zaterdag 8 december 2018

Wall Street's Corruption Runs Deeper


Wall Street's Corruption Runs Deeper Than You Can Fathom

Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2015. (Mark Lennihan / AP)
Of the myriad policy decisions that have brought us to our current precipice, from the signing of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the invasion of Iraq and the gerrymandering of House districts across the country, few have proven as consequential as the demise of Glass-Steagall. Signed into law as the U.S.A. Banking Act of 1933, the legislation had been crucial to safeguarding the financial industry in the wake of the Great Depression. But with its repeal in 1999, the barriers separating commercial and investment banking collapsed, creating the preconditions for an economic crisis from whose shadow we have yet to emerge.
Carmen Segarra might have predicted as much. As an employee at the Federal Reserve in 2011, three years after the dissolution of Lehman Brothers, she witnessed the results of this deregulation firsthand. In her new book, “Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street,” she chronicles the recklessness of institutions like Goldman Sachs and the stunning lengths the United States government went to to accommodate them, even as they authored one of the worst crashes in our nation’s history.
“They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” she tells Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “And so I think what we have in terms of this story is really not just a failure of the banks and the regulators, but also a failure of our prosecutors. I mean, a lot of the statutes that could be used—criminal statutes, even, that could be used to hold these executives accountable are not being used, and they have not expired; we could have prosecutors holding these people accountable.”
Segarra also explains why she decided to blow the whistle on the Fed, and what she ultimately hopes to accomplish by telling her story. “I don’t like to let the bad guys win,” she says. “I’d rather go down swinging. So for me, I saw it as an opportunity to do my civic duty and rebuild my life. … I was very lucky to be blessed by so many people who I shared the story to, especially lawyers who were so concerned about what I was reporting, who thought that the Federal Reserve was above this, who thought that the government would not fail us after the financial crisis, and who were livid.”
“Noncompliant” explores one of the darkest chapters in modern American history, but with a crook and unabashed narcissist occupying the Oval Office, its lessons are proving remarkably timely. “We live in a culture where we reward bad behavior, we worship bad behavior, and it’s something that needs to stop,” she cautions. “Changing the regulatory culture on [a] U.S. governmental level is something that’s going to take a decade, maybe two. And we need to start now, before things get worse.”
Listen to Segarra’s interview with Scheer or read a transcript of their conversation below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. Today, Carmen Segarra. She’s written a book, just came out, called “Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street.” And boy, did she ever. Perhaps you remember this case; it was in 2011, two, three years into the Great Recession. There was a lot of pressure from Congress that these banks be regulated in a more serious way. As a result, Carmen Segarra, someone of considerable education, was brought in. And she was assigned to do a survey of Goldman Sachs, to go over to Goldman Sachs. And I just want to preface this, people have to understand that not only is the Federal Reserve an incredibly—the most important economic institution in the United States, but the New York Federal Reserve plays a special role being in New York. And they are basically entrusted with regulating the banks, and they are the institution that most definitely failed in that task, and helped bring about the Great Recession. Would you agree with that assessment?
Carmen Segarra: Yes, I would agree with that assessment. When I joined the Federal Reserve, as you pointed out, I was hired from outside the regulatory world, but within the legal and compliance banking world, to help fix its problems. And I was well aware of the problems that existed. And scoping the problems itself was relatively easy; I mean, within days of arriving, I had participated in meetings where you had Goldman Sachs executives, you know, lying, doublespeaking, and misrepresenting to regulatory agencies without fear of repercussions. And where I saw Federal Reserve regulators actively working to suppress and expunge from the record evidence of wrongdoing that could be used by regulatory agencies, prosecutors, and even the Federal Reserve itself to hold Goldman Sachs accountable. The question was, when I arrived, you know, are these problems fixable? And, spoiler alert: I don’t think so.
RS: Well, your book really is a compelling read on, really, what one could consider the dark culture of finance capital. Most of us know very little about it; we think it’s boring, it’s detailed and so forth. And I was thinking of another woman observer of great education and experience, who first tipped me off as a journalist when I was trying to cover the stuff about banking deregulation and so forth, and when Clinton was president and they did the basic financial deregulation. A woman named Brooksley Born, who was head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and she had your kind of background, you know; a leading lawyer with the banks, and so forth. Understood this a lot better than most of the men who were powerful, including Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; Lawrence Summers, who took over from him and went on to be the head of Harvard; Alan Greenspan–none of them really understood these collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps; she did. She blew the whistle on it, and they basically destroyed her. She was forced out of the Clinton administration, and what have you. Did you know about Brooksley Born’s work when you got into this? Do you have any sense? I mean, this was really sort of the first major whistleblower, and she was, as you have been, basically pushed aside.
CS: Yes. I definitely knew about her. And you know, I have to say that I was, you know, just taking that historical perspective, which I think is an important point of view through which we should approach this topic. I mean, I remember when I was in law school, I was one of the very first graduating classes to graduate into a post-Glass-Steagall world. From a 50,000-foot level, I think people have a better understanding of what that means, in the sense, you know, you have all of a sudden the securities and the banking products can get together. But from a practical standpoint, from a ground-zero level, where I was at, that essentially meant two things. From a professional standpoint, we studied and were aware of the fact that there were a bunch of people on one side of the aisle, the investment products side–you know, the collateralized debt obligations that you mentioned. And then there were people who were on the banking side; we’re talking, you know, for purposes of argument, credit cards and debit cards. And that these people, they may have known about their products, but they were highly specialized; they only knew about the one or two things that they touched, and they certainly didn’t know about them and how they interacted together. And one of the things that I remember studying were not just the cases of whistleblowers, but also discussing amongst our classmates, you know, what the impact would be of all of a sudden having a class or a series of classes, graduating from law school, with people who are focusing on banking and compliance, like I was, and who are having to understand both of these products and sort of how they interact together. And what, sort of visualizing what our work life would be like, in terms of reporting to people that had an incomplete understanding of how the banking world worked. So, yes, I was definitely aware; I understood perfectly where she was coming from. And she was very much a cautionary tale for the rest of us who are lawyers. In terms of, if you find yourself in these difficult situations, you sort of game out what potentially can happen. And I certainly took it into consideration when I was gaming out whether or not to whistleblow.
RS: Well, before you get to the whistleblowing stage, I think you’re being too kind to what I personally think are people who should be considered as, or at least charged and examined often with what is criminal behavior. Because ignorance is really not a good defense; when they were called before congressional committees, these knowledgeable people admitted they really didn’t understand collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. And for people who are not that familiar, you mentioned Glass-Steagall. And what Glass-Steagall was, was one of the, really maybe the most important response of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s democratic administration to the Great Depression. And how did this terrible depression happen, how were the banks so irresponsible. And they decided the key thing was to separate investment banks from commercial bank; investment banks could be high-rollers, private money, you know what you’re doing, you have knowledge; and commercial banks where you’re basically protecting the assets of ordinary people, they’re not knowledgeable, they’re trusting your expertise. And eliminating Glass-Steagall eliminated this wall between the two kinds of banking. And the company that you went to observe, Goldman Sachs, was an investment bank. And by the working of that law, they should have been allowed to go belly-up when it turned out they had a lot of these dubious credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. To people who don’t know, a credit default swap was a phony insurance policy pretending to cover these things, but really there’s nothing backing it up. And somehow, in order to save them, they were allowed to announce they could do commercial banking. One could argue, in some ways, the barrier was lifted to help–Citigroup was of course the other one–Citibank. And these are two banks that the government stepped in to help and create this monster. Is it not the case?
CS: Yeah, that’s absolutely the case. But there’s a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. I mean, I think that we’re all sort of educated enough to know that, you know, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And so if a system can be corrupted, people that are allowed to grab hold of power will corrupt it–insofar and only for so long as we allow those people to have the ability and the power to corrupt it. So ultimately, talking about more or less rules, or different rules, is productive only to a point. Because ultimately what we’re talking about here is the haphazard, slap on the wrist, failure to truly enforce the rules and regulations equitably across the system. And that creates the imbalances that you see, for example, in Goldman Sachs, and that you see in the system in general. One of the things that happened as a result of Glass-Steagall coming down was that a lot of the investment bankers were allowed to take over the commercial banks. And those investment bankers knew nothing about banking, and Goldman is a great example of that. I mean, when I arrived three years in after the financial crisis, what was one of the things that was very shocking to me was going into meeting after meeting with Goldman senior management and hearing them lie, doublespeak, and most shockingly of all, insist that they didn’t have to comply with the law. And that is a problem. Because a bank that doesn’t believe, or management at a bank that doesn’t believe they have to comply with the law–you bet they are not supervising their employees correctly, and they’re not incentivizing employees correctly in terms of how to do their job. So their behavior is injecting enormous risk into the system.
RS: Why should they think they should comply with the law when they got the law written and they could get it rewritten? I mean, after all, the treasury secretary, who pushed in the Clinton administration, right, to get rid of this restraint of Glass-Steagall and allow companies like Goldman Sachs to cross that line, was Robert Rubin. And he had been a top executive at Goldman Sachs. In fact, people used to refer to it as Government Sachs, that they had people all over the government, and it was a revolving door. And I want to point out that what you did, which was really unique–you had the guts to record these conversations. When you finally got to have your say before Congress, you could be backed up because you had the record. And tell us about that record. The conversations you recorded are absolutely chilling in describing an atmosphere of cynicism; you know, corruption; contempt, actually, for the political process and for restraint and regulation.
CS: Yeah. And I would sort of add that part of what the book sort of points out is that I didn’t really get my say. I mean, Congress did hold a hearing, but they did not invite me to testify. They didn’t want to hear what I had to say. And so I think what we have in terms of this story is really not just a failure of the banks and the regulators, but also a failure of our prosecutors. I mean, a lot of the statutes that could be used–criminal statutes, even, that could be used to hold these executives accountable are not being used, and they have not expired; we could have prosecutors holding these people accountable. We could have trial lawyers filing cases and holding these people accountable. Yet we can’t count on them to do it; we can’t count on the judiciary to do anything about it. I mean, when you read about what happened in my case in the book, it’s tragic, you know? It’s unbelievable.
RS: Tell us about that. Because you had a judge who was actually deep into this system who threw your case out.
CS: The case was assigned to a judge who was friends with the attorney, I had worked with the attorney that represented the Fed. And then two days before dismissing the case, she revealed that she was married to someone who represented Goldman Sachs for a living. So, yeah, there you go. [Laughs] I mean, it’s almost impossible in terms of successfully blowing the whistle. But going back to your question with respect to the recordings and having a say, I think the question that we need to be asking ourselves is this: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Federal Reserve in general, is tasked with supervising the banks. They have recorders. They have the law on their side. New York is a one person consent state. Banks, private banks, habitually record everything that goes on inside the bank, and they do it for good reason. Because they do it to stop and prevent fraud, among employees and by anybody that walks in the door. Why is the Federal Reserve not recording these executives? Why are they not preserving evidence? I think that is the question that we need to be asking ourselves. You know, what I did was not special. What I did is what the Fed should have been doing.
RS: Well, it was special in that [Laughs]–come on! There have been a lot of witnesses to these crimes, really, and you’re the lone voice from within that system that dared to speak up. And as I said, had you not been able to document it with these tapes, you would have been just dismissed as some kind of kook. The book is called Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street. You know, what is so important is nuance and language and attitude. And the people on Wall Street can affect the protection of manners and complexity. I remember Lawrence Summers testifying in Congress on why you had to get rid of Glass-Steagall, and he said “this is very complicated.” And he said the same thing Alan Greenspan said: “These people know what they’re doing,” and so forth. It wasn’t complicated. If the Mafia did it, you’d see right through it in five minutes. Right? You were bundling a bunch of lousy deals together with some good deals, and you didn’t even know what was in there, and you sold them, and you got a phony insurance contract to back it up. And yet none of these people have been, gone to jail; very few, one or two have been prosecuted as kind of a scapegoat. But the book is a great story of an American heroine–but this is what everybody should do! [Laughs] I mean, the real issue about whistleblowers like yourself is why did it take you? Where were the other folks? How many people–yeah, go ahead.
CS: Yeah, agreed. I think that’s exactly right. You know, there’s a number of reasons why I wrote the book. First of all, because I think it’s an important contribution to the historical record. As to what is the systemic culture of corruption that exists in these regulatory agencies that are taking our taxpayer dollars and paying themselves handsome salaries to work against the American taxpayers. And then the second reason I wrote it is to incentivize people to come forward with their stories. I wasn’t the only person who wanted to blow the whistle in terms of what was going on there. My circumstances were unique, and I sort of go through it in the book, in the sense that I was very lucky, for example, that the Fed refused to even negotiate the mandated settlement that they were supposed to negotiate with me. But they refused, and that allowed me to sue. There’s a number of people who have gone through the process and have been silenced by, you know, getting a monetary offer and signing a settlement agreement. And we don’t hear about them because they are forced not to talk. What I sort of thought about was, you know, this is just a unique–you know, I didn’t ask to be in this situation, but I felt it was my civic duty. Because I do think that we need more people to really think about how in their daily lives, they can stop rewarding bad behavior. We live in a culture where we reward bad behavior, we worship bad behavior, and it’s something that needs to stop, you know. Changing the culture, the regulatory culture on the U.S. governmental level is something that’s going to take a decade, maybe two. And we need to start now, before things get worse. We are not in the best-off of situations as a country; you know, we have what seems like an economic boom, but it’s really just a debt-fueled economic boom that is going to be temporary. And it’s very tough to fix these types of cultural issues, system issues, when the hurricane of the next financial crisis hits. We need to fix it now, while we still have a semblance of peace, while we still have the sun shining. And we don’t know how much longer that’s going to be. I hope it’s long enough to fix it. I hope that people are inspired to come forward and to think about how to make a difference in their daily lives. You know, because we need to start thinking of raising children and raising adults that are incentivized in their daily lives to reward good behavior. I think that until we create a critical mass of Americans that in their daily lives refuse to reward bad behavior, we’re not going to see real systemic change.
RS: Well, we’ll see change. It might not be good change. I mean, you have Donald Trump–and I want to put some oomph behind this, that it’s bipartisan. Because one of the–you know, everybody, a lot of people I know are very upset about Donald Trump. He’s speaking to what Hillary Clinton calls the “deplorables”; but there’s a lot of people hurting out there. And if you read a study done by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis about the consequence of this economic meltdown that was engineered from places like Goldman Sachs, the human cost was incredible. I mean, people lost everything. They weren’t bailed out. There was no mortgage relief. They were not helped. The banks were bailed out. And yet no one has been held accountable, and the politicians, democrats and republicans, who supported it, have gotten off scot-free.
CS: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. This is not a democratic problem, this is not a republican problem. This is an American problem with worldwide impact. The U.S. dollar is a reserve currency. The world depends in large part on the American banking system to work. And for it to work, there are these rules, and these rules are there to create trust in the system and to create smooth processes in the system, so that money can be moved and the economy can continue to grow. If the world can no longer trust the American banking system because Americans cannot be trusted to regulate it, they are going to move away from the American banking system. They are going to move away from the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. And then we are going to find ourselves in the situation that a lot of countries that are not governed by reserve currencies find themselves occasionally, from time to time, whenever they have a crisis. You know, we’re talking about countries in Latin America; we’re talking about countries in Africa; we’re talking about countries in Asia. I hope the book will inspire people to really take a look around and realize, you know, the American consumer, the American worker, is incredibly powerful. You know, these banks cannot survive without our money. We don’t have to wait for the government to keep failing us; we don’t have to wait for the judiciary to keep failing us; we don’t have to wait for lawyers to keep failing us. We choose who we work for. We choose where we keep our money. We can choose to protest. We can choose to call our pension funds and tell them, I want you to stop doing business with Goldman Sachs. It’s what we do on a daily basis. When we stand up and we say, I am not going to be banking with these people–they will listen. It’s like, they control all of these other checks and balances that were put in place in terms of the government to stop them. So now it’s up to us as a people to actually do something about this.
RS: Let me take a break. And I’ve been talking to Carmen Segarra, who is actually the lone honest person from within the banking system that I know of who really took the story of what these people were doing, and swindling the American people, and fortunately documented it with tape recording–as they document everything; if you call the bank for information, “your conversation will be recorded to make it more efficient”–well, she turned the table on that, had the record. The book is called Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street. [omission for station break] I’m not going to be able, in the time that I have here, to do justice to this book, because the devil is in the details. I want to talk about some people who did speak up. I mentioned Brooksley Born, who was this brilliant member of the Clinton administration who got pushed out for speaking up. But when the pressure came down after the Great Recession, and the banks had to be questioned, they at Goldman Sachs turned to a Columbia University finance professor, David Beim. And he did a report. He had access to everything, he did this incredible report. We only know about it because it showed up in some footnote somewhere. And by the way, I haven’t given enough credit here to the people who have helped break this story. ProPublica, who did a really terrific job on it, and the NPR show This American Life, which really did a great job. So there has been really good reporting. As you pointed out, it was absolutely shameful that Congress did not really take testimony from you; you were there as an observer–I think in a red dress, to be noticed. [Laughs]
CS: Yes. Well, you know, red is the color of martyrs.
RS: And so I want to ask you about that. Before you even went there, this guy David Beim had done a study. And William Dudley, the president of the bank, didn’t even respond. He said thank you, they looked at the–and they never responded to the criticisms in that study, which were devastating. Of how the bank was operating.
CS: Yeah, but that’s how the Federal Reserve Bank of New York operates. And that’s, curiously enough, also how Goldman Sachs operates. They say one thing and do another. If you want to know what they’re doing, just flip it, right? I mean, if they’re asking for a report, that means that they plan to do nothing about it. And you know, the book sort of walks you through the story of how they played at this game of pretending to clean up the regulatory issues. I mean, the joke really was on us, the new regulators that were brought in from the industry to actually clean up the problems that were there. None of us are there at the Fed anymore. Every single one of those people that I talk about that validated my story, they’re gone. And they are gone under different circumstances, some in good standing, some in less good standing, but the point is they’re all gone. Because the purpose of bringing us in was not really to change things, it was to ensure that they had a smoke screen and a story to feed the press, that they would print, saying that they had indeed fixed this. And there was nothing else there to see.
RS: We’re going to run out of time here, but I want to nail down one–this chain of responsibility. And I had just mentioned New York Fed president William Dudley, who I believe ran into some difficulty; he had ownership in something that they were trading with. But leaving that aside, he replaced Timothy Geithner. And when Goldman Sachs, when this whole banking thing happened, there was no more important individual in this country, in a position to observe it, than Timothy Geithner. He had been in the Clinton administration; he had worked for Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers in the Clinton administration when they deregulated Wall Street. And he was rewarded for that deregulation, right, by being named to the most important regulatory position, to be head of the New York Fed. And Barack Obama in 2008, as the banking meltdown was happening, gave a speech at Cooper Union, April of 2008, blasting Wall Street. And then, when Hillary Clinton lost the primary, Barack Obama turned to Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, and these people for advice, and he named Timothy Geithner to be his treasury secretary. The guy who at the New York Fed, where you went there to work and to try to supervise Goldman Sachs–he knew everything about this, and told us nothing, and he was rewarded by being made treasury secretary.
CS: When I’m saying, you know, we have to stop rewarding bad behavior, that’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s like, we have a culture where we reward people for their bad behavior. And in the Fed it is a systemic problem. And it is a problem that comes from the top down. And when I was at the Fed, Ben Bernanke was head of the Fed; Bill Dudley, as you pointed out, was the head of the New York Fed; and Sarah Dahlgren was his head of supervision. This is a very small world. We’re not talking about a lot of people; the culture is top-down, and everybody there just does what these people say, because if they don’t they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. So from their perspective, they have nothing to lose, because they have a bunch of workers that are going to do as they say. And they will do what is in their best corporate interests. I mean, you have Bill Dudley, who was allowed to hold on to a lot of his investments that predated his arrival at the Fed and were held at Goldman Sachs. And you know, when you have somebody who’s not forced to really work for the government–as in divesting themselves of their own conflicts and truly taking taxpayer money and doing their job–then you can’t expect a good result to come from that. Again, we rewarded bad behavior. And that’s why I think, you know, the key here is really about taking a really good look at our daily lives and seeing, who are we rewarding on a regular basis? And we need to stop rewarding that bad behavior.
RS: But I want to challenge what I think is your optimism. And in fact, you are living proof that doing the right thing can be a career-ender. I haven’t asked you, I mean, I assume you still have a good career; you’re highly talented and competent, and you were, you know, extremely well educated. But you’re not being considered to be treasury secretary or something, right? The consequences for you were quite dire, weren’t they?
CS: They were. And you know, my career in banking is over on a permanent basis. But I think you sort of point out to, a little bit to my personality, and I hope it comes through in the book; I sort of talk about that fact that I’m just a very resilient person. And I just, I don’t like to let the bad guys win. I’d rather go down swinging. So for me, I saw it as an opportunity to do my civic duty and rebuild my life. You know, and I was very lucky to be blessed by so many people who I shared the story to, especially lawyers who were so concerned about what I was reporting, who thought that the Federal Reserve was above this, who thought that the government would not fail us after the financial crisis, and who were livid. And I’ve been blessed with their support through the process of whistleblowing, and I continue to be blessed by their support even after. I have a husband who was, you know, a real hero of the story in my book, and I have been able to remake my life as a lawyer in private practice. And my clients, you know, God bless them, they trust me to help them. And I wouldn’t change what I did for anything. Because I think for me–and I talk about it in the book–I think living a meaningful life is more important than making money. I think for me, making money is important insofar as it pays the bills. But once my bills are paid, it’s about having a meaningful life. And I just feel very, very lucky that I have had the life that I’ve had, that I got to go to a Catholic school that taught me the morals that I believe in. I think that I am who I am, and I think that I would be just as moral if I had grown up Jewish, or if I had grown up a Mormon, or if I had grown up a Protestant. So I feel very blessed that I was exposed to what good values and good behavior are. I decided since I was very little that that’s just the way I wanted to live my life, and that to live meaningfully was more important than anything else. And that has driven all of my decisions, and I found the experience to be rewarding. And when people talk to me about how bad things are and how things sort of look like they’re never going to turn around, I tell them, no. They will turn around. We just need to believe in ourselves and be our own saviors, and be our own heroes in our own daily lives.
RS: But let me, let me challenge that. And yes, you’re an exemplary person. No question. And people should read this book, Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street. But I want to focus on that word, “lone.” Lone whistleblower. These people had the same great education you had at the best schools, OK? They didn’t blow the whistle. No, they abetted the crime! They made it possible. They destroyed people like Brooksley Born, who dared challenge it. And the fact of the matter is, you can’t expect ordinary people–even myself. You know, I did graduate work in economics, I’m a professor, blah blah blah. But I can tell you, when I went into my bank loans, I didn’t know all the details and what they were talking about and everything. I counted on regulation, I counted on government, I counted on accountability, frankly, on the part of these institutions. So my view is, you can’t expect ordinary people–that’s why we had a distinction between investment banks and commercial banks. Commercial banks are supposed to deal with ordinary people, OK? They’re supposed to hold their money, give them a fair interest rate, make loans on their houses, and help them out. And they have to be regulated, because you know, the ordinary person can’t be an expert. The failure here is of the educated class. Of the superachievers. And you count on those people, yes, to do the right thing. But money talks. And the fact of the matter is, the people you went to school with, at the Ivy League schools, at the wherever–they sold us all out.
CS: I think you make a good point. But I also think that the problems are systemic and run deeper. I mean, I would point out, for example, just from a personal perspective, when I graduated both college and law school I happened to be one of those that graduated into a recession, twice. There weren’t too many jobs. I didn’t have too many options. I ended up working in where I ended up working because it was either that or not feed myself. And I think one of the problems that we have that is systemic is that we have allowed capitalism to create such huge imbalances in how we reward people for their daily work. So people are forced to do something that they may not even like, or may not even be good at, because they have no choice. It’s a shame, because we’re a big enough country, we have a lot of talent, there should be more invisible hand, central planning. This whole system where we are now turning our attention to creating computer programmers is more based on making sure that computer programming becomes a cheap, minimum-wage job where the owners of the computer companies like Apple don’t have to overpay like they are doing now for those workers. So I think that there are more systemic issues than we realize. And I agree with you, I think that, you know, we were sold out by the intellectual class. But we still need to figure out–and the intellectuals are the ones who are going to help us–we need to figure out how to fix the system on a larger scale if we are going to rebalance things. And I don’t have the monopoly on the answer, on all the answers, you know? I’m just a girl born in Indiana to two Puerto Rican parents, you know? [Laughs] It’s not like I have any terms, in any way access to the higher echelons and how that works. But I think that we really do need to think about, in our own ways and in our own lives, how we can sort of convince other people to make the right choices on a daily basis. Because I think that if everybody takes making the right choices seriously, and realizes that we’re all in the same boat–you know, we’re all Americans, this is going to impact us all–I think that we can, slowly but surely, right the boat and start heading in the right direction.
RS: People should read Noncompliant–it’s an important word; they weren’t compliant–A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street. And recognize that the problem with modern governance is that the decisions are made by people who don’t have our common interest, who are bought off. That money talks. And one reason we have such despair now, and we go for demagogues, and we have such divisive, ugly language and ugly politics, is the so-called civilized, well-educated leaders of our country went for the money and betrayed ordinary people. I’ll let you take the last word, and then we’ll wrap it up.
CS: Ah, well, thank you. And again, you know, I know that you are sort of [Laughs] thinking about it from the perspective of a hopeless sort of case. But I do think that there is–and I hope people will look at it as the beginning of change. You know, yes, the book is a very sad story; the bad guys do win, for now. But just because they win the battle doesn’t mean they’re going to win the war. And I refuse to give up hope in the American people, and I refuse to give up hope in the American consumer. I think that we can make a difference if we try. Because I think that when we get the American people–no matter whether they’re democrats, republicans, independent–when we get them educated on the topic of finance, when we get them accessible stories, they will have their say. And they matter–we matter. And it’s important that they come to the table, otherwise this problem isn’t going to get solved.
RS: And if you’re someone who, or know someone who lost their home, or wondered what happened to the American dream, or where are the good jobs–you got to read Noncompliant: A Lone Whistleblower Exposes the Giants of Wall Street. My guest has been Carmen Segarra, who is a veteran of it, and understands it. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. The producers for Scheer Intelligence are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And at USC, at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Victor Figueroa and Sebastian Grubaugh provided excellent assistance, as well as NPR in New York. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.
Robert Scheer
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Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
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The Film the Israel Lobby Does Not Want You to See

The Film the Israel Lobby Does Not Want You to See

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The Lobby,” the four-part Al-Jazeera documentary that was blocked under heavy Israeli pressure shortly before its release, has been leaked online by the Chicago-based website Electronic Intifada, the French website Orient XXI and the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.
The series is an inside look over five months by an undercover reporter, armed with a hidden camera, at how the government and intelligence agencies of Israel work with U.S. domestic Jewish groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), The Israel Project and StandWithUs to spy on, smear and attack critics, especially American university students who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It shows how the Israel lobby uses huge cash donations, often far above the U.S. legal limit, and flies hundreds of members of Congress to Israel for lavish and unpaid vacations at Israeli seaside resorts, bribing the American lawmakers to do Israel’s bidding, including providing military aid such as the $38 billion (over 10 years) that was approved by Congress in 2016. It uncovers Israel’s sleazy character assassination of academics, activists and journalists, its well-funded fake grassroots activism, its manipulation of press coverage, and its ham-fisted attempts to destroy marriages, personal relationships and careers. The film highlights the efforts to discredit liberal Jews and Jewish organizations as tools of radical jihadists, referring, for example, to Jewish Voice for Peace as “Jewish Voice for Hamas” and claiming that many members of the organization are not actually Jewish. Israel recruits black South Africans into an Israeli front group called Stop Stealing My Apartheid, in a desperate effort to counter the reality of the apartheid state that Israel has constructed. The series documents Israel’s repeated and multifaceted interference in the internal affairs of the United States, including elections; efforts to discredit progressive groups such as Black Lives Matter that express sympathy for the Palestinians; and routine employment of Americans to spy on other Americans. Israel’s behavior is unethical and perhaps illegal. But don’t expect anyone in the establishment or either of the two ruling political parties to do anything about it. It is abundantly clear by the end of the series that they have been intimidated, discredited or bought off.
“Imagine if China was doing this, if Iran was doing this, if Russia was doing this?” Ali Abunimah, the author of “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, says in the film. “There would be uproar. You would have Congress going off to them. You would have hearings.”
Those of us who denounce and expose the Israeli crimes committed against Palestinians are intimately familiar with the sordid and nefarious tactics of the Israel lobby. The power of the film series is that in dealing with the reporter—a young Oxford postgraduate, James Anthony Kleinfeld, who goes by the name Tony in the film and poses as a pro-Israel student—major figures within the Israel lobby candidly explain and expose their massive covert campaign in the United States. There is no plausible deniability. And this is why Israel worked so hard to stop the film from being broadcast.
Clayton Swisher, who directed the series, wrote in the liberal Jewish newspaper The Forward that leaders from the Israel lobby met with the state of Qatar’s registered agent and lobbyist, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz named Nick Muzin, to “see if he could use his ties with the Qataris to stop the airing.” Qatar funds Al-Jazeera. Muzin told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that “he was discussing the issue with the Qataris and didn’t think the film would broadcast in the near future.” An anonymous source told Haaretz that “the Qatari emir himself helped make the decision” to spike the film.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 and imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the Persian Gulf state. They accuse Doha of supporting terrorism and radical Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The four states have issued a list of demands for re-establishing ties that include Qatar’s shutting down Al-Jazeera, along with severing relations with Iran. Qatar has appealed to the United States to intercede and has, as part of this effort, reached out to the powerful Israel lobby in the United States for support. American Jewish leaders, including the former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, have met with the Qatari emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and have discussed with him what they describe as the network’s “anti-Semitism.” It is widely believed the series was sacrificed by Qatar in an effort to placate the Israel lobby and get its support for an end to the sanctions, although the blockade remains in force.
Episode 1
The series exposes how Israeli intelligence services monitor American critics of Israel and feeds real-time information about them to American Jewish organizations.
“We are for example in the process of creating a comprehensive picture of the campuses,” Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, tells a gathering of pro-Israel activists in the film. “If you want to defeat a phenomenon you must have the upper hand in terms of information and knowledge.”
The Israeli government operates Israel Cyber Shield, a civil intelligence unit that collects and analyzes BDS activities and coordinates attacks against the BDS movement.
“We are giving them data—for example, one day Sima’s deputy is sending me a photo. Just a photo on Whatsapp,” Sagi Balasha, who was CEO of the Israeli-American Council from 2011 to 2015, says when speaking on an Israeli-American Council panel. “It’s written ‘Boycott Israel’ on the billboard.”
He shows a picture of a roadside billboard that reads: “BOYCOTT ISRAEL UNTIL PALESTINIANS HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS.”
“In a few hours our systems and analysts could find the exact organization, people, and even their names, and where they live,” says Balasha, who now works with cyber-intelligence organizations that target BDS activists. “We gave it back to the ministry, and I have no idea what they did with this. But the fact is, three days later there were no billboards.”
“We use all sorts of technology,” Jacob Baime, the executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, says in the film. “We use corporate-level, enterprise-grade social media intelligence software. Almost all of this happens on social media, so we have custom algorithms and formulae that acquire this stuff immediately.”
“Generally, within about 30 seconds or less of one of these things popping up on campus, whether it’s a Facebook event, whether it’s the right kind of mention on Twitter, the system picks it up,” says Baime. “It goes into a queue and alerts our researchers and they evaluate it. They tag it, and if it rises to a certain level, we issue early-warning alerts to our partners.”
Those recruited by the Israel lobby, including the undercover Al-Jazeera reporter in the documentary, are sent to training sessions such as Fuel the Truth. The film records a session in which trainees watch a video of Palestinian children as the narrator says, “Children are taught in UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] Palestinian schools to hate Jews.” The trainees are told that scenes of devastation in Gaza are, in fact, misrepresented images disseminated by critics from Syria or Iraq. They are instructed in role-playing workshops how to brand all those who criticize Israeli policies as anti-Semites, members of a hate group or self-hating Jews.
The reporter is placed in the so-called war room run by The Israel Project, known as TIP, which monitors American media for stories on Israel and the Palestinians. The goal is “neutralizing undesired narratives.”
“We develop relationships … ,” David Hazony, the managing director of The Israel Project, says about how to influence journalists. “A lot of alcohol to get them to trust us. We’re basically messaging on the following—BDS is essentially a kind of a hate group targeting Israel. They’re anti-peace. We try not to even use the terms because it builds their brand. We just refer to boycotters. The goal is to actually make things happen. And to figure out what are the means of communication to do that.”
The BDS movement, which I support, was formed in 2005. It is an attempt by Palestinian civil rights groups to build a nonviolent international movement to boycott Israel, divest from Israeli companies and eventually impose sanctions—as was done against apartheid South Africa—until basic Palestinian rights under international law are achieved. While the movement has not gained traction financially in the United States, with most colleges and universities refusing to divest, it has been very effective at illuminating the injustices committed against Palestinians by Israel and severely eroded Israel’s credibility and support in the U.S. This ongoing shift in public opinion terrifies Israel, which has poured tremendous resources into crushing the BDS movement.
“Government ministers attacked me in person,” Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS movement, says in the film. “One of them threatening BDS leaders with targeted civil assassination. Others threatened to revoke my permanent residency [in Israel], along other threats.”
“We suffered from intense denial-of-service attacks, hacking attacks on our website,” Barghouti says. “Israel decided to go on cyber warfare against BDS. Publicly, they said, ‘We shall spy on BDS individuals and networks, especially in the West.’ We have not heard a peep from any Western government complaining that Israel is admitting that it will spy on your citizens. Imagine Iran saying it will spy on British or American citizens. Just imagine what could happen.”
“So, like nobody really knows what we’re doing,” says Julia Reifkind, who was director of community affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “But mainly it’s been a lot of research, like monitoring BDS things and reporting it back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Like making sure everyone knows what’s going on. They need a lot of research done and stuff like that. When they talk about it in the Knesset, we’ve usually contributed to what the background information is. I’m not going to campuses. It’s more about connecting organizations and I guess campuses, providing resources and strategy if students need it.”
“I write a report and give it to my boss, who translates it,” Reifkind says. “It’s really weird. We don’t talk to them on the phone or email. There’s a special server that’s really secure that I don’t have access to because I’m an American. You have to have clearance to access the server. It’s called Cables. It’s not even the same [word translated] in Hebrew, it’s like literally ‘Cables.’ I’ve seen it. It looks really bizarre. So, I write reports that my boss translates into the cables and sends them. Then they’ll send something back. Then he’ll translate it and tell me what I need to do.”
“Is the Israeli Embassy trying to leverage faculty?” Tony, the undercover reporter, asks her.
“Yeah,” she says. “We are working with several faculty advocacy groups that kind of train faculty, and so we are helping them a little bit with funding, connections, bringing them to speak, having them to speak to diplomats and people at the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] that need this information. So, I want to be that resource to show students what we’re doing, to see what you’re doing, here’s some information if you need anything at all. We can connect you. Just kind of be that person there for you.”
Reifkind was president of the pro-Israel group at the University of California at Davis and worked closely with the Israel lobby to attempt to crush the BDS movement on campus, especially after Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) brought a divestment motion to the student senate.
“We knew they were going to win because the entire student senate was all pro-BDS,” she says. “They ran for that purpose and won for that purpose. We have been pushed out of student government for months.”
Reifkind and a few supporters went to the senate meeting where the vote was scheduled.
“We have been ignored and disrespected year after year, but we have never been silenced,” she tells the student gathering. “We are a beacon of peace and inclusion on a campus plagued by anti-Semitism.”
“The intolerance that spawned this [divestment] resolution is the same kind of intolerance that spawned anti-Semitic movements throughout history,” she shouts.
She and her handful of supporters walk out, an action they had agreed on in advance and then carefully filmed.
The passing of the BDS motion at UC Davis set the gears of the Israel lobby and the Israeli government in motion.
“That day all of us released like 50 op-eds in major news sources so that when people made a hashtag, like a whole thing trending, so when people opened their Facebooks it wouldn’t be them celebrating their victory,” Reifkind says in the film. “It would be us sharing our stories. Once it blew up, then random people like The Huffington Post contacted me and was like, “Do you have anything to say?” And I was like, ‘Conveniently, I wrote an op-ed two weeks ago just in case.’ ”
Israel and its surrogates in the United States used their considerable resources to carry out vicious and anonymous personal attacks against the campus BDS activists at UC Davis, calling them “terrorists” and “Hamas sympathizers” who support Sharia on campus. The lobby also skillfully framed the narrative in the national media, claiming falsely that the pro-Israel students were forced out of the meeting room.
“Pro-Israel students were taunted by pro-Hamas students after an anti-Israel vote passed on campus,” says an announcer on Fox News as a caption underneath video reads, “RUNNING RAMPANT: UC Davis Plagued by Anti-Semitic Feelings.” “And right after the vote passed, a student senator posted this on Facebook, ‘Hamas and Sharia law have taken over UC Davis. Brb [be right back] crying over the resilience.’ ”
Shortly after the vote, Jewish students said they found two swastikas painted on their fraternity house in Davis. The media, tipped off, was at the fraternity house almost immediately. The BDS activists were blamed for the graffiti.
The film shows a CBS 13 news clip.
Television reporter: “Pro-Israel students said they feared recent events would lead to this.”
UC Davis male student: “This has been sort of a bad week to be Jewish on campus.”
Television reporter: “After years of heated meetings, the student body passed a resolution Thursday, urging UC Davis to end any affiliation with companies that support Israel.”
Episode 2
Another UC Davis male student, speaking in front of one of the swastikas: “So, this is not out of the blue. We’re pretty sure this is directly related.”
StandWithUs helped us a little bit in terms of actual research on the speech,” Reifkind says in referring to her comments before the student senate. “They gave us some legal research type stuff. I’m always biased and want to work with AIPAC. They kind of helped, more like mold support. And David Projecthelped us a little bit. It was more help like gaining contacts in the media world. I guess we needed money to pay for someone to film the speech. We had a Davis Faculty for Israel group, and they were hugely helpful to us. Some of them were retired lawyers, they’d write legal documents for us. They knew the administration. They were tenured. They had pull.”
“After looking back on everything, I feel a little creepy because of what happened after the vote,” says Marcelle Obeid, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Davis. “People who were affiliated with the [pro-Palestinian] group were just smeared and had to deal with these very personal crises—the world calling us terrorists, the world thinking that we were this spiteful hate group. It’s pretty unequivocal how organized they were, how brutal and ruthless that narrative was, and how it affected us.”
The Electronic Intifada’s Abunimah says,
“There’s an intensive effort by Israel and pro-Israel groups to get governments, universities, legislative bodies to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that includes criticism of Israel and its state ideology, Zionism.”
“They have created this perverse definition of anti-Semitism where calling for everyone in Palestine and Israel to have equal rights is somehow an attack on Jews,” he says. “They’re trying to get this pushed into official definitions. This has been a key goal of the Brandeis Center so they can go after people who are advocating for equality and bring them up on charges that they’re actually anti-Semitic bigots.”
Kenneth Marcus, founding president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, confirms this stance in the film and is shown saying:
“You have to show that they’re racist hate groups, that they are using intimidation to get funded, and to consistently portray them that way.”
But despite its campaign, Israel is acutely aware that it is losing the public relations war, especially among the young.
“The polling isn’t good,” David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, which combats BDS on American campuses, says in the film. “And all of you probably know that if you look at the polls, the younger you get on the demographic scales, the lower support for Israel is. … It seems to be achieving its goals. I think it threatens future American support for Israel. Younger people are leaving college less sympathetic to Israel than when they entered.”
And many of these young people are Jewish, finding their identity and meaning in values that Israel refuses to uphold.
“The work that Jewish Voice for Peace does is grounded in Jewish tradition, the most basic Jewish and human values that every single person has inherent worth and dignity and should be treated with respect,” Rabbi Joseph Berman says in the film. “We then see what’s happening to Palestinians, the occupation, the displacement, the inequality, and say we need to end these things.”
But while Israel may be losing in the court of public opinion, it tightly embraces elected officials in the United States, where legalized bribery is institutionalized.
“Does the war of ideas matter?” asks Eric Gallagher, who was a director at AIPAC from 2010 to 2015. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did. That’s what I’m proud to have been a part of for so long. My job was basically to convince students that participating in the war of ideas on campuses is actually a distraction. You can hold up signs and have rallies on campus, but the Congress gets $3.1 billion a year for Israel. Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress. Congress is where you have leverage. So, you can’t influence the president of the United States directly, but the Congress can.”
“What the lobby is all about is to make sure that Israel gets special treatment from the United States, forever,” John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” says in the film.
Mearsheimer says,
“What AIPAC does is it makes sure that money is funneled your way if you’re seen as pro-Israel, and it will go to significant lengths to make sure that you stay in office if you continue to be staunchly pro-Israel.”
“What happens is Jeff [Talpins] meets with congressmen in the backroom, tells them exactly what his goals are,” David Ochs, founder of HaLev, says of the pro-Israeli hedge fund manager Jeff Talpins and how politicians receive sums of as much as $200,000 from the Israel lobby. “And by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million. Basically, they hand an envelope with 20 credit cards and say, ‘You can swipe each of these credit card for $1,000 each.’ ”
“If you wander off the reservation and become critical of Israel, you not only will not get money, AIPAC will go to great lengths to find someone who will run against you,” Mearsheimer says. “And support that person very generously. The end result is you’re likely to lose your seat in Congress.”
“They have questionnaires,” recalls former U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat from northern Virginia who was in the House from 1991 to 2015. Moran, who opposed the 2002 congressional resolution to invade Iraq, became a target for the Israel lobby, which pushed hard for the war. “Anyone running for Congress is required [by the lobby] to fill out a questionnaire. And they [AIPAC] evaluate the depth of your commitment to Israel on the basis of [those questions]. And then you have an interview with local people. If you get AIPAC support, then more often than not you’re going to win.”
“There was a conservative rabbi in my district who was assigned to me, I assume, by AIPAC,” Moran says. “He warned me that if I voiced my views about the Israeli lobby that my career would be over, and implied that it would be done through the Post. Sure enough, The Washington Post editorialized brutally. Everyone ganged up.”
There is a screen shot of a Washington Post headline: “Sorry, Mr. Moran, You’re Not Fit For Public Office.”
Character assassination is a common tactic used by the Israel lobby against its critics. Bill Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University, has been a campaigner for the BDS movement for years. His wife was sent a link to a website containing a letter addressed to her.
“It was a Sunday,” he says. “I was in the kitchen. My partner was in the living room with my daughter. Came in with her laptop and said, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ This letter, reported to be by a former student, said she had been sexually harassed by me. She had found other students at Purdue who have had the same experience. And she was writing this letter to tell their story. Within a very short time, within about 48 hours, we were able to establish that these multiple sites that were attacking me had been taken out [created] almost at the same time. And that they were clearly the work of the same people. One of the accounts said, in the process of supposedly putting my hand on her, I invited her to a Palestine organizational meeting. Well, I thought, ‘You’re sort of putting your cards on the table there,’ whoever you are.”
“With the anti-Israel people, what we found has been most effective, in the last year, you do the opposition research,” says Baime, the Israel on Campus Coalition official. “Put up an anonymous website. Then put up targeted Facebook ads. Every few hours you drip out a new piece of opposition research, it’s psychological warfare. It drives them crazy. They either shut down or they spend time investigating it and responding to it, which is time they can’t spend attacking Israel. That’s incredibly effective.”
“It was really an attempt, by people who didn’t know us, ‘Maybe I can destroy this marriage at the very least,’ ” Purdue’s Mullen says. “ ‘Maybe I can cause them horrendous, personal suffering.’ The same letter purporting to me harassment, sent to my wife, used the name of our daughter. I think that was the worst moment. We thought, ‘These people will do anything. They’re capable of doing anything.’ ”
Perhaps the film’s greatest investigative coup is the unwitting disclosure by Eric Gallagher at The Israel Project that the hedge fund manager Adam Milstein is “the guy who funds” the anonymous Canary Mission website. The website provides the names, backgrounds and photos of students, professors, invited speakers and organizations that are allegedly tied to terrorism and anti-Semitism through their support for Palestinian rights.
“There’s a guy named who you might want to meet,” Gallagher says to Tony about Adam Milstein. “He’s a convicted felon. That’s a bad way to describe him. He’s a real estate mogul. When I was working with him at AIPAC, I was literally emailing back and forth with him while he was in jail. He’s loaded. He’s close to half a billion dollars.”
Milstein was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for three months in 2009. The Israeli-American Council, which he leads, funds numerous pro-Israel organizations: Milstein also sits on the boards of AIPAC, StandWithUs and the Israel on Campus Coalition. He is close to billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the wealthiest donor to the pro-Israel lobby and the largest donor to the Trump campaign.
The promotional video for the Canary Mission, played in the film, says: “A few years later, these individuals are applying for jobs in your companies … ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
“It was shattering to me because I had to look for a job, I had to start my life,” Obeid from UC Davis says. “And now I had this website smearing my name before I even got a chance to make a name for myself.”
“Somebody did contact my employer and asked for me to be fired based on my pro-Palestine activism,” says Summer Award, who campaigned at the University of Tennessee for Palestinian equal rights. “They said if they continued to employ me, their values are anti-Semitic. It can be really scary at first. I was mostly harassed via Twitter. They were tweeting me every two or three days. They take screen shots, even way back to my Facebook pictures that don’t even look like me anymore. Just digging and digging through my online presence.”
Israel’s moral bankruptcy is powerfully exposed in one of the last scenes in the film. Tony joins an “astroturf” protest organized by the Hoover Institution. Those in the protest have been paid to travel on a bus to George Mason University to disrupt a conference of Students for Justice in Palestine. They are coached by Lerman Mazar, the StandWithUs director of legal affairs, in what to shout.
“If you do happen to speak with any reporters just stay on message,” Mazar tells her lackluster protesters. “And what is the message? SJP is a ….”
“Hate group,” the protesters answer feebly.
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Chris Hedges is a Truthdig columnist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers University, and an ordained Presbyterian minister.
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