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 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. 
ABOUT THAT FOOTNOTE
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.

THE BARBAROUS YEARS: THE PEOPLING OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA
(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.   

THE ROAD TO OXIANA
(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.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

An Election Parable: It Used To Be About Kibble & Change, But Now . . .

Imagine the American public as a big mixed-breed dog.  (That was easy, wasn't it?)  This dog had been treated poorly by its master for years, if not outright abused.  Other dogs, especially purebreds, were pampered with steak and all kinds of treats.  They luxuriated in comfy dog beds from L.L. Bean, never got wet when it rained or snowed or were toweled off if they did, had their own spot in the back of the family SUV when they went on vacation to tony resorts, and went to the vets for regular checkups and prompt care should, heaven forbid, they get sick. 

The big mixed-breed dog was not so fortunate, and like the many others with less distinguished parentage, subsisted on scraps and sometimes measly handouts from the master and his advisersHe never got treats, lived in a leaky doghouse and got wet when the weather was bad.  If he was lucky enough to go for a ride, it was in a cage on the roof of the family SUV and the destination was anything but glamorous, and he never went to the veterinarians, not even for checkups.  As a mixed breed, he just wasn't deserving enough.
But things began to change for the better a few years ago when the big mixed-breed dog got a new master.  The new master promised better times for all dogs.  "Kibble and change, kibble and change," the new master vowed.  "Kibble and change."  
The new master was pretty much true to his word, and his advisers pretty much did his bidding, at least the ones who did not have purebred dogs and were not beholden to the old master.   The big mixed-breed dog's diet got better and most of the holes in his doghouse were patched.  Best of all, he began going to the vets for regular checkups.  He got shots when he was supposed to, was treated for a bad tooth, and now took medicine for hairballs 
Things were definitely looking up for he and other mixed breeds, but then things began to change for the worse.  
Some of new master's advisers refused to help patch up the rest of the holes in the big mixed-breed's doghouse and it began to leak badly again.  His diet wasn't so good anymore, and the advisers pretty much cut off all the treats.   Worst of all, they threatened to stop his visits to the vets because the purebred dogs objected.  That and the fact too many dogs, most of them chihuahua mixes, were coming across the border.
The big mixed-breed dog was puzzled about why the better times seemed to be ending.  It seemed like the purebreds actually had preferred it when things weren't better for all dogs.  He decided to try to find out why when he next encountered a certain know-it-all poodle at the dog park.  
"You just don't get it," this poodle replied one day as he lifted his leg and directed a steam of pee on one of the trees that dog park volunteers had planted to provide shade on hot summer days.  These trees weren't looking so good because the poodle and other purebreds kept peeing on them, and the big mixed-breed dog knew that there soon would be no shade at all.

"You just don't get it, but then you always were a gullible cur," the poodle declared in his obnoxiously whiny drawl in explaining why the purebreds were biting the hand that fed the mixed breeds.  "Come a little closer and I'll tell you why if you promise to not tell your pals.
"It's because your master is a mutt, too."

IMAGE FROM SHUTTERSTOCK

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.  
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE DAILY SHEEPLE

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.
A PERSONAL NOTE
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.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK MAKELA/REUTERS

Monday, October 27, 2014

Obama Is At Yet Another Crossroads On Torture. Will He Blink Again?

Anyone who thought that Barack Obama, having said boo about the Bush Torture Regime while campaigning for president in 2008, would denounce this darkest day in modern American history after taking office was engaging in fuzzy-wuzzy liberal thinking.  For one thing, the new president understood that denouncing, let alone going after the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate for their crimes would scuttle any chance he had of forging a bipartisan consensus for his ambitious first-term agenda.  But even this Obama supporter is deeply disappointed at how unwilling the president has been to lay bare the regime's excesses even if stopping short of even suggesting its architects should be prosecuted.
Seven and a half years after Obama promised a new beginning and banned torture in one of his first acts, any expectation that he would at least advocate a thorough examination of the torture regime's worst excesses has been dashed.  Obama's endorsement, by his silence, of the CIA's continued obstruction of the Senate Intelligence Committee's release of its damning report on torture without redactions that would render it meaningless, is nothing less than a legitimization of that agency's vile practices.  His defense of CIA Director John Brennan, who has led the campaign to stymie release of the report while tacitly approving the rogue agency's own spying on the Senate committee, makes farcical the president's statements that he believes that the U.S. should hew to international law, including the Geneva Conventions.
The latest roadblock to the never-ending series of obstructionist tactics slowing the report's release is a debate within the administration about whether that presidential decree banning torture should extend to so-called black sites outside the U.S.  These were the gulags run by the CIA where torture was practiced with the acquiescence of host governments like Poland, one of too many countries that participated in a CIA extraordinary rendition program in which terrorism suspects were interrogated at secret facilities beyond the reach of American constitutional protections.
The debate is taking on additional importance because the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Poland violated the rights of two terrorism suspects by transferring them to a CIA-run black site in northeast Poland, while the U.S. itself is to give testimony next month to the United Nations Committee Against Torture regarding whether its policies have been in violation of a UN treaty banning torture.

There is little question that the president sides with the black hats in the debate.  Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, has said Obama's opposition to torture at home and overseas is clear but separate from the legal question of whether the UN treaty applies to American behavior overseas.  Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and not the national security advisers one would think would be most qualified, is said to be personally negotiating how much of the Senate report will be redacted
As tests of president mettle go, this is a biggie. 

At a time when 12 fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates are urging Obama to make "full disclosure to the American people of the extent and use of torture" by the U.S., a time when he and other world leaders express outrage at ISIS beheadings and other jihadist excesses (which apparently include . . . yes, waterboarding), nothing less than a blanket declaration that the U.S. will not condone torture anytime or anywhere, as well as release of the Senate report without fatal redactions, leaves the most unpleasant impression that the CIA not only will get its way, but Obama is endorsing by default a loophole in the U.S. interpretation of international law that will justify it torturing again. 

Photograph from asiantribune.com

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why The Ebola Crisis Is Only The Latest Government-Scripted Disaster

DOES THE EBOLA VIRUS VOTE DEMOCRATIC OR REPUBLICAN?
The news that the Centers for Disease Control was unprepared for the ebola virus now that it has made landfall in the U.S. is not exactly a bolt from the blue.  Government agencies have been failing us for many years.
The CDC, it turns out, had issued lax guidelines to health-care providers on how to treat people with ebola-like symptoms, the predictable result being that one person is dead at a Dallas hospital because of appallingly lax emergency room care and two nurses have been infected.  The question of whether these infections are outliers or merely the first casualties in what will become a full-blown public health crisis is now looming very large, as is the credibility of the CDC.
Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that the CDC has plenty of company.  Here's a partial list:

* The Agriculture Department is beholden to major food producers, which is why schoolkids still eat a lot of crap despite the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama, pediatric obesity specialists and others not in the ketchup-as-vegetable crowd. 

* The Food and Drug Administration is beholden to profits-obsessed Big Pharma, which is why undertested prescription drugs kill and maim so many people. 

* The Defense Department is beholden to big defense contractors, which is why the armed forces are unable to wean themselves from ridiculously expensive and unnecessary weapons systems three decades after the Cold War drew its last breath. 

* The Federal Highway Administration is beholden to  vehicle manufacturers as has been shown in the sorry saga of too little oversight in General Motors' recall of tens of millions of unsafe vehicles.

* The Federal Communications Commission is beholden to the gigantic national cable television companies who believe the best Internet is one that most folks can barely afford.

* The Department of the Interior is beholden to the corporations who are turning our national parks into trees with McDonald's.
Meanwhile:
* The Department of Education is unable . . . no make that unwilling to really crack down on for-profit colleges that graduate few of their students but suck up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid money.

* The Department of the Interior is beholden to the corporations who are turning our national parks into trees with McDonald's.

* The Department of Veterans Affair has, of course, recently been in the crosshairs for cooking its books in the service of not treating needy vets at its network of hospitals.  
* The Secret Service has shown itself to be so dysfunctional that the safety of the president has repeatedly been compromised. 
* And who can forget the reform-averse Securities and Exchange Commission, which slept through the run-up to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression despite an abundance of warning signs and has pretty much taken a powder when it comes to preventing the kind of Wall Street excesses that triggered the downturn. 
Who have I left out?
Barack Obama happens to be the guy in the Oval Office and must take responsibility, to some extent, for these failures.  But every one of them predates his presidency.  Bill Clinton, for example, is the bad guy when it comes to the deregulation of banks and other lending institutions who were among the chief villains in the recession, while the administration of George W. Bush elevated defanging federal agencies to an art form.
While we're spreading blame around, let's not forget the Supreme Court and Congress.  Oh, and us.
The top court, which has morphed into a de facto arm of the Republican Party (do not be misled by the recent spate of non-decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage), effectively neutered the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago when it ruled that consumers could not sue the agency for its slipshod reviews of bad medical devices, to cite but one decision with a decidedly pro-big business slant.
Congress, meanwhile, has acted more like an ambulance-chasing attorney than a watchdog when government agencies fail us.  Time and again, the folks up on Capitol Hill, who are in the bag with well-heeled and well-connected campaign contributors, have reacted to bureaucratic-fueled crises with scripted outrage.  It turns out, of course, that many of these crises stem from the unwillingness of legislators to adequately fund agencies in the first place, the VA hospitals scandal being only the latest such instance, or their refusal to put real teeth into agencies' regulatory choppers, the GM recall scandal being only the latest such instance.
Finally, how many of us -- and not just those Tea Party wackadoodles -- criticize government for being too big and too meddlesome until we want it to do its job, whether protecting our Uncle Leo from hemorrhagic viruses, making sure his plane is airworthy and lands without incident when he visits at Thanksgiving, or that he not be stuck on a secret VA waiting list when this sweet old Vietnam vet really, really needs a new artificial limb.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Frein Manhunt In Disarray As Unanswered Questions Continue To Pile Up

STATE POLICE COMMISSIONER FRANK NOONAN (LEFT) AT FREIN PRESS CONFERENCE
As the manhunt for state trooper killer Eric Frein lurches toward its sixth week, the Pennsylvania State Police are on the defensive because of the latest scandal to tarnish the long troubled agency, while a law-enforcement insider says the search itself is in disarray.

The insider, who has many years of experience in tracking and surveilling criminal suspects, asked that his name not be used.  He acknowledges that any search the size of the Frein manhunt involving disparate law-enforcement agencies, in this case the state police, local and regional police forces, as well as the FBI and ATF, is bound to encounter some jurisdictional bumps and bruises.  While the various groups are assigned their own search sectors, the insider said they "are barely cooperating because every group wants to be the one to catch him."
"It's a clusterf---," said the insider, who confirmed the accuracy of an earlier Kiko's House post and updates on the dragnet.  "The locals [local police forces] know more than they're telling the state police and the feds."

Frein (pronounced Freen) shot and killed state police Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on September 12 in a sniper-style attack in the late evening darkness as they changed shifts at a barracks in Blooming Grove, a small Pike County community about 20 miles north northeast of Frein's parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County.  The self-trained backwoods survivalist crashed his Jeep near Blooming Grove and is believed to have hiked south southwestward 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.
In the early days of the manhunt, a state police spokesman repeatedly stated that searchers were closing in on Frein and there were repeated but largely unconfirmed sightings of the 31-year-old, who likes to dress up like a Serbian soldier and play Cold War-style games, and has long harbored a well-documented grudge against law enforcement. 
The number of apparent sightings since then has diminished, and the boastful claims that searchers had found items belonging to Frein have sometimes blown up in their faces.  Case in point: The state police spokesman crowed that soiled diapers left by Frein had been recovered during the manhunt.  It turns out the diapers would only fit an infant and had been in the woods for some time. 

The latest scandal to hit the state police reaches all the way to the top: Commissioner Frank Noonan is among several high-ranking state officials to receive emails with pornographic content.  Several officials have resigned or been fired, but Noonan told Governor Tom Corbett that he never opened any of the 300-plus pornographic emails he received, which exonerates him in the eyes of an ethically challenged gubernatorial administration.  By this standard, Noonan could drive past a gang rape in his official car while on duty, not try to stop the rape nor even notify authorities of it, and therefore is absolved of responsibility because he didn't get involved. 
* * * * *


One of the more curious aspects of the Frein drama is why his parents have not issued an appeal urging their son to surrender.  A state police spokesman has said it is believed the fugitive has a radio or other means of monitoring news reports, so why not have his parents record a message, which could additionally be broadcast from loudspeakers on the helicopters flying over the search area?  Indeed, why not?
Among other questions being asked but not answered:

* Will the state police learn from the mistakes investigators made in the five-year-long manhunt for 1996 Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and expand their search from the area where they have been focused from Day One?  Like Frein, Rudolph was a well-trained survivalist and like the Frein manhunt, in his case searchers also concentrated on a specific area of forest.  Rudolph finally was apprehended after he was found rummaging through a grocery store trash bin away from the search area.

* How much is the manhunt costing and where is the money coming from?  The spokesman will only say that "millions of dollars" have been expended.
* At what point will the search for Frein begin to seriously impact on other parts of the regional criminal-justice system, or has it already?  In just one of a growing number of instances, charges recently were dropped against a man who slapped a state police horse at Musikfest in Bethlehem because the trooper riding the horse was unable to attend the trial because he was involved in the manhunt.

Meanwhile, as a career journalist, it has been dismaying to watch the Pocono Record abdicate its responsibilities and concede the biggest story to hit the region since back-to-back hurricanes took 78 lives in 1955, to its competitors.  
 
The Allentown Morning Call and Scranton Tribune Times, which have some circulation in Monroe County, have aggressively covered the manhunt.  These papers have repeatedly broken stories that require enterprise and shoe leather -- and that the Record shamelessly picks up and runs on its front pages, while major media outlets like The Philadelphia Inquirer and CNN have run circles around the Record.  That is understandable to an extent.  Both the Inky and CNN have reporters who have sources deep within the FBI and ATF, but that does not explain why Record reporters seem reluctant to even leave their newsroom. 


* * * * * 
So why didn't Noonan notify Corbett of the pornographic emails, which he received while chief of the criminal division in the Office of Attorney General, which was headed by the governor-to-be at the time?  Why did he still not notify Corbett of the emails after Corbett named him state police commissioner?  We probably will never know, because the state police modus operandi has long been to close ranks and stonewall any questions about its own standards, or simply lie when confronted.  (The state police are virtually alone among state agencies exempt from Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law.) 
I know about the state police propensity to lie first- and second-hand.
While researching my 2010 book on the unsolved 1981 ax murder of Eddie Joubert, a popular bar owner and civic leader in the eastern Poconos village of Delaware Water Gap, I repeatedly contacted the state police in order to confirm that the murder was  considered a "cold case."
As I wrote in the Afterword of the book:
"Repeated calls elicited a range of excuses about why this simple piece of information was not forthcoming, and I had to threaten to go to higher ups if my request was not answered.  It finally was, and the case is indeed as cold as a midwinter night in the Poconos.
"How cold is that?  A subsequent query revealed that the commander of the Swiftwater barracks [the primary state police unit in the Poconos] asserts that unsolved murder cases such as Eddie's are assigned to troopers who are required to spend some time each year on them.  But Eddie, it seems, did not make the cut.  This is borne out by family members, [his] employees, friends and law enforcement officials whom I interviewed who state that they were not aware of any state police activity whatsoever regarding Eddie's case over the past 28 years."
The state police had no reason to lie, but they lied anyway, which is a deeply ingrained part of its culture and also was the common denominator when a close friend was twice stopped by state police  in recent years while driving and hit with bogus charges. 
In both cases, my friend knew she had done nothing wrong and requested trials to appeal the tickets, although the fines were minor.  In one case, two troopers lied about the circumstances, the judge rolled over, and my friend had to pay the fine and court costs.  In the other case, the trooper lied about the circumstances, the judge was rightfully skeptical of the cock-and-bull story the trooper told, and the charge was dismissed. 
All of this begs a very important question: What lies are the state police telling regarding the Frein manhunt and investigation?


Image from Japan Times

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Friday, October 03, 2014

(New Update) The Poconos Take Yet Another Hit As Pennsylvania State Police Botch Their Manhunt For Cop Killer Eric Frein & Outrage Hunters

If there was any question that the Pennsylvania State Police-led manhunt for cop killer Eric Frein was in big trouble -- indeed, that the trail for the marksman-survivalist in the northeastern Pennsylvania woodlands may have gone cold -- a photograph on the front page of the Pocono Record on Monday, the 17th day of the search, betrayed a harsh truth.  And now, to make a bad situation worse as the manhunt drags on and state police encounter the first murmurs of public criticism, they find themselves having little choice but to outrage perhaps the most influential constituency in the region -- hunters.

The Pocono Record photograph showed troopers clad in camouflage and SWAT
team mufti preparing to search a vacant cabin for Frein.  The cabin was not one of many that dot the woodlands, which already had been searched, but was on a well-traveled state road, not exactly the kind of place that a crafty, if troubled, 31-year-old charged with criminal homicide who likes to dress up like a Serbian soldier and play war games would choose. 
State police clearly are at the end of their rope -- or nearly so.
Frein shot and killed state police Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on September 12 in a sniper-style attack in the late evening darkness as they changed shifts at a barracks in Blooming Grove, a small Pike County community about 20 miles north northeast of Frein's parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County.  The self-trained backwoods survivalist crashed his Jeep near Blooming Grove and is believed to have hiked south southwestward through nearly unspoiled forest to an area not far from where his parents live.
State police had set themselves up for failure -- or at least a frustratingly long search -- by taunting Frein in public pronouncements and repeatedly boasting that they were closing in on him.  Lieutenant Colonel George Bivens, the lead state police spokesman, declared at one point that trackers, which include FBI agents, local police and dogs in addition to troopers and number about a thousand officers in all, had confined Frein to a one-square mile area and had him surrounded. 

As the dragnet dragged on, the area increased to five-square miles and then Bivens' "We know where you are and we're coming get to you" boasts stopped altogether.  Frein has appeared to be taunting back, hanging an AK-47-style assault rifle from a tree trunk in plain view that is believed to be his, while leaving a trail of butts from Serbian cigarettes and perhaps soiled diapers, as well.
Some 20 days after the murder, the impression grows and has begun to be voiced by a few people in a community that has showed overwhelming support for the state police despite myriad inconveniences caused by their manhunt, including residents being forced to stay away from their homes for days: Had the murder victim been one of them, the manhunt already would have been called off or there would not even have been one.
The state police also have struggled to stay on message.  
Asked about rumors that Frein's sister had a relationship with Trooper Douglass, Bivens initially denied they had "an inappropriate relationship," which ginned up the rumor mill even more.  Bivens later sought 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-documented hatred of police in general, he did not pick out Douglass at random with plenty of other law-enforcement targets closer to home. 
And a state police report that Frein had been leaving behind soiled diapers was called into question.  
While well-trained snipers wear diapers because of the many hours they sometimes have to wait for their prey without moving, area residents well familiar with the many black bears who populate the woodlands, noted that it was not unusual for bears to drag bags with household waste, including soiled diapers, into the woods.  This may have prompted a cryptic state police statement released Friday, unusual in and of itself, stating that they would not comment on any possible evidence.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has appeared at Dickson's funeral, a state police press conference and other Frein-related news events, but that has failed to resuscitate an re-election campaign that is running on empty because of his slash-and-burn cuts to the state education budget and lingering questions about whether he foot-dragged on the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State sex scandal while attorney general.
Bivens has said Frein was spotted by trackers at a distance around dusk on the evening of September 22 while being tracked by dogs, and trackers detonated a flash-bang device.  He said a helicopter was overhead but could not follow Frein because of the thick forest canopy, and he was able to slip away.  There were unconfirmed reports of another spotting on Monday.
The spokesman has explained the failure of apprehend Frein by noting there are numerous caves in the woodlands, trackers are taking their time clearing them because Frein is considered armed and dangerous, while there is concern that because two pipe bombs have been found in the search area and because Frein has experimented with explosives in the past, he could have booby-trapped the area or is capable of another sniper attack.
"I'm calling on you, Eric, to surrender," Biven said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. "We continue to take your supplies and weapons stockpiles . . . We are not going anywhere."
There was a certain inevitability that a man accused of killing a cop in cold blood would become a cult hero.  There are several Facebook pages in Frein's honor, including one called "Eric Frein Is God," and a rap tribute on YouTube.
The search turned tragicomic on Wednesday night when two state troopers fell 20 feet from a tree stand during the search and were injured.  They were flown to a Lehigh Valley hospital, treated and released, which provoked additional criticism because the injuries appeared to be minor.
Perhaps Frein will have been been apprehended by the time you read this.  Or gunned down while refusing to surrender.  Or has taken the coward's way out by killing himself.  Let's hope so.

But the Pennsylvania State Police historically has been a troubled and scandal-plagued agency long on boastfulness and short on accomplishments,  the most recent scandal enveloping none other than State Police Superintendent Frank Noonan, who sent and received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from his state e-mail account.  In other words, pornography.  Talk about role models.
Given the state police's history, the failure to find Frein comes as no surprise.  Nor does the abysmal coverage of the Pocono Record, which has been gifted an international story right in its front yard but has rolled over and allowed out-of-town media to break the big stories, such as they are, while dutifully kowtowing to the state police and officialdom, taking everything they have said at face value with nary a skeptical question asked, let alone published, as it has become increasing obvious that the massively expensive operation to bring Frein to ground has been unraveling. 
Not a single Record story in the last three weeks has showed the kind of initiative and doggedness that has allowed the Scranton Times-Tribune, Allentown Morning Call, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and the television news networks to run circles around it.
THE POCONOS TAKE ANOTHER HIT
The manhunt could not have come at a worse time for the Poconos. 

The Monroe County economy crapped out long before the rest of the nation, and for a while it led all counties nationwide in home foreclosures per capita.  This is because local bigs, not content to try to build the tourist industry and brand the Poconos as a special place with beautiful woodlands chockablock with trails, waterfalls, creek and rivers, as well as golf courses, ski slopes and family friendly resorts, climbed into bed with rapacious developers and usurious financial institutions after the 9/11 attacks to sell the Poconos as a safe haven from a world gone crazy.
(Not surprisingly, although Frein fits the definition to a T, the news media is up to it's usual name-game bull in calling him everything other than what he is -- a terror-freaking-ist, because he is an American and doesn't wear funny clothes and worship a false God.)
Anyhow, people flocked to the area from the Bronx, Queens and northern New Jersey by the thousands after 9/11, but the gauzy illusion that the Poconos was some sort of paradise soon gave way to a harsh reality of which wise locals were all too aware: There was an apathetic political establishment resistant to reform, many roads and bridges were in atrocious condition, social services were overtaxed, schools ranged from mediocre to poor, rates were well above state county-by-county averages for adult major crime, drunk driving and vehicular fatalities, an increasingly degraded environment, and stratospherically high local tax rates that have been crushing to all but the relatively few affluent residents. 

Many of the homes built for new arrivals were substandard, many of the people who bought them were marginally solvent and easy prey for unscrupulous mortgage companies -- and there were no decent jobs.
Politicians' post-9/11 promises that a major complex of financial institutions that they dubbed Wall Street West would be built in the Poconos and long-moribund passenger rail service would be restored between the region and New York City were so much hot air.  
Virtually the only jobs were and remain minimum wage -- dishwashers, groundskeepers, chambermaids and burger flippers -- while the commute to and from North Jersey and New York City and decent paying jobs is a killer; in fact, it is regularly described as the worst commute in the nation by rating services.  Fickle educators went on a school building binge as a result of the population explosion, but today some schools have been shuttered and teachers furloughed.  A reverse migration has kicked in as many of the same people who were lured by false promises have retreated back to where they had come from -- foreclosed on, broke and broken.  
Meanwhile, the manhunt comes when fall foliage, an attraction for day trippers and other tourists, is kicking in early because of a dry summer.  It promises to be spectacular. 
Inn keepers and restaurateurs report lousy to nonexistent business.  And don't mind that huge image of Frein, with a smirking mug and Serbian army hat, his inclusion on the FBI's Most Wanted List duly noted, on a huge electronic billboard at the Delaware River Toll Bridge on Interstate 80, the eastern and most heavily used portal to the Poconos.  (There is nary a peep about the manhunt, let alone the fact that much of the region remains open for visitors, on the website of the reliably somnambulant Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau, the lead tourism agency.)
Then there is the fall hunting season, an annual orgy of wildlife carnage in a gun-crazy region where public schools still close on the first day of gun deer season and tables, lunch counters and bars at pubs, roadhouses and diners usually glow hunter orange from the beginning of deer bow season, which opens on Saturday, followed by seasons for deer and elk, squirrel, rabbit and hare, and various wildfowl that run through to the end of December.  
State police initially green-lighted hunting in even the deepest woods once the seasons opened, but on Wednesday the state Game Commission had second thoughts and banned hunting in a huge area in seven townships that is substantially larger than the area where the manhunt is ongoing. 
It is hard to imagine a more incompatible mix: Hunters armed to the teeth filling woodlands teeming with state troopers armed to the teeth, but the Game Commission edict has provoked outrage from both casual hunters and hunters who rely on filling their freezers with venison and other game to make it through harsh winters.
"Thank you Pa. Game Commission for making it official, one indignant hunter declared.  "The police have been lying to us about knowing the general area where Frein is.  I understand them closing the area where they claim he is . . . yet they want the game commission to close such a massive area.  I support the police for putting their lives on the line, but the higher up's are not being honest with the public."
"If anybody should be honest and straightforward with the public it is the police," said another resident.  "I have been supportive of the police from the start, but that support is wearing thin other than wishing them good luck and safe going."
* * * * *
I reveal how the Pennsylvania State Police, aided and abetted by an indifferent criminal-justice establishment, blew a high-profile Poconos murder and botched several other murders in my 2010 book, The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder.  The book is available online in trade paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and at Barnes & Nobles and other online booksellers.
Photograph from philly.com