Sunday, November 23, 2014

Give Some Nostalgia With A Signed Copy Of 'There's A House'

Need a unique gift for that literate special someone who was around for the 1970s but can't remember a danged thing about them? Want a way to gently break
to your grandkids, grumpy boss or probation officer what was really going on back in the day?
We're offering signed copies of THERE'S A HOUSE IN THE LAND for $12 each, which includes a refrigerator magnet-worthy postcard from the beyond memorable September Book Signing & Snakegrinder Reunion at the Blue Crab Grill in Newark, Delaware, and postage is included.

Here's how to get yours: Send us a check or money order made out to the author with a note to whom you want the book signed and your mailing address.  Orders for multiple copies are welcome, but there are only a limited number so don't procrastinate.
Here's our mailing address:
There's A House
c/o Shaun Mullen

338 Poplar Valley Road West

Stroudsburg, PA 18360-7293
If you'd prefer to give Kindle editions as gifts, click here
We aren't L.L. Bean, so orders must be received by December 15 to guarantee holiday delivery.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Dark Alliance & A Lasting Shame: Remembering Reporter Gary Webb

Kill the Messenger is currently playing at mostly empty theaters, which is a pity, because it's an important movie about a real-life story: A reporter who becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to suicide after he exposes the CIA's role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into Southern California.  That reporter is Gary Webb, played on the big screen by Jeremy Renner of The Bourne Legacy fame.  This is what I wrote in December 2007 about Webb's expose and investigative journalism in general, with a few embellishments and a new footnote added:
I worked with a goodly number of great investigative journalists over the years, men and women who risk career, life and limb to get the story, and I can say with some satisfaction that this bunch usually did.
But beyond the glamor of the Woodward and Bernstein portrayed by Redford and Hoffman in All the President's Men is a dark side: Investigative reporters and their editors can be an intensely jealous lot, and except for the biggest stories (like the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the My Lai Massacre) rival papers are more apt to ignore an investigative story than mention it in their own pages, and sometimes even dump on it.
This brings me to one of the greatest investigative coups and most shameful episodes in modern American journalism -- the August 1996 publication of "Dark Alliance," a three-part series by reporter Gary Webb (above) in the pages of the San Jose Mercury News and what then transpired.
I didn't know Webb professionally, although I did spend an evening with him drinking beer and listening to a zydeco band at a music club while attending a conference for investigative reporters and editors. But I knew him by reputation to be an ace reporter, so it was no surprise when the Mercury News rolled out his extraordinary series linking the CIA and Nicaragua's Contras to the crack cocaine epidemic in South Los Angeles in the 1980s.
As Nick Shou wrote in 2006 in a long overdue Los Angeles Times piece (link not available):
"Most of the nation's elite newspapers at first ignored the story. A public uproar, especially among urban African Americans, forced them to respond. What followed was one of the most bizarre, unseemly and ultimately tragic scandals in the annals of American journalism, one in which top news organizations closed ranks to debunk claims Webb never made, ridicule assertions that turned out to be true and ignore corroborating evidence when it came to light."
Many reporters had tried to unravel the connection between the CIA's anti-communism efforts in Central America and drug trafficking, a lynchpin of the Iran-Contra Scandal during the Reagan administration, and I led a team of reporters in the late 1980s trying to do just that.  (The CIA also had been deeply involved in heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.)  But Webb was the first to provide a solid link between the spy agency and the U.S. crack cocaine market in the 1980s by detailing the relationship between two Contra sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
Wrote Shou:
"Two years before Webb's series, The Los Angeles Times estimated that at its peak, Ross' 'coast-to-coast conglomerate' was selling half a million crack rocks per day. '[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine,' the article stated, 'his name was Freeway Rick.'
"But after Webb's reporting tied Ross to the Nicaraguans and showed that they had CIA connections, The Times downgraded Ross' role to that of one 'dominant figure' among many. It dedicated 17 reporters and 20,000 words to a three-day rebuttal to 'Dark Alliance' that also included a lengthy musing on whether African Americans disproportionately believe in conspiracy theories."
The New York Times and Washington Post joined the L.A. Times in attacking Webb for a claim that he never made — that the CIA deliberately unleashed the crack epidemic on black America.  This controversy overshadowed the central focus of the series, which was that the CIA was knowingly dealing with people who were feeding the U.S. crack epidemic.  The papers also found a number of non-fatal errors in the series while unsuccessfully trying to undercut that central focus.
At first, the Mercury News defended the series, but after nine months, its executive editor wrote a letter to readers that tepidly defended "Dark Alliance" while acknowledging the errors. As Webb had feared, the letter was widely misperceived as a retraction, and he publicly accused the paper of cowardice.  In return, he was exiled to a remote news bureau, resigned a few months later and left journalism.
Depressed and broke, Webb killed himself eight years later. The final indignity was the brief obituaries that the L.A. Times and New York Times published which dismissed him as the "discredited" author of the series.
Let me be clear: As terrific as the "Dark Alliance" series was, I do not believe Webb found the smoking gun, just a lot of smoke, although very important smoke it was.  But setting the record straight on "Dark Alliance" is important for another reason.
Investigative reporting is a dying field. It is dying because too many newspapers have become controversy averse, while others cannot justify assigning a reporter to chase potentially litigious stories for months on end when there is no guarantee that they'll ever see the light of day and every guarantee that they'll piss people off. 
In chasing down reports that the CIA was using out-of-the-way airstrips in Northeastern Pennsylvania to fly in shipments of cocaine to raise money for the Contras, I was driven to Birchwood-Pocono Air Park by a government insider turned informant on a cold winter day in 1988.  This, it turns out, is where state trooper killer Eric Frein was apprehended late last month after a 48-day manhunt.

Despite over a year of digging, my colleagues and I never amassed enough evidence regarding the Poconos angle -- some smoke but no smoking gun -- to justify writing a story.
The original "Dark Alliance" series can be found here. Meanwhile, journalist Eric Umanski aggressively covered the CIA-Contra-crack connection for Mother Jones and asserted here in a 1998 story that the connection was well established long before "Dark Alliance."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

From Richards To Rivers: A Dozen Great Books For Holiday Gift Giving

Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through another 30 or so books in the course of 2014, some new, some not so old and a couple of classics that I had not gotten around to reading.  Here are the best dozen of the bunch, actually the best 14 because one offering is a trilogy.  All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend, and all are available online in paperback.

AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS (Taylor Branch, 1988, 2006, 2012) This three volume biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. runs to some 1,600 pages and is the definitive retelling of the great civil rights leader's life from his birth in Atlanta to his assassination in Memphis at the age of 39.  Branch does not pull any punches, confirming that as great as King was, he was a profligate philanderer who could be his own worst enemy.

(Bernard Bailyn, 2012) Establishment of British, Dutch and Swedish colonies in America in the early 17th century would seem to be well-trod ground, but Bailyn sheds often fascinating light on the socio-economic aspects of colonization, as well as the brutal encounters between the Europeans and native peoples.

​ A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH (Jussi Adler-Olsen, 2013) Adler-Olson's Department Q murder mysteries are the latest Arctic Noir sensations, and deservedly so.  A Conspiracy of Faith is the second of five starring Copenhagen Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekicks, Assad and Rose, who take on the coldest of cold cases, Department Q's specialty, this one involving the double murder of a brother and sister two decades earlier.
THE GOLDFINCH (Donna Tartt, 2013) This is the best book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read in a very long time.  The improbable plot works, sometimes despite itself, gripping me on an intellectual and emotional level.  While its length (771 pages, count 'em) seem to be daunting, the adventure therein -- at its core a dissection of the screwed up-edness of the human condition in the guise of a coming-of-age story -- is nothing short of amazing.​

THE HUMAN STAIN (Phillip Roth, 2000) Roth, as usual, magnificently interweaves American history in this tour de force about Coleman Silk, a classics professor, who is forced to retire when his colleagues decide that he is a racist.  He is not, and the real truth as conveyed by narrator Nathan Zuckerman (who also appears in Roth's American Pastoral and I Married a Communist) is incredible.
IRONWEED (William Kennedy, 1984) This final book of the so-called Albany Cycle is the best of the three because Kennedy really fires on all of his writerly cylinders in telling the story of Francis Phelan, a once great ballplayer turned drunk who has come home to make peace with his sometimes violent past -- he has hallucinations of three of the people he killed in the past --and rekindle his relationship with the only woman he truly loved.​
LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION (Daniel Okrent, 2010) The 18th Amendment ostensibly addressed the single subject of intoxicating beverages, spawning the 13-year Prohibition, but this delightfully trenchant book reveals that it did much more, including enormous changes in international trade, speedboat design and marketing, as well as the establishment of national crime syndicates and even women's rights.

THE LIES OF SARAH PALIN: THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HER RELENTLESS QUEST FOR POWER (Geoffrey Dunn, 2011)  I read a half dozen or so books about or by Palin in the last year for a research project, and if you're going to read only one about the Killah from Wassila, this is it.  Dunn more than makes the case that the right-wing darling is a pathological liar and, when in positions of power, is downright dangerous.
LIFE (Keith Richards and James Fox, 2011)  Okay, like most folks I had low expectations for an autobio by this Rolling Stones' founding member, but the cat can write almost as well as he can play -- and survive drug binges and busts.  In fact, the beyond endless accounts of his over-the-top embrace of hard drugs are the only downers, while his confirmation that Mick Jagger is an asshole, albeit an extraordinarily talented one, is affirming.

THE MARSH ARABS (Wilfred Thesiger, 1964) It was a big year for travel books (see The Road to Oxiana below), but Thesiger's account of living among the fiercely independent tribal Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq is as much a magnificent and moving account of a people whose lives changed little for many centuries, untouched by the modern world, as a traditional travelogue.   

(Robert Byron, 1937) Historian Paul Fussell calls this delightful and sometimes downright zany travel book what Ulysses is to the novel and The Waste Land is to poetry.  A bestseller upon its publication, it chronicles a fascinating journey through the Middle East to the land of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya on the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

​THE SECRET RIVER (Kate Grenville, 2005) The story of early colonial Australia has never been told better than in this magnificent work of historical fiction, which tells the story of William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman who is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony where they are confronted with having to forcibly take land from the Aborigines who came before them if they are to survive and prosper.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, here's my list for last year, as well as a list from 2012 of the books that have most influenced me.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

In Gridlock We Trust: Do-Nothing Republicans Take Control Of Senate

Long story short: I do not so much praise the Republican Party for their victories yesterday as blame the Democratic Party for their defeats.  At a pivotal time in American history, a time when the bedrock principles of our society are under attack and it was imperative to move ahead and not stand still, let alone turn back, Democrats revealed themselves to be cowards in campaign after campaign. 
The day already is being referred to as the Seinfeld Election because it was pretty much about nothing, although it is some comfort that the substantial Republican gains will mean little for the 2016 presidential race.  (And ain't it a kick that the states benefiting most from the Affordable Care Act, that GOP bogeyman of bogeymen, elected Republicans?)  
Voter turnout will spike in 2016, the most competitive Senate races will be in liberal-leaning states and the GOP's continued unwillingness to connect with black, Hispanic and Asian voters will mean likely defeat nationally no matter whom they nominate.  Oh, and Republicans won't have Barack Obama to run against and will be faced -- for the first time in several elections -- with actually having to stand for something.
Obama has had a troubled presidency primarily because of Republican obstructionism and a suffocating racism that never lurks far from the surface, but also because of his own failings as a leader.  But he has been the president America needs and history will remember him as being very good if not very great under enormously difficult circumstances.  Yet Democrats abandoned him.

Shame on the Democratic Party.  And shame on America.  

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Despite Pennsylvania Cop Killer's Capture, A Very Big Question Remains

The surrender of cop killer Eric Frein on Thursday after an excruciating 48-day manhunt in the dense woodlands of the Pennsylvania Poconos is not the end of the story.  It is the end of the prologue to a very big question that demands to be asked -- and answered: What prompted this wily survivalist to shoot dead a particular state trooper and critically wound another?  To suggest that the shootings were random begs credulity, although the revelation as to why Frein chose these targets might be embarrassing to a law-enforcement agency that has limped from scandal to scandal and did not acquit itself particularly well during the manhunt.
Prosecutors have, of course, said that the death penalty will be sought.  But it would not be surprising if 31-year-old Frein (pronounced Freen) is allowed to plea bargain a life sentence without the messiness of a trial where the question of why he chose to lurk in the woods outside the Blooming Grove, Pike County, police barracks on the night of September 12 with a high-powered rifle, killing Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass, and not one of many other potential law-enforcement targets is a question that is sure to be raised.
Early in the manhunt, rumors abounded that Frein's sister had a relationship with Trooper Douglass.  A state police spokesman initially denied they had "an inappropriate relationship," an explanation that ginned up the rumor mill even more.  The spokesman later tried to clarify matters by stating they had not had any kind of a relationship and did not even know one another, but the impression lingers that despite Frein's well-known hatred of police, he may not have chosen Dickson and Douglass at random.
Indeed, little light has been shed on why Frein, who had a fondness for all things military, dressed in Serbian army uniforms and played Cold War-style war games, hated police.  Except for a remark from Frein's father in the wake of the attack that his self-trained backwoods survivalist son "never missed" when he had a weapon in his hands, his parents remained conspicuously silent during the manhunt, although they are said to have cooperated with investigators.  It is puzzling why they never were asked to go public and urge their son to surrender, or if they were, did not do so.

Frein crashed his Jeep after fleeing Blooming Grove, which is about 20 miles north of his parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County.  He is believed to have hiked through nearly unspoiled forest to an area near Canadensis that provides many hiding places not visible from the air, let alone on the ground a hundred yards away. 
The state police kept overplaying their hand, at least in the first weeks of the manhunt, by repeatedly claiming they had Frein surrounded and taunting the fugitive to surrender, although they did find food caches, an incriminating journal, two pipe bombs and other signs of himFrein seemingly taunted the state police back as he repeatedly eluded capture despite numerous reported sightings.  (Documents filed with the court by the state police indicate he may have used a laptop computer with wireless access to keep up with reports on the manhunt.)
In recent days, Frein continued to elude a dragnet of state police, FBI and ATF agents, U.S. Marshals Service trackers and regional and local police that has at times reached 1,000 officers as he trekked into more populated areas.  Unarmed, gaunt and bedraggled, he surrendered to marshals on Thursday afternoon after being spotted in a field at an abandoned rural airport that previously had been searched.  The airport had been part of one of the honeymoon resorts that were a mainstay of the Poconos tourist industry in the decades after World War II.
Frein was turned over to state police, who ceremoniously slapped slain officer Dickson's handcuffs on him and put him in the back seat of Dickson's police cruiser for transport back to Blooming Grove.  A rifle and pistol were found in a nearby hangar where the fugitive apparently had been hiding.

The search, which cost nearly $1.5 million a day according to one analysis, exacted a steep toll on the Poconos, which has not recovered from the Bush Recession.  Deer hunting was called off in several Pike and Monroe townships, schools in the vicinity of the manhunt were closed, reopened and sometimes closed again, football games, Halloween parades and other outdoor events were cancelled, and the tourist industry took a big hit amidst one of the most beautiful displays of fall foliage in years.
Ironically, I was driven to Birchwood-Pocono Air Park, the abandoned airport near Tannersville where Frein was apprehended, by a government insider turned informant on my first visit to the Poconos in 1986.  As an investigative journalist, I was chasing down reports that the CIA was using the disused airport, as well as other out-of-the-way airstrips in Northeastern Pennsylvania, to fly in shipments of cocaine being sold in New York and Philadelphia to raise money for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

This was one of the extra-legal aspects of what became known during the Reagan administraiton as the Iran-Contra Affair.  Despite over a year of digging, my colleagues and I never amassed enough evidence regarding the Poconos angle to justify writing a story.  Whether it is established why Frein chose to be at a particular state police barracks on a particular night as his victims changed shifts remains to be seen.