. "HC," for habeas counsel, they read. "Escort Required." He waves us through, searches our bags for recording devices, then issues safety instructions -- dial 2431 on the wall phone in the room -- in case anything should happen in our meeting with prisoner No. 1154.
The gravel crunches beneath our shoes as we follow a soldier across a dusty courtyard to a painted brown door. Before we go in, I drape the shawl I'm carrying over my head and arms. This is my first meeting with a Guantanamo Bay detainee, and I'm feeling nervous about sitting down with a man who may be a terrorist.
Ali Shah Mousovi is standing at attention at the far end of the room, his leg chained to the floor. His expression is wary, but when he sees me in my traditional embroidered shawl from Peshawar, he breaks into a smile. Later, he'll tell me that I resemble his younger sister, and that for a split second he mistook me for her.
I introduce myself and Peter Ryan, a Philadelphia lawyer for whom I'm interpreting. I hand Mousovi a Starbucks chai, the closest thing to Afghan tea I've been able to find on the base. Then I open up boxes of pizza, cookies and baklava, but he doesn't reach for anything. Instead, in true Afghan fashion, he urges us to share the food we have brought for him.
Mousovi is a physician from the Afghan city of Gardez, where he was arrested by U.S. troops 2 1/2 years ago. He tells us that he had returned to Afghanistan in August 2003, after 12 years of exile in Iran, to help rebuild his wathan , his homeland. He believes that someone turned him in to U.S. forces just to collect up to $25,000 being offered to anyone who gave up a Talib or al-Qaeda member.
As I translate from Pashto, Mousovi hesitantly describes life since his arrest. Transported to Bagram air base near Kabul in eastern Afghanistan, he was thrown -- blindfolded, hooded and gagged -- into a 3 1/2 -by-7-foot shed. He says he was beaten regularly by Americans in civilian clothing, deprived of sleep by tape-recordings of sirens that blared day and night. He describes being dragged around by a rope, subjected to extremes of heat and cold. He says he barely slept for an entire month.
He doesn't know why he was brought to Guantanamo Bay. He had hoped he would be freed at his military hearing in December 2004. Instead, he was accused of associating with the Taliban and of funneling money to anti-coalition insurgents. When he asked for evidence, he was told it was classified. And so he sits in prison, far from his wife and three children. More than anyone, he misses his 11-year-old daughter, Hajar. When he talks about her, his eyes fill with tears and his head droops.
I don't know exactly what I had expected coming to Guantanamo Bay, but it wasn't this weary, sorrowful man. The government says he is a terrorist and a monster, but when I look at him, I see simply what he says he is -- a physician who wanted to build a clinic in his native land.
A guard knocks at the door, signaling time's up. Mousovi signs a document agreeing to have Peter represent him in filing a petition for habeas corpus before U.S. civilian courts. "I pray to Allah," he says, holding his palms together, "for sabar." Patience. He stands up as Peter and I say goodbye. When I glance back after we walk out, he is still standing, gazing after us.
It was Google that got me to Gitmo.
My interest in the U.S. military base in Cuba was sparked by an international law class I took last year at the University of Miami. I decided I wanted to become involved in what is going on there. So I Googled the names of the attorneys on the landmark 2004 Supreme Court case Rasul v. Bush, which held that the U.S. court system had authority to decide whether non-U.S. citizens held at Guantanamo Bay were being rightfully imprisoned. Then I started bombarding them with calls and e-mails expressing my desire as a law student, a journalist and a Pashtun to help, both on the legal end and as an interpreter.
The very existence of the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay seemed an affront to what the United States stands for. How could our government deny the prisoners there the right to a fair hearing? I didn't know whether they were innocent or guilty -- but I figured they should be entitled to the same protections as any alleged rapist or murderer.
Maybe part of my interest had to do with my heritage. My Pashtun parents are doctors who met in medical school in Peshawar, a city in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border. They came to the United States to continue their medical educations. I was born in America in 1978, but I grew up speaking Pashto at home, and am a practicing Muslim. I've always felt the pull of my heritage, and the tragedy of the Afghan people, whose country has been overrun so many times throughout history.
As an American, I felt the pain of Sept. 11, and I understood the need to invade Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But I also felt the suffering of the Afghans as their country was bombed. And when hundreds of men were rounded up and thrust into a black hole of detention, many with seemingly no proof that they had any terrorist connections, I felt that my own country had taken a wrong turn.
The attorneys I e-mailed eventually put me in touch with Peter Ryan at Dechert LLP, which represents 15 Afghan detainees. After a rigorous six-month background check for a security clearance, off I went in January on my first trip to the base.
I've now been down a total of nine times. And each time, I'm struck by the ordinariness of Guantanamo Bay, the startling disconnect between the beauty of the surroundings and the evil they mask.
I expected a stern, forbidding place. Instead I found sunshine and smiling young soldiers, boozy nighttime barbecues and beaches that call to you for a midnight swim. I've also found loss and tears. Over three months, I've interpreted at dozens of meetings with detainees and heard many stories -- of betrayal and mistaken identity, of beatings and torture, of loneliness and hopelessness.
I've listened to Wali Mohammed protest that he was just a businessman trying to get along in Taliban-run Afghanistan. I've watched Chaman Gul, crouched in his 7-by-8-foot cage, weep for fear that his family will forget him. I've marveled at the pluck and wit of Taj Mohammad, a 27-year-old uneducated goat herder who has taught himself fluent English while in Cuba.
No matter the age or background of the detainee, our meetings always leave me feeling helpless. These men show me the human face of the war on terrorism. They've been systematically dehumanized, cast as mere numbers in prison-camp fashion. But to me, they've become almost like friends, or brothers or fathers. I can honestly say that I don't believe any of our clients are guilty of crimes against the United States. No doubt some men here are, but not the men I've met.
I wish we could just hand our clients the freedom they desperately crave, but so far, we haven't been able to, though three of Dechert's clients were released at the military's discretion before any of us ever even went to the prison. Still, our work with those who remain seems to give them what they need to persevere -- a thread of hope.
The trip to Gitmo begins at the commuter terminal of Florida's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. With the exception of one corporate law firm that has become known for making a grand entrance in a chartered private jet, the attorneys doing habeas work at Guantanamo Bay fly the puddle-jumper Lynx Air or Air Sunshine.
At the airline counter, you're asked to show clearance documentation from the Defense Department. Passengers are then weighed for optimum weight distribution on the tiny propeller planes. The 10-seat cabin is so small you can't stand up straight. There are no bathrooms, either, so everybody hits the restroom several times before boarding.
The flight from Fort Lauderdale takes three hours because you have to go around the island to avoid Cuban airspace. Upon arrival, we're greeted by armed U.S. Army personnel who direct us to customs, which consists of a couple of brown tables where more Army boys rifle through our bags.
The base is divided into two areas -- the leeward side and the windward side -- by the 2 1/2 -mile-wide Guantanamo Bay. The main base is on the windward side, which is where the detention camps are built. Habeas counsel are lodged on the leeward side, at the combined bachelor quarters, or CBQ, for $20 a day.
There is cable TV, a phone, dial-up Internet, a small kitchen and maid service. Each room has four twin beds. On my first trip, I debated whether to sleep in a different bed each night.
Gitmo is a strange place, but soon after arriving, you find yourself adjusting to its clockwork military rhythm. Every morning begins at 7:30. It's usually bright and sunny. The Jamaican gardener, Bartley, is always yelling something or other. Everyone meets at the concrete tables at the front of the CBQ to wait for the bus, which leaves at exactly 7:41 a.m. It takes us to the ferry and pulls in at 7:51 a.m., just as the ferry is docking. At precisely 8:20 a.m., we're dropped off on the windward side, where we're always greeted by one of three military escorts who hand out our habeas badges. Next stop is Starbucks and the food court to pick up food for the detainees and to have breakfast. Then on to Camp Echo, the special section of the base where meetings with detainees are held.
The only part of the Gitmo experience that doesn't run with military precision are these meetings. More often than not, there's a delay in bringing the prisoners over to Camp Echo. Once, we had to wait five hours on the bus. This frustrates the attorneys, given the weeks of work they've spent preparing. Not to mention that the ice cream we bring turns to soup.
As we leave our meeting with Mousovi, I pull the heavy shawl off my head. Primo, our military escort, is standing outside the fenced compound, taking deep drags off a Marlboro Red. We pile onto the bus, and Peter picks up a large manila envelope, seals his stack of handwritten notes inside and writes "1154" on the outside. The notes will be sent to Washington for classification review.
Primo drives us and another group of attorneys to the Navy Exchange. Adjacent to this large supermarket are a Subway, a gift shop and ATMs. Across the street there's a KFC and a McDonald's. At the exchange, we pick up a stack of porterhouse steaks, charcoal, potatoes, chips, lots of beer and assorted wines. Everyone barbecues for dinner, because other than the Clipper Club, a small greasy spoon that serves fried hot dogs and pizza, there's nothing to eat where we're based.
Over steak dinner, I comment on how nice our military escorts are. They joke and laugh with us. Primo gives me pointers on shooting pool in the CBQ lobby. Everyone brings them beer and cigarettes. I think I had expected them to be more aloof, even hostile.
But Tom Wilner, a partner in the Washington office of Shearman & Sterling LLP, quickly retorts: "Yeah, they're nice. But this whole place is evil -- and the face of evil often appears friendly."
His words hit me hard. Tom is one of the most passionate lawyers working at Guantanamo Bay. He gets angry talking about the conditions under which the detainees live. Most are held in isolation in cells separated by thick steel mesh or concrete walls. Every man eats every meal alone in his small cell. The prisoners are allowed out of their cells three times a week for about 15 minutes to exercise, often in the middle of the night, so many don't see sunlight for months at a time.
Tom and his firm got involved representing 12 Kuwaiti detainees in March 2002, after a group of families contacted him. At first, like most of the lawyers here, Tom took up the cause because of the legal principles at stake. But after he finally met the detainees in January 2005, his attitude changed. Suddenly he was fighting for real people. "Most of these guys," he says, "were totally innocent and simply swept up by mistake."
I think of Ali Shah Mousovi when he says that. Even the presiding officer at Mousovi's hearing declared that he found it "difficult to believe" that the United States had imprisoned Mousovi and flown him "all the way to Cuba." Yet here he sits.
One of the things Tom hates most is having to tell his clients that a close relative has died while they've been detained. But he has had to do so countless times: Fouad al-Rabiah's father and brother died; Omar Amin's father died; Nasser al-Mutairi's father died; Saad al-Azmi's father died; Khaled al-Mutairi's father died; Fawzi al-Odah's grandmother died.
"The way these men have been treated and what they've had to suffer makes me ashamed," Tom says. He and the other lawyers think it's a joke that the iguanas at Guantanamo Bay, which are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, have more rights than the detainees.
Tonight, Tom is intense, going on about the face of evil, how so many of the perpetrators of some of the worst crimes in history were men who appeared perfectly ordinary, who were kind to children and dogs. I can't stop thinking about what he says.
After dinner, I take a 10-minute walk down a barren dirt road to a breathtaking secluded beach and drown everything out in the cool of the evening water. The waves keep rushing in and blending with the peaceful Cuban shore.
At 80, Haji Nusrat -- detainee No. 1009 -- is Guantanamo Bay's oldest prisoner. A stroke 15 years ago left him partly paralyzed. He cannot stand up without assistance and hobbles to the bathroom behind a walker. Despite his paralysis, his swollen legs and feet are tightly cuffed and shackled to the floor. He says that his shoes are too tight and that he needs new ones. He has asked for medical attention for the inflammation in his legs, but has not been taken to a hospital.
"They wait until you are almost dead," he says.
He has a long white beard and grayish-brown eyes that drift from Peter's face to mine as we explain his legal issues to him. In the middle of our meeting, he says to me: " Bachay ." My child. "Look at my white beard. They have brought me here with a white beard. I have done nothing at all. I have not said a single word against the Americans."
He comes from a small mountain village in Afghanistan and cannot read or write. He has 10 children and does not know if his wife is still alive -- he hasn't received any letters.
U.S. troops arrested Nusrat in 2003, a few days after he went to complain about the arrest of his son Izat, who is also detained at Guantanamo Bay. Nusrat is charged with being a commander of a terrorist organization in Afghanistan with ties to Osama bin Laden, and with possession of a cache of weapons. Izat, who appeared as a witness at his father's military hearing, maintained that the weapons in question were in a storehouse set up by the Afghan defense ministry, which he was paid to guard and maintain.
During our meeting, Nusrat's emotions range from anger to despair. In his desperation, he begins to promise Peter that he will make him famous if he helps him get home. "Everyone in Afghanistan will know your name," he says. "You will be a great, famous lawyer."
As I interpret, I feel a lump growing in my throat. Suddenly, I can't speak. Peter and Nusrat pause as the tears flood down my face and drip onto my shawl.
The old man looks at me. "You are a daughter to me," he says. "Think of me as a father." I nod, aligning and realigning pistachio shells on the table as I interpret.
As the meeting ends and we collect our things to go, the old man opens his arms to me and I embrace him. For several moments, he prays for me as Peter watches: "Insha'allah, God willing, you will find a home that makes you happy. Insha'allah, you will be a mother one day. . . . "
He lets me go and asks me to say dawa, prayers, for him. "Of course," I promise. "Every day."
And until the next time I see him, I will.
m.rukhsana [at] gmail.com
Mahvish Khan will graduate next month from the University of Miami School of Law. She works for the Miami public defender's office.