Monday , March 4 2024
“Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. I consider oral history its second draft" - Bill Katovsky

Interview: Bill Katovsky, Author of Patriots Act

I recently interviewed Bill Katovsky, author of the new book, Patriots Act: Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out, and Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq.  Patriots Act is an engrossing oral history of whistleblowers, dissenters, and others concerned about what is really going on in society, especially behind the closed doors of government agencies, where whistleblowing is treated as an act of treason rather than one of patriotism. 

SB: What made you decide to write this book when some would say plenty has already been written about the problems caused by the Patriot Act?

BK: Actually, the book has little to do or say about the Patriot Act itself, but with how “patriots” should and must act, and why dissent must not be conflated with disloyalty. I used the term “Patriots Act” as the book title in an attempt to be timely, ironic, and tap into the emotional and political zeitgeist. The Patriot Act that was passed into law (and renewed) is an acronym for Providing Appropriate Tools for Responding, Intercepting, and Obstructing Terrorism. Leave it to the government to come up with something marketable and euphemistic like this.

It’s an Orwellian term, because those on Capitol Hill who opposed it were branded as being “unpatriotic and un-American.” Challenging the post-9/11 White House mindset that said "you are either with us or against us" represents the core thesis of my book. I wanted to interview Americans from all walks of life who dared to speak out at the risk of suffering reprisal. 

Many of the book’s interviewees had nothing whatsoever to do with the "anti-terror" legislation that was recklessly shoehorned into law right after 9/11.  But they were all patriots for defending free speech and their right to dissent.  For example, I interviewed a young couple from Texas who were arrested for simply wearing anti-Bush t-shirts at a Fourth of July event in Charleston, West Virginia where the President was attending.

I also interviewed federal whistleblowers like former FBI agent Coleen Rowley who wrote a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller that lambasted pre-9/11 agency failures. Perhaps the terrorist attacks could have been prevented had the FBI reacted properly to critical intelligence it had, but it refused to do so, and yet Mueller and the FBI tried to whitewash the truth after the fact. Rowley’s memo later made the cover of Time magazine–and she was named Person of the Year in 2003. 

Other interview subjects included Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in the early 70s to stop the Vietnam War.  Today, he urges Bush administration officials to also step forward and tell the truth about the lies and distortions that surround the Iraq War.

Some will criticize any book like this as liberal propaganda. What is your response to that assertion?

Interesting you mention this because there are about a half-dozen Republicans/conservatives featured in the book, which is little more than one-quarter of all interviews.  I do not defend the Bush administration in this book. How can I when I had interviewed people like Paul Krugman, Paul Hackett, and Randi Rhodes? But I don’t ever see liberals criticizing conservatives for being “unpatriotic” or “un-American.” The verbal abuse and invective usually comes from the other side – the right. Just listen to Fox News, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh for a few minutes on any given day.

The book is propaganda for defending those who dissent. I am not ashamed of this. In a political era when any criticism of the war in Iraq is immediately attacked as helping the enemy, then we are indeed entering perilous times. In the costly and futile fight to export democracy abroad, we are only eroding democracy on our native soil.

And which political party is truly addressing this constitutional crisis? Even the big media players like the New York Times and The Washington Post are cowed into submission by the strong-arm tactics of the White House and its fierce apologists.  And when the Times does break a major story like illegal domestic wiretapping, what happens next? It gets attacked by those on the right for supposedly endangering national security. Something is indeed wrong with the picture when dissent is suppressed, when legitimate opposition is attacked, and when self-censorship by the non-adversarial media is the norm.

The White House has been effective in exploiting post-9/11 fear for political gain, and this partisan saber-rattling continues despite dwindling approval ratings for Bush.  That is why many people are afraid to speak out. Politicians are especially nervous about walking the electoral tightrope.  Meanwhile, Democrats have been wrongly castigated and singled out. 

One striking example is former U.S. Senator Max Cleland (D-Georgia) whom I interviewed for the book. Cleland lost his re-election in 2002 because his opponent questioned his patriotism after Cleland voted against an amendment of the pending Homeland Security Department bill which was still in committee. Now there’s a few things you need to remember about Cleland: he’s a triple-amputee Vietnam War vet; former director of the Veteran’s Administration; and Senator John McCain called him the greatest American hero he’s ever known. Yet his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, who had sat out the Vietnam War with a bum knee, nonetheless had the utter audacity to run a television ad comparing Cleland to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. As Cleland told me, “There are no manners left in politics anymore.” I think he’s right.

 In the introduction you note that at least one person featured – the military guy who talked to the Los Angeles Times – was Republican. But it still reads like most of the people interviewed were Democrats.
Generally speaking, the book is weighted to the left, but I suggest people — if they actually buy or read the book — especially look at the following chapters to see that political labels are often irrelevant. For example, a New Mexico cattle rancher, Tweeti Blancett, was GOP county chairman for the first President Bush in 1992. Yet when she went after big oil and gas for destroying the environment and making it impossible for her to raise cattle, she was shunned by the GOP. The current Bush Administration won’t listen to her complaints. The Interior Department snubbed her. So what’s she now doing? She’s suing the Bureau of Land Management. 

As she told me, “I’m persona non grata now with the Bush people.”  Another chapter is my interview with former U.S. National Park Police Chief Theresa Chambers who was fired after speaking to the Washington Post about budget and staffing shortfalls. She is also a Republican.

Then there’s Cincinnati attorney and Marine Paul Hackett, who voted for Perot in 1992, but when he came back from Iraq, he decided to run for Congress in a special election as a “fighting Democrat.”  He nearly won, then decided to run several months later for a seat in the U.S. Senate, but his campaign was undermined by senior-level Democratic Party officials who supported another candidate. Hackett felt horribly betrayed by the Democratic Party. 

Finally, former FBI agent Coleen Rowley voted for Bush in 2000, yet she's now running for Congress as a Democrat. The political landscape is changing, and conventional Democrat and Republican partisan labels might not be so apt in a few years. Everyone seems to be holding their breath whether a truly viable third-party can finally emerge, take hold, and really stick this time. Imagine a third-party presidential candidate winning the 2008 election. Dissent transcends the partisan and ideological divide.
How do you define patriot?

I will cite Edward Abbey who I quoted in the book’s epigraph: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against the country.” Another way to voice this belief comes from John Sellers, who is featured in my book and is the director of the grass-roots organization known as the Ruckus Society. He is active on many non-violent civil disobedience fronts; in fact, he’s been arrested dozens of times for staging highly creative, media-friendly demonstrations or direct actions.  He told me, “The people who leave the United States to go fight in our wars are often seen as patriots and heroes. While this is certainly true, I’ve felt for a long time that you… don’t have to leave the borders of your country to fight for your country. In fact, the people I have the greatest respect for are people who nonviolently fight for the heart and soul of this country from within its borders…  because we now live in a country that is ruled by unaccountable corporations that are buying up our elected officials and are literally buying up election day itself… They are doing it creatively and nonviolently, exposing themselves to incredible repression and violence to fight for the true ideals of democracy that can and should exist in this country — but don’t."

What made you decide to do this book – as well as Embedded – as oral histories versus printing interview excerpts or essays?

Hearing someone talk about his or life is utterly fascinating. It’s like sitting around a campfire.  Other times, one almost feels like a shrink as the interviewee reveals things he or she might not necessarily divulge in their professional capacity as say, a war reporter. There can be a baring of the soul, a glimpse into their private world, a letting down of the guard.  For example, former CBS Weekend News anchor John Roberts, who is now at CNN, said this to me after Embedded came out – he covered the early part of the ground war in Iraq, “I was surprised to read in the book the things I said.”  What he means is that in our interview he talked about the personal impact of seeing a bombed vehicle filled with the charred remains of Iraqi soldiers; he described a very disturbing scene — details of which would never have made the evening news.  He talked about his feelings — which is a rarity for people in the media.

Also, there is personal connection, albeit a short-lived one, when I am interviewing someone for an oral history. Editing interview excerpts or essays as an anthology would deprive me of this pleasurable and challenging pursuit of shaping someone's personal narrative. An oral history is, in essence, an interview without the questions there for the reader to see. But the questions do shape the narrative. Also, when I put together an oral history, it’s my intent to recede into the background.

Would I be correct in assuming Studs Terkel, one of the best practitioners of oral histories, was an influence? Absolutely, I am in great debt to Studs. I was introduced to him as a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1975. I read Working straight through Thanksgiving weekend. I had never read something of that breadth before.  I wasn’t a journalist then. But his brand of reportage influenced me greatly. It just took awhile to germinate. Sorry for the digression. What I am trying to say is never underestimate the power of the word vis a vis a moving image, like those you see on television or now on the web.  Just like a single photo, words can sear into the public consciousness.  They become a fixed reference point.  Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. I consider oral history its second draft.

How has the reaction been to this book? Have there been any reprisals against any of the people featured in the book?

Patriots Act is getting some traction with reviewers, but not the attention I thought it would get in the blogosphere. It’s been completely ignored by the Daily Kos crowd, even though a personal copy was given to its founder. Four chapters, however, were excerpted on Salon; and as a result of the book falling into the hands of Arianna Huffington, I was asked to blog for her site – which I have been doing since May. 

But, I thought the book would be attacked by the right; it hasn’t. I have no theories on why not. It baffles me, to be quite honest. I had the publisher send copies to many of the conservative talk show hosts and columnists.  All I can is that the media is an unpredictable world, and a lot like Alice in Wonderland. Right-wing talk show host Michael Savage wrote back when he was contacted, saying, “Don’t bother me. Take me off your mailing list. The book is filled with the usual liberal suspects.”  Last month, however, he read a chapter excerpt from Patriots Act, which had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the excerpt concerning the former Red Team counter-terror expert with the FAA who criticized aviation security. The next day, Savage had the Red Team expert on his show for a half-hour. And yes, the former Red Team expert did suffer reprisals at work after the book came out.

You seem to be suggesting, in this book, that whistleblowing  = dissent = patriotic act. Apologies for the oversimplification, but is that a fair summary?  Is whistleblowing always a good thing or are there cases – for example of national security or confidential information – where it's not appropriate?

If lives are in danger when someone is not blowing the whistle, then it’s not patriotic to keep silent. Let’s take the case of Abu Ghraib. Do you think the government would have stepped forward publicly with the allegations and photos had not Seymour Hersh forced them to do so in the pages of The New Yorker?  The military sat on this scandal for months. Wouldn’t many lives have been saved if folks in the Pentagon and CIA stepped forward before the start of the Iraq War and said, “There are no weapons of mass destruction.”  Or that there is no terrorist link between Saddam and 9/11.  Daniel Ellsberg eloquently made this point to me in Patriots Act. It took him nearly two years to gather the courage to release the Pentagon Papers which detailed how the U.S. government lied about Vietnam.  He says that he should have acted much sooner.  He then goes on to say that Richard Clarke should have told the public what he knew about Al Qaeda, Iraq, etc while he was still the White House counter-terrorist advisor – and not afterwards in his best-selling book. By then, it was too late.

With regard to the importance of whistleblowing, I strongly recommend a visit to the web site of the Project on Government Oversight, which makes for sober reading about the many brave government officials who stepped forward with stories about waste, fraud, and malfeasance–and usually what happens is that they then get fired, demoted, or even criminally prosecuted….

Yet I will say, if there are times when lives are at stake, then it’s prudent for a whistleblower to keep his or her powder dry.  I am not one to judge how or when this is the case. But after interviewing several prominent whistleblowers for my book, I have come to the sad conclusion that the government is often allergic to the truth for reasons of careerism, special-interest politics, and a contempt for the welfare of the common individual. I hate to come off sounding so sour or cynical, so I will end with this quote from Benjamin Franklin who I quoted in my book: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”  

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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