No Comment — June 9, 2007, 6:39 pm

Abramoff and “Justice” in the Heart of Dixie

On a hill above Birmingham, Alabama stands a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, a symbol of the city’s debt to the steel industry around which it grew. Today, however, little steel is forged in Birmingham, but scandals are coming aplenty. What continues to emerge from the former Pittsburgh of the south are more details in the unfolding allegations surrounding the politically driven prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, today in the form of an article in the Birmingham News. Or rather, perhaps the Birmingham News piece is itself the story. Under a headline stating “Two Siegelman Advocates Missed Out on State Contract,” the News reports:

The two people alleging that former Gov. Don Siegelman’s prosecution was tainted by politics are tied to a company that did not win a state contract from Gov. Bob Riley’s administration last year. Former Riley Chief of Staff Toby Roth said he believed the lost contract was a factor when the two people signed statements accusing Riley’s advocates of engineering the case against Siegelman, a Democratic rival. “I think it certainly raises suspicions about their accusations,” Roth said. “This has got a sour grapes aspect to it.”

Now as my readers know, I am an attorney and an opinion-journalist, I teach law and journalism students at Columbia University, and as an attorney, I spend a good part of my practice representing and working for the media. My instincts tell me that this story was been peddled by Toby Roth – he may well have called a “marker” to get it run – and it aims to discredit the evidence for Karl Rove’s involvement by linking the sources to a failed contract bid. This is mighty thin gruel. But it all goes downhill from there. And you really have to read the story to its end. As in the Sherlock Holmes tale of “Silver Blaze” the really fascinating thing about the Birmingham News story consists of the facts which are strangely missing. For instance:

  • Might Toby Roth have some particular exposure or interest in the affidavit other than simply shilling for his old boss? A good journalist knows that he needs to acquaint his reader with the relationship the speaker has to the story, particularly the connection that the speaker does not want to disclose. Now Toby Roth is a former chief of staff for Governor Riley. Granted, a chief of staff has a duty to shill for his boss – that’s a core part of the job description – but beyond that? How about the fact that Governor Riley’s son features smack dead-center in the allegations. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Might there be any relationship between Toby Roth and Karl Rove? That would be another highly relevant entanglement, wouldn’t it? Well, before Mr. Roth served Bob Riley as chief of staff, he had a very long engagement in Alabama GOP politics. And among his clients was Harold See, a candidate for the Alabama Supreme Court. With whom did he collaborate in that long and hard-fought battle? Perhaps our friends at the News could have asked a question. Perhaps they could have invested 90 seconds on the internet. The answer would have been: William Canary and Karl Rove. That’s right, the third man who together with Canary and Rove drove the transformational campaign profiled in the Atlantic’s groundbreaking story was Toby Roth. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Where exactly did Toby Roth go when he left Governor Riley’s service? Roth is one of an entire platoon of Riley staffers who departed in order to take up work for Indian gaming interests. Others are: Michael Scanlon, Dan Gans, Dax Swatek, Twinkle Andress. Roth went to work with former Trent Lott chief-of-staff John Lundy at a Jackson, Mississippi-based lobbying firm named Capitol Resources. Among the firm’s principal clients are the casinos owned and operated by the Mississippi Choctaw Indian, whom they represented jointly with Jack Abramoff.

Considering the fact that the Siegelman prosecution springs out of allegations of Siegelman’s involvement supporting a gambling initiative, that’s a very curious fact, especially when juxtaposed with Jack Abramoff and what we know about Mr. Abramoff’s practice of trying to suppress one gambling interest supposedly to benefit another and stirring up the “yahoos” (I am quoting Mr. Abramoff-related emails) to vote against casino gambling. Another of the Abramoff fortes was using his lobbyist position with the casinos to stampede money into the coffers of Republican candidates for office. Indeed, looking at this list of names, it suddenly occurred to me: I’ve seen them many times before: they’re all names that have appeared in connection with the Abramoff investigation – widely considered the “mother lode” of modern political scandals. Indeed, it dawns on me suddenly that this story and the Abramoff story intersect, and the point of intersection is Toby Roth.

The News story also contained a remarkably lame account of the allegations:

“Simpson said in her affidavit that, in a 2002 conference call, she heard Republican Bill Canary tell the governor’s son and lawyer that White House adviser Karl Rove had told him the Department of Justice was investigating Siegelman. Canary and other participants say they don’t remember such a conversation.”

In fact the Simpson affidavit, which is readily available, but which the News reporters evidently couldn’t be bothered to actually read, provides a detailed specific account of what transpired, starting with Canary’s statement “not to worry about Don Siegelman that ‘his girls would take care of him.’” Then Riley’s son asked Canary if he was sure that Siegelman would be “taken care of,” and Canary told him not to worry that he had already gotten it worked out with Karl and Karl had spoken with the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice was already pursuing Don Siegelman.” “His girls” were Canary’s wife Leura Canary, who as U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Alabama, did in fact start the investigation, only dropping off when objections were raised by Governor Siegelman’s counsel due to her obvious political bias and the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham Alice Martin. Ms. Simpson, who gave the affidavit, is a lifelong Republican and was a worker in the Riley campaign against Siegelman, and her account has been contemporaneously corroborated – all facts the News reporters have also suppressed. The statements denying the affidavit are extremely vague “non-recollections,” are unsworn, and in a law court would count for absolutely nothing.

Now going back through the Abramoff database and looking at the names lined up against Siegelman in this affair is a curious exercise indeed. There’s a hit every few seconds.

  • Michael Scanlon – he was Riley’s Congressional press secretary. Scanlon left Riley to work for Tom DeLay and then went to work for Jack Abramoff. He has since pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress. A Senate Report prepared under the supervision of John McCain details how Scanlon and Abarmoff funnelled Choctaw funds into the Alabama gubernatorial race in 2002.
  • Dan Gans – served as Riley’s chief of staff both in Washington and Montgomery. He left Riley to work with Ed Buckham and Christine DeLay at the Alexander Strategy Group, which has been repeatedly implicated in the Abramoff Scandal. Gans is a Republican “voting technology expert” who played a mysterious role in the 2002 gubernatorial election – he was in Republican controlled Bay Minette, Alabama, when 6,000 votes inexplicably shifted from Siegelman’s column to Riley’s due to a “computer glitsch.”
  • Twinkle Andress – is the former Executive Director of Alabama GOP. She was elected State GOP chair while signing up with Capitol Resources. She is now Riley’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
  • Dax Swatek – a key Riley campaign consultant in the 2006 race. Swatek has been identified as working with former William Canary partner Pat McWhorter in the formation of a fictitious non-profit organization in 1999 to benefit Abramoff’s client “Channel One,” a scheme which also involved Ralph Reed.
  • Governor Riley – the McCain report found that millions of dollars from the Choctaw Indians came into Alabama during the 2002 governor’s race – a fact denied by Riley until the report was released. In emails released by the Senate, former Riley congressional staffer Michael Scanlon partnered with Jack Abramoff to funnel Choctaw Indian funds into the 2002 Alabama Governor’s race, supporting Riley. The report contained emails detailing conversation regarding the 2002 race in which Abramoff tells Scanlon that he has been in touch with “Nell” (Nell Rogers) of the Choctaws and “had it not been for what you did in Alabama, we would have had to spend millions in Alabama over the next four years.” The conversation then details what “Nell” wanted Riley to do in return for the “help” he had received. The email states Rogers made it clear that she “definitely wants Riley to shut down the Porch Creek operation.” The Alabama Porch Creek Indians were competitors of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Subsequently, Riley met with Attorney General John Ashcroft about the Porch Creek Indians, and Alabama Attorney General Troy King wrote a letter on behalf of Riley to the Department of the Interior requesting denial of Porch Creek Indians request for Class III gaming. A commission to evaluate the Porch Creek application for Class III (table game) license was created.
  • And who should be appointed to that commission but William Canary’s “girl” and U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, Leura Canary?

So what emerges from this Birmingham News article? We have two remarkably incurious and lazy reporters. I supervise J-School students up at Columbia from time to time, and this product would not get a passing grade. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the sort of story that any journalist worth his salt should dream of being assigned to write on. On the other hand, doing a quick fact-check on their story revealed a lot.

The real story is that the deeper one delves into this, the more convincing the Simpson affidavit becomes. We’re looking at one hell of a scandalous miscarriage of justice, the object of which is corrupt and patently partisan and political. Very powerful forces have been engaged to cover it all up. There are also unmistakable signs of corruption surrounding the Montgomery statehouse – it’s not Siegelman’s corruption, but rather that of his successor and opponent. Indeed, it seems very closely tied to the people who claimed to have launched an effort to “get” Siegelman, using the authority of Karl Rove and his reach deep into the Department of Justice. And at this point it’s simply impossible to dismiss these claims as hollow boasts – we have the sworn testimony of eight former U.S. attorneys saying just the opposite. And just think about it – while one tentacle of the Abramoff scandal, which is the subject of press coverage all around the world, was flailing about wildly in the Alabama political scene, the U.S. Attorneys in Alabama ignore it and instead pour massive resources into its victim. If you made this stuff up, no one would accept it as plausible fiction.

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Combustion Engines

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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