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Veteran Journalist Robert Scheer on “The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America”

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Over the past four decades, veteran reporter Robert Scheer has built a reputation as one of the leading journalists in this country, from his time as a war correspondent during Vietnam to his widely read columns today. Over the years, he has interviewed Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. He is the author of seven books. His latest is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the past four decades, veteran reporter Robert Scheer has built a reputation as one of the leading journalists in this country, from his time as a war correspondent during Vietnam to his widely read columns today. Over the years, he has interviewed Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. He has written seven books. His latest is hitting bookstores next week. It’s called The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. Robert Scheer is also the editor of

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. The Pornography of Power — why pornography?

ROBERT SCHEER: Because it’s not the real thing. It’s a trick. It’s like — I liken it to a lap dance. You know, you’re promising something that doesn’t exist. They’re promising security. These defense contractors, lobbyists, politicians, they pretend they’re dealing with real issues in the world, and they’re not. They’re just getting your money, and they’re deceiving you. And at the end of the day, you wonder, how did I end up in this grimy, dangerous place, and forking over ever more money, and it has nothing to do with making me happy. So I use the pornography symbol as example of what they’re doing.

And that’s really what this hijacking of 9/11 is all about. These guys who did the hijacking, what we do know about it is they used $3 implements that you could buy at Home Depot. They didn’t use F-22s, F-35s. They didn’t use subs or anything else. So there’s no enemy in sight. The military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about was in big trouble. George Bush’s father had cut the defense budget by 30 percent. It was going way down. We were finally going to get a peace dividend. And then they jumped over 9/11. They said, “Wow! This is our new opportunity. Let’s dust off all the ships and planes that are no longer needed, and we’ll build them now.” And we are going deeply into debt to building these things that have absolutely no use. We have this enormous arsenal that, according to the Reaganites, humbled the old Soviet Union. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. And we’re building, you know, two-and-a-half-billion-dollar-a-piece submarines to fight who?

And every once in awhile they bring up China, and they’re even in trouble on that one now, because it turns out that China and Taiwan are getting along quite famously this week, and they’re talking about a new chapter of peace. And so, we don’t even have the China bogeyman anymore. And the idea that you need submarines to go get guys who are in caves in Afghanistan is absurd.

AMY GOODMAN: You write it costs between $400,000 and $500,000 for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda to pull off the 9/11 attacks, according to the authoritative estimate of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission appointed by President Bush. But within days of the hijacking, Bush demanded 50,000 times that amount: $20 billion in emergency appropriations from Congress.

ROBERT SCHEER: Right. I think we — I think people have trouble. We all know that from school. What’s $1,000, what’s $1 million, what’s $1 billion, and what’s $1 trillion, you know? And people have trouble keeping track of the money. But the $20 billion that he got right away, that’s nothing. I say, we had a situation where Bush vetoed an extension of child healthcare that would have involved $7 billion, OK? That’s two subs that we don’t need that are built every year. Alright? We have the F-35, an airplane that’s a $300 billion program. Why do we need new planes? The F-22, a $65 billion program. So we are wasting trillions of dollars on this old-fashioned defense budget that benefits Boeing, benefits Lockheed. Everyone knows it’s a scam. Everyone knows there is no military function for this, there’s no national security. And what happened is they got a license to steal. 9/11 was their license to steal.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote that you almost dedicated the book to Richard Nixon.


AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah. Well, no, he was a horrible man, and he killed a lot of people and should have been tried for war crimes. I don’t want to exonerate Richard Nixon. But the fact is that Richard Nixon was the enemy of the neoconservatives. Richard Nixon recognized that communism was nationalist, that there was not an international communism — that was the old bogeyman justifying the whole military budget — that we could business with communist China and with the Soviets. We did. And this is what spawned the neoconservative movement of the Richard Perles and the Wolfstetters and so forth.

And so, Nixon recognized that imperialism doesn’t pay, that, you know, it’s better to buy the oil on the open market than to try to control — look what’s happened. We control the second biggest pool of oil in the world right now in Iraq, and the price of oil is an all-time high, OK? So what are we getting from it? Meanwhile, there’s China that doesn’t have oil, and they’re going around buying this stuff up. They’re acting like modern-day capitalists, these communist Chinese. And we have forgotten. We’ve returned to a very old-fashioned imperial model. You know, let’s have a big army, let’s have a big military, let’s conquer people, let’s occupy them. It’s not efficient. And the proof of it really is in the price of gas at the pump. You know, this gas and oil in Iraq was supposed to pay for our occupation. Instead, American consumers are now paying for the oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how Richard Nixon compared to what’s happening today.

ROBERT SCHEER: Well, Richard Nixon, on both domestic and foreign policy, was a moderate in comparison to George W. Bush. On domestic policy, Richard Nixon, as the old moderate Republican Party of Eisenhower, he entertained the notion of a guaranteed annual income. He favored environmental protection. Again, I don’t want to celebrate Richard Nixon, but on domestic policy the country has moved far right under the current Republican administration. And on foreign policy, Richard Nixon was in favor of detente, which is, as I say, the neoconservatives, that’s a movement developed in opposition to detente. And what detente means is we have to get along in a complex world, a multi-polar world, and we have to learn to live with people, and we have to learn to, you know, negotiate and not be heavy-handed. And so, Richard Nixon really brought about the beginning of the end of the Cold War with his opening to China, Red China, communist China.

The irony now is that when these defense hawks — when they challenge my book and they say, “Well, of course, we don’t need these submarines to fight al-Qaeda. They don’t even have a rowboat. And of course we don’t need, you, now, new stealth bombers to fight al-Qaeda. But there’s the China menace.” The irony is, here, China is financing our arms development. They are charging us interest to lend us money to build weapons ostensibly to attack them, and they’re laughing up their sleeve. They know this is a joke.

And meanwhile, as I say, this incredibly important thing happened. The Kuomintang, that was kicked out of China, the old — Chiang Kai-shek’s old group, they’re party visited China today. They embraced. The whole argument with Taiwan seems to be over. They’re going — you know, trade, tourism — they’re going to have direct flights now. All of that happened this week, you know. And yet, we’re building up a military ostensibly, when they say, “Well, we can’t really justify going after al-Qaeda with all this fancy equipment. China is coming.” And as I point out in the book, last year the Defense Department concluded China is not even a significant regional power. Not even a significant regional power. They are not a challenge to America.

We spend — this is a statistic that still, I don’t know, I find mind-boggling. I have to keep checking to make sure it’s true. We spend more than the rest of the world combined on military. The whole world combined, friend and foe. We spend more. OK? We are spending more now than ever in peacetime America. We are spending more now than we did during the Vietnam War and during the Korean War. To what? To get guys who use $3 box cutters and penknives? You know, it’s absurd.

It’s an absurd waste of resources. We say we don’t have money for the schools. We don’t have money for infrastructure. We don’t have money to help people with their housing loans. All these things. We don’t have money. You look at any social program, and now people say, “Wait a minute. You can’t spend that money there. It’s not cost-effective,” and so forth and so on. But yet, you know, $300 billion for an F-35 multi-service airplane? $300 billion? And it’s not questioned.

And I’ll tell you, one of the ironies in this election campaign is Hillary Clinton voted for every military expenditure. She loves the military. Democrats have a big problem a lot of times, because they want to show they’re tough and patriotic and so forth. But John McCain actually distinguished himself in the Senate as being the one guy who went after some of these big-ticket weapons systems. Because of John McCain, the top procurement officer at the Pentagon went to jail. The COO of Boeing went to jail. This was, you know, over scams that were conducted. So John McCain as a senator actually was quite vigilant in attacking these big defense boondoggles. Now, as a candidate, he’s collapsed. You know, he’s reversed himself.

AMY GOODMAN: $75 billion under the sea?

ROBERT SCHEER: Yes. That’s the submarine program. And that’s only — that’s a Lieberman program, but it’s supported by —- you know, you have Murtha, you have all these -—

AMY GOODMAN: The top adviser to John McCain.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah. The sad thing, in my book — you know, I’ve read the book finally. I said, my goodness, you know, here, Barbara Boxer is probably the senator I like most, outside of Ted Kennedy — I like Barbara Boxer. But she doesn’t come not so good in my book, because I have a whole chapter on: why do we need this cargo plane that’s being built in Long Beach? You know, we don’t need it. It doesn’t do anything. It wastes an enormous amount of money. The Democrats are as culpable as the Republicans in this military waste. And as Eisenhower pointed out, the military-industrial complex is in every district.

So, going back to your thing about the subs, you have a liberal Democratic congressman that represents the district where the subs are made. Lieberman is the senator — one of the senators from Connecticut. They have pushed through this sub program, because it’s made in Virginia and it’s made in Connecticut, and we don’t need a new generation of subs. It’s absurd. Yes, it’s going to total $75 billion. As I said before, what? To fight al-Qaeda, who doesn’t have a rowboat, doesn’t have a navy. They’re landlocked. Why do you need subs? And so, anyone who examines this budget will know it’s ludicrous. Absolutely ludicrous. We don’t have an enemy. And yet, we are, as I said before, spending more than the entire world combined.

AMY GOODMAN: You dedicate the book to President Eisenhower and Senator McGovern.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yes, to two war heroes. Everybody forgets that about McGovern. When he ran against Nixon, you know, oh, a pacifist. McGovern is the guy who won the distinguished Flying Cross. You know, he did, I think thirty-four very dangerous bombing runs over Germany. And once, I asked McGovern, I asked him, “How come you didn’t bring up your war record when Nixon was smearing you?” And he said, “It would have been unseemly.” I mean, McGovern was a great — is a great person. And Eisenhower is a great person.

Here is two war heroes who warned us about the danger of a permanent military. And what we had after World War II was the development of a permanent military economy in the United States. And people are frightened to death to let go of it. The labor union people, Democrats and Republicans: “Wait a minute, you know, you won’t have the money for the schools. No, no one’s going to actually do the right thing with this money. Let’s at least keep the military jobs.” And that’s where we are right now.

And I want to say about this election, this is the issue, the third rail issue, that these candidates will not address. I don’t care, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, they all want to increase the defense budget. They all, all three, want a bigger, more robust army. What? To do another Iraq? To invade Iran? To invent a new bogeyman enemy out there like China or somewhere? And they will not be able to have a progressive domestic agenda if they spend this money — continue to spend this money on the military. The money does not exist. Just servicing the debt on these unneeded weapons that we’ve been building up takes the money away from anything you want to do for schools, for medicine, for scientific research. So it’s the big lie in American politics right now, is that you can have a progressive domestic agenda and be a hawk on defense spending. You can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: What is a liberal hawk?

ROBERT SCHEER: A liberal hawk, by the way, are the people who, you know, unfortunately, are quite prominent around Hillary Clinton. They’re also a bit around Barack Obama. They’re the ones who cheered us into Iraq. It’s not just the neoconservatives. You know, it was the Pollacks and the Indyks and a lot of these people who justified going in.

And you know what it is? It’s the oldest argument in American history. You either have a republic, in which people have control, or you have the empire. And what Jefferson and Washington up through Eisenhower and McGovern warned us against is the empire. If you have an empire, the people cannot have the basic information, they will be lied to, they will be deceived. You know, that’s what the weapons of mass destruction and everything. And the reason that Washington in his farewell address, that Eisenhower in his farewell address, warned us about empire is they knew it was incompatible with democracy.

Yes, if we’re on a local level, I’ve written locally, local columns. If I say you should have a traffic light there or close that school there or the police are corrupt, people can get the information. They know what you’re talking about when it’s kept local. When you have an empire, you don’t get that information for what? Twenty, thirty, forty years, if ever. They can lie to you with impunity. People have no basis of challenging them. So what we’re really talking about is, if we are wedded to an imperial model, if we are wedded to a permanent war economy, to permanent expansion, you can forget democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Scheer, for so many years, decades, you were a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


AMY GOODMAN: Now you’re the editor of the website In full disclosure, my column is also published there. Los Angeles Times, you say you were fired for ideological reasons, for your politics. Talk about media consolidation and specifically your situation .

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, but let me — in an interest of full disclosure, I have a piece this Sunday in the Current section of the Los Angeles Times, where the people who fired me are now gone. One of the vagaries of corporate America, you know, so they’re all now bums, and they’re out, and — the top guys. And so, I am appearing this Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. And so, I’m giving them a second chance.

But, you know, I think the issue there was the Chicago Tribune bought the old Chandler Los Angeles Times paper. I personally think there was some real contradictions with the law, you know, what can you own or not own. And they got these waivers. We had this horrible piece of legislation that came from the Clinton administration — not the only one, by the way, but the Telecommunications Act, which permitted the consolidation. But even that did not permit the kind of ownership that the Tribune Company wanted to have: big television station, newspaper in the same market.

And my own thought is — I have no evidence for this, but the best way I could make sense of it is that they were under pressure from the Bush administration, you know, to back off a bit. I don’t know. I’ve been told this by individuals, but I don’t want to get too conspiratorial.

The main thing is, what I love about this show and why I do TruthDig is someone once said — you know, I think it was Liebling, who said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” OK? When I realized after — I was with the LA Times for almost thirty years as a reporter and a columnist, contributing editor. I realized, you know, I better get myself an internet site. That’s what TruthDig is. So now, no one can tell me what — we print it, you know. You had a guest on now talking about torture. I caught him on the way out. We’re going to feature that whole program. That’s why we run your column. And that’s what Democracy Now! is. So you have to own your own media. And that’s the lesson I’ve taken from my adventure in corporate journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you talk about the humbling of Pax Americana and “empire vs. republic — you decide.” Do you think the people of this country decide?

ROBERT SCHEER: I think the people — in the end — you know, if we have an end — the time to come to the end, the people come to the right conclusion. The problem is, if we stumble into wars, then we can’t get out. They go on for twenty years. Millions of people get killed, and there’s great tragedy. But basically, common sense will dictate in the end, and I think people in this country recognize now — as I say, you just have to go get gas to fill up your car, and you realize imperialism doesn’t pay. You know, here in California, I’m paying, what, $4.40 for gas, and we have seized the second-biggest pool of oil in the world? And we’re now paying — you know, the price of oil has gone up six-fold since George Bush has been president, and you want to tell me imperialism pays? So I think the failure of the neoconservatives really is the failure of the imperial model. The Germans learned that. The French learned it, the English. Everybody in the world knows old-fashioned imperialism does not pay for the average person. It pays for Halliburton. It pays for, you know, Exxon. But it doesn’t pay for the taxpayer.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Scheer, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. It’s coming out next week. He’ll be in New York; today we’re in Los Angeles.

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