I got to interview Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis last week for NOW's Best of Toronto issue - they're "Best Activists" or "favourite couple" or something like that.
They're lovely people, which I guess is a career imperative, at least for Lewis (who's a political media figure and son of political/media figures, if you're tuning in from outside of Canada.) And they're great to interview, because they're journalists and they know how stories work - you don't have to wheedle details out of them, or hassle them for clarification; they know what they want to say, and they say it in a funny, lively, fluent way, and writing up the piece afterwards is just like unwrapping a present.
So the piece I wrote was mainly about their film, The Take, and secondarily about what's going on in global activism right now, but we started off talking about the story Klein had just broken in the Guardian and the Nation. It's about James Baker, the envoy Bush hired to convince other countries to forgive Iraq's debt, and about Carlyle, the merchant bank in which Baker holds a considerable stake, and which is involved in trying to secure Iraqi war reparations payments for the Kuwaiti government. They covered it up by bringing in Madeleine Albright as a stooge, but in a nutshell, it's a massive conflict of interest, one very small degree of separation from Dubya. You can read about it here - the article's long, but well worth your time.
So if you've always wondered what it's like to break a huge, potentially government-toppling investigative story (and who hasn't?) I've included a raw transcript of that part of the interview below. (I'd highly recommend you read Klein's story first, because this won't make much sense otherwise and the background stuff about the hapless vice president of Carlyle is way funnier if you've read the article.)
WB: So why haven't we heard about this scandal from Kerry?
NK: I have a friend who's very connected to the Kerry campaign, and he got the Carlyle story to the top of the Kerry campaign before the debate, but they are not doing it because Albright's involved.
AL: They won't touch it as an election issue.
NK: It was a bipartisan scandal, unfortunately. Carlyle brought the Albright group in as political cover…
AL: That's so cynical, though. Isn't that the new spirit of bipartisanship?
NK: I talked to the Albright people, and they knew they'd been played. And then the Carlyle people...
AL: Sold them out.
NK: Claimed that they were never involved. Pulled out of the deal, claimed they never had permission to use their name, and hung the whole thing on the Albright group.
AL: There's another way of saying it...
NK: ...the Carlyle people are so much smarter than the Albright people it was amusing.
AL: Kind of like the Bush team as opposed to the Kerry team…..Naomi cost Carlyle a billion dollars. That's pretty good.
NK: I saved the Kuwaiti government a billion dollars (laughs) It's nothing to be proud of. "Yaay, justice has been served. The royals keep their money!"
Actually, I just got an email saying Sistani has the article, and he's going to issue, like, a fatwa...(she dissolves in giggles)...against Carlyle.
AL: I've ordered body armour.
NK: No, he's going to make a major, major statement against debt payments in the next couple of days.
AL: That's good.
NK: And they're very angry. I mean, this document – I didn't go into it in detail, the part where they're going to use the money to buy up Iraqi state assets, but it's extensive. And to do that in Iraq! It's like saying, Hey, your former enemies are going to come in -- with your invaders! -- and buy up the companies that they themselves decimated. Because in the case of Albright, she's directly responsible for the death of Iraqi industry, through sanctions.
AL: So Iraq will pay for the Kuwaitis and the Americans to come and take their companies.
NK: And they say that this is a way to present the reparations as being good for Iraq. It's so surreal.
But the thing that's amazing, I was telling Avi this morning, we've been waiting, and…nobody has these documents but us, right, and a couple of lawyers…and the Guardian and the Nation put up eight pages of the documents online, but there are 75 pages of documents, which I said in the piece – and not a single congressperson, nobody from the Senate foreign relations committee, not a single journalist from the States has asked for them.
AL: Eighteen days before the election. It's amazing.
NK: Meanwhile, it's front page news in every country where Baker's gone as envoy. Like China: "This fucker came and told us we had to forgive Iraq's debt!" They're really mad! I mean, everywhere that holds Iraq's debt and got a visit from Baker, this is front page news. France, Russia.
AL: Well, NBC did a story. And it was good, too.
NK: Yeah, NBC did. And that's when Carlyle pulled out. Before NBC went to air.
AL: Carlyle executed textbook damage control. Denial, the deal is dead, stop using our name…
NK: This guy, vice president, chief flak for Carlyle, Chris Ullmann – you just didn't want to be this guy, because his statement to the press when Baker was appointed was that Carlyle would not benefit from this post in any way. Then he finds out about the deal. Then I quote him saying that they knew about the proposal, they knew they could have made a billion dollars from the proposal, but they were not involved in any way in submitting the proposal, drafting the proposal or trying to get the deal. So I said to him, "So what you're saying is, you're willing to take the billion, but you're not willing to try to get it?" And he said, "Correct." So I wrote that. And then he called me, when it went online, and thanked me. He said, "I deal with journalists all the time. Thank you for quoting me accurately…" I thought he was calling to yell at me.
AL: I didn't know that!
NK: Yeah! And then he said, "James Baker doesn't have a 180 stake in Carlyle." Because that's what everyone says. The New York Times said it a year ago, and now everybody says it; so I said, "He has a reported $180 million stake." And he said, "I think you should correct that." And I said, "Absolutely. What's James Baker's stake in Carlyle?" And he just laughed, and that was the end of the conversation.
So next day, I talked to the guy, and he's, like, android mode, right? And he says, "I was mistaken when I spoke to you yesterday…" (laughs)
AL: "I did not...have sex...with that government!"
NK: "I did not have correct information...there is new information..."
AL: "And the new information is that we were never involved...they used our name without our knowledge...and the Ministry of Truth will be issuing a statement..."
NK: And it worked. The New York Times hasn't done the story.
AL: I'm not that disappointed. That deal was a really bad thing...
NK: The object of the article wasn't to cost Carlyle money, though; the object was to get it to stick to Bush.
AL: But the truth is, it's not an election story. Because it was too complicated...
NK: It's actually an easier story outside the U.S. "These people are trying to screw us!" That's the way it's playing outside, and it's really simple. "These fucking Americans come and tell us that we have to forgive Iraq's debt, while this guy's got a billion dollar deal that he's offering to Kuwait." Fucking Americans. That's the story.
(she laughs. A pause.)
AL: As you can tell, it's never boring living with Naomi.