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Jeremy Scahill Grills Democratic Lawmakers on the War, Obama’s Foreign Policy Team and the Corporate Money Behind the Big Show

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As the Democrats gather under a massive banner proclaiming that change is on the way, serious questions abound about some of the key issues that have brought protesters here to Denver. We sent Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill into the Pepsi Center to ask Senators Carl Levin, Charles Rangel, Reps. Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich and others the questions the corporate media is failing to ask, from the war in Iraq and Obama’s foreign policy team to impeachment and the death penalty. [includes rush transcript]

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


As the Democratic Convention kicked off Monday night in the streets of Denver, antiwar protests continue with delegates celebrating inside the Pepsi Center. Antiwar protesters were pepper-sprayed by police just blocks from the big show. We’ll have more on this later in the broadcast.

There was no mention of the protests or arrests from the podium inside the convention. Indeed, it’s as though there are two different worlds here in Denver. That’s also been true of the corporate media’s coverage of the event, where little air time has been devoted to the protests in the streets. While much of the media coverage surrounding the opening of the convention is focused on the drama unfolding over what Hillary Clinton’s supporters will do on nomination night, the serious issues that loom over the election have taken a back seat. And while the Democrats are gathering under a massive banner proclaiming “Change is on the Way,” serious questions abound about some of the key issues that have brought protesters to Denver.

We sent Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill into the Pepsi Center to ask the questions the corporate media is failing to ask, from the war in Iraq and Obama’s foreign policy team to impeachment and the death penalty.


    Inside Denver’s Pepsi Center, the $100 million show is underway. The fans are pumped up and are there to cheer on their team — or candidate, to be exact. It’s a surreal scene, enhanced by a high-end, multimillion-dollar sound and light system. At times, it feels like an NBA basketball game, right down to the junk food stands lining the halls, where delegates, including some of the most powerful legislators in the country, devour hot dogs, nachos and lemonade.

    But while the glitter and glam of the convention is beamed over the airwaves and onto television sets across the US and the globe, many crucial issues go undiscussed. Among these are some of the foreign policies being embraced by the Democrats and their candidates, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as part of the official platform.

    While Obama has campaigned on a pledge to end the Iraq war, an examination of his top foreign policy advisers is raising concern amongst some in the antiwar movement. That’s because several of the key people who are advising Obama on foreign policy were at the center of some of the most violent actions of the Clinton administration in the 1990s. There are also several who promoted the myth that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

    Among the old guard Clinton era players on Obama’s foreign policy team are former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher; former National Security Adviser Tony Lake; former Defense Secretary William Perry; former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark; and former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice — not to mention Joe Biden, who was the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Bush administration was pushing to invade Iraq. The hearings Biden’s committee held ultimately helped the Bush administration push the invasion forward.

    As we arrived at the Pepsi Center, we chased down Senator Carl Levin, chair of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and a passionate supporter of Joe Biden.

    Your response to the foreign policy team that Senator Obama is putting together? Many of these people were considered hawkish Democrats during the ’90s.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Hawkish Democrats during the ’90s. I have a lot of confidence in Joe Biden. You’re asking me about Obama’s team or about Biden’s team?


    Yes, I’m asking about Obama’s team.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think he’s got the people that he is comfortable with. I have no doubt that the people that he has support policies which are fundamentally different from the McCain policies. That’s the question, is — it’s not precisely where on some imaginary continuum or other our candidate is. Barack Obama is night and day difference from where McCain is on foreign policy issues.

    And the main issue is, number one, will there be a timetable in Iraq, or will the open-ended commitment remain? Obama wants some kind of a timetable in Iraq. McCain says open-ended. He will not do anything other than to say it’s going to be condition-based and so forth. So that is a huge contrast.

    Then you’ve got the difference in terms of allies, the importance of allies. McCain has supported the Bush policies, which have been unilateral, which have been arrogant, which have been — separate ourselves, call other folks names, “you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” kind of rhetoric from Bush. McCain has supported the Bush policies, and Obama differed very differently.


    But, Senator, in all fairness —

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: I have to go.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Senator Biden played a major role in authorizing the invasion.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: He also, at that time, tried to come up with an alternative, which would have supported [inaudible] —


    He refused to call any dissenting opinions.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: I’ve got to go.


    Senator Levin refused to answer any more of our questions and walked off with inside the Beltway journalist Joe Klein of Time Magazine.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Hey, hi, Joe. How are you doing?

    JOE KLEIN: Fine.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: We headed into the Pepsi Center and ran into New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, who represents Harlem.

    REP. CHARLES RANGEL: I put my bet on Obama on getting us out of Iraq.


    Well, Joe Biden, they’re saying, is going to be the big foreign policy guy in the White House.

    REP. CHARLES RANGEL: You know, I’ve been around for thirty-eight years in the Congress. Vice presidents never counted that much, except Cheney.


    So it doesn’t concern you that some of these people were very belligerent on Iraq?

    REP. CHARLES RANGEL: No, no, no. Biden knows he made a big mistake. He’s said it, and that’s all I need. Let’s get the hell on out.


    The Democratic National Committee has been trying to tightly control the message emanating from the convention, sending out talking points to delegates and offering scripted responses to redirect certain questions from journalists. It was clear, even in talking to progressive Congress members, that promoting a message of unity was priority number one. That was the impression we got from talking to Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin who represents the progressive city of Madison.

    REP. TAMMY BALDWIN: Conventions after a hard-fought, long-fought primary are about bringing all of us back together and a few more beyond that. We want to bring independents. There are certainly some Republicans that are fed up with this administration and ready to look at a candidate for change. We want to bring in new voters who have been alienated before and sat on the sidelines and say now is the opportunity.

    So I don’t necessarily regard a bringing together of all of the diversity that the Democratic Party reflects, including a diversity of opinion on the war, as we know — I don’t regard bringing everyone together as we march forward as a change in his personal position and commitment to get our troops redeployed out of Iraq as soon as he can safely do that as our new president.


    Well, when several of you — I have to press you on this issue because of the district you represent. Several of these people put forward the myth that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Madeleine Albright, for instance, was a key player in the sanctions against Iraq, of the sustained bombing campaign that Clinton launched against Iraq. It’s not just that you’re bringing together a variety or a diversity of opinion. The key players in the foreign policy team are the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. What we’re hearing from a lot of people is great concern about this foreign policy team and that so many of them were a part of the myth laboratory that was created in the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It’s not just about bringing people together. These are people that were firmly in favor of the war and helping to push it.

    REP. TAMMY BALDWIN: Well, I think the myth laboratory really was the Bush administration. I think it was in the closest circles. Now, I don’t have evidence, because this has been the least transparent administration, you know, in my memory. But yet, I feel, even as somebody who opposed the war from the beginning, that I was misled, the stuff that I was shown. And I know that nobody had more access than the administration, that they were showing almost everyone this intelligence, if you will, that seemed to be produced after incredible pressure to produce what the leaders wanted to hear.

    So I don’t regard any of them, any of the Democrats who were more hawkish, if you will, as having a role in misinforming the public. They took things at face value. That said, I think that the hallmark of a strong leader like Senator Obama is going to be to say, “I am firm on this. I’m bringing you in for your counsel. I will listen, but we are redeploying out of Iraq.” And that’s what I expect from him, and I think that will happen going forward.


    Back outside the Pepsi Center, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters was arriving in time to hear Michelle Obama speak. Waters has been one of the most vocal congressional critics of the occupation of Iraq. She was also a backer of Hillary Clinton. Still, she expressed confidence in Obama’s foreign policy vision.

    REP. MAXINE WATERS: After months of watching Barack Obama talk about what he cares about on foreign affairs and then selecting Biden, who is very knowledgeable, I think there’s enough pressure from the progressives and those of us who want out of this war and want to do things a little bit differently to have that happen. I think Barack Obama is committed to progressive change, and so we can’t let anything get in the way of that. And I think Biden will jump on board and even promote our kind of issues in our own way, rather than go off on his own, perhaps, sometimes.


    But you don’t see it as a sort of troubling development that many of these people are people that you’ve — you’ve been hounding them for their positions?

    REP. MAXINE WATERS: Sure. Sure. I always worry when, you know, I see leadership that’s in disagreement with what I believe in, but I just believe we’ve got a new opportunity. We’ve got a new stab at this with this group. I really do believe that.


    Back inside the Pepsi Center, Michelle Obama was delivering her address. After her speech, as we walked the halls, we spied Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott coming out of one of the welcome lounges set up for members of Congress inside the Pepsi Center. We asked McDermott about his support for some of the policies of the Clinton administration that some allege put the US on a course to invade Iraq.

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Even though I voted for the changes in the Clinton years, I didn’t really see it as regime change. That was not what I was thinking.


    Some would say that the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which was signed into law by President Clinton, actually put the ball in motion for the overthrow of the Iraqi government, either by a coup or by force.

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: And I’m saying, when I voted for that, I was not as aware as I shortly thereafter was. After 9/11, I became very aware of a lot of stuff that I hadn’t known before. So, that one was slipped by a lot of us. And I think, you know, in politics, you always are learning about what you didn’t know yesterday. You learn today, ah, I should have known that before, but I didn’t. And I think there’s no question that in the minds of some people, when they put that bill on the floor, they were thinking about regime change.


    I mean, it seemed that that bill was brought about in part by the sort of shadow government lobbying of the special interest groups, of the neocons, allied with some very conservative Democrats. And I think what we’re seeing now, and the reason I’m asking you about this, is that many of the people at the center of that — you now say it was a mistake. These people have not recanted. Madeleine Albright hasn’t turned around and said our policy was bad. So, that’s the issue I’m getting at. Does it concern you that these people, once again, are on the verge perhaps of being back in power in the White House?

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: I think the circumstances of what’s happened in Iraq are going to be very hard for them to continue that policy. I think that if Barack Obama — well, even Maliki’s government is now saying, yeah, we do need a timetable to get out. And they’re not signing a status of forces agreement, because they talk about Iraqi sovereignty. That’s — they never wanted Iraqis to have sovereignty. They wanted to control the country. And they’re now being faced with the fact that even Maliki, their own tool, is biting them in the hand. So I think they’re going to have a hard time running that, because there are more of us now who know, and we’ll be much more vocal if we don’t start pulling out of there.


    Congressman McDermott also defended the continued funding of the war, despite his stated opposition to it, reflecting a common argument made not only by Republicans but by many leading Democrats.

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: You can’t cut off the troops’ food and medical supplies, but you can keep trying — but we have to change somebody at the top. If you don’t change the thing at the top, you’re going to have the Commander-in-Chief continue to run a game and make — force you into supporting it. And I know there are some who think what we should have done is just stop funding the war, but that’s like Newt Gingrich trying to shut down the government as a way of — a blunt instrument like that is not a way it works in a democracy. You have to keep pressing and pressing and pressing. And we’re going to have a new president, and we will start the process.


    So do you support a continued US presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future?



    None at all?

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: We passed a law that said we’re not going to have permanent bases there. It’s clear we have built four permanent bases and that the people who said we weren’t doing permanent bases have simply lied. They have not told the truth. But I think what they’re now talking about, this withdrawal or this redeployment, is really pulling the troops back inside, and it’s going to be like the Old West — Fort Laramie, Fort Boise, Fort Walla Walla, Fort Apache — that’s — and they’ll run out and deal with the Indians over here and run out and deal with the Indians over there. That’s what they’re setting up, is the Old West style of controlling the area. And my view is that that’s wrong, and it’s going to get us in continued problems with the Muslim and Arab world.


    Well, what about, though — Senator Obama’s Iraq plan does call for keeping in place a residual force, control of the Green Zone, control of Baghdad International Airport and that massive US embassy that was built in part on slave labor. If you were advising Senator Obama on this, what would you say about that vision?

    REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, when I was in the State Department during the Cold War, Kinshasa, where I lived in the Congo, was the biggest embassy in Africa, and they ran all the CIA activities and all the military activities and all — everything was run out of there. That’s what they’re setting up there, and I think it will be a mistake for Obama to do that. I think he shouldn’t — I disagree with him on that particular issue. I think the sooner they turn it into a regular embassy and get out of there, the better off they are.


    If there is one Democrat who has seldom shied away from criticizing his colleagues for their support of invasions, bombings and wars, it’s Dennis Kucinich, who ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. He vocally opposed the policy decisions of many of Obama’s key advisers when they were in the White House in the 1990s.

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I still oppose them, but I’m going to work to get Barack Obama elected, because we have to take a new direction. Unless we shift away from the neocons and their control, we’re looking at more war. No question about it. So, you know, a lot of us aren’t going to be particularly satisfied, but so what? You know, the voters made their choice in the primaries. You’ve got to respect that choice. And what I’m going to be doing here, tomorrow, at the convention, is to talk about the economy and look at those issues around which we can be united.

    Be certain that under a Democratic administration, if that administration is showing aggressive tendencies or is putting us on the edge of a war again or not taking us into a direction of peace, I am not going to be quiet. I mean, I’m going to continue to talk about the direction America should go in. But we can’t let those differences that we have right now cause us to fracture at a time that we really have to bring a change to the White House. So, we have to be able to tolerate the differences for the moment. But make no mistake about it, when we take — when the Democrats take the White House, if they’re right on foreign policy, I’ll back them, and if they’re not, I’ll oppose them.


    Are you going to challenge aspects of the Democratic Party platform this time?

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Oh, I challenge it every year.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Talk about what you’re going to challenge.

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: You know what? The platform has basically been approved. I’m not — I’ve made my stand on platform issues. But if we don’t get a change in administration, we’re stuck with the neocons again. I don’t think America can remain as a solvent nation. The cost of the war in Iraq, up to between — over $3 trillion. A war against Iran would cost $5 to $10 trillion. These guys are borrowing money. They’re putting us in hock to the future. They’re ruining our kids’ future. We have to change this.

    So that’s why my message is the same. Whether the party wants to change its direction or not, I’m still going to be the advocate within the Democratic Party for a new approach for international policy: no more pre-emption, unilateralism, first strike; strength through peace, not peace through strength.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: We talked to a lot of people outside. They say, “We want Dennis Kucinich to run as an independent.” Why not?

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know what? I’ve made my choice. I’m inside the Democratic Party. I’m going to do everything I can to make the Democratic Party relevant and to make the Democratic Party responsive. I’m aware of the concerns that people have about this party. I’m well aware of them. That’s why I ran for president in the first place.


    On the convention floor, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman managed to get within an arm’s length of Obama’s running mate, Senator Joe Biden. She wanted to ask him about his role in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

    AMY GOODMAN: Senator Biden, could I ask you one serious question?

    SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I’ve got to do this quickly.


    Biden then disappeared up the stairs. While the hype inside the Pepsi Center is mostly about Barack Obama, many in the social justice movement have criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps the most frequently invoked of these criticisms is that of her statement upon taking over as speaker in 2006, when she said that impeachment of President Bush was off the table. We put that question to Representative Peter Welch of Vermont.

    REP. PETER WELCH: The issue here is accountability. And you’ve got to be candid with the American people. Congress voted with the President to go to war. So they don’t have great standing in second-guessing at this point. We’ve got to bring the troops home, is my view. Secondly, on the whole wiretapping, which is the other area that is of enormous concern to me and many Americans, Congress voted to give the President that authority. So, frankly, I think people can be looking not just to impeachment, but to putting pressure on their members of Congress to use the power of the purse on the war to cut off funding and to use the power of the vote to demand we protect constitutional rights and not re-pass FISA, as Congress recently did.


    I think some can reasonably say there’s been a serious failure of leadership from Nancy Pelosi on some of the key issues for the antiwar movement, civil liberties community. It seems like the House caves on almost all of the major issues of the Bush administration’s agenda.

    REP. PETER WELCH: Well, Pelosi has voted against the war. Pelosi voted against the FISA — the original FISA legislation. I happen to think Pelosi’s doing a terrific job. And the original Congress, when they voted to support the war, it was a catastrophic mistake for this country. They got a lot of bogus information from the President. But the members of Congress who took the time and had the courage got it right. Pelosi was one of them.


    One issue that is almost never discussed in media coverage of Barack Obama is a position that some of his supporters may find surprising. We discussed this with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.


    The state of Pennsylvania, of course, is a state that has the death penalty on the books.


    JEREMY SCAHILL: Senator Obama has spoken in favor of the death penalty. What’s your position on it?

    MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: I’m actually against the death penalty. I think that the potential for making mistakes far outweighs the need to put someone to death. Life with no parole will essentially accomplish the same primary objective, which is to make sure the person is never out on the streets to harm anyone in the future. But, you know, look, there will be any number of things that — you know, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What I’m focused on is making sure that Senator Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States of America, and I’m going to everything I can to get him elected.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: And then, final question on that issue: You have one of the most famous death row prisoners in the world on death row in Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Do you think that his case has been handled justly?

    MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: You know, I’m certainly no expert on that particular case. It’s been in the criminal justice system for a long period of time. We’re going to let the criminal justice system handle that particular case. I wasn’t out there that night. You weren’t out there that night. None of us standing here knows what exactly happened there. And so, the system needs to be able to function and operate, and it will work itself out.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: But would you call for Mumia Abu-Jamal to be taken off of death row, given your opposition to the death penalty?

    MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: My position on the death penalty has been very clear. The particulars of that case and all the components of it are just really — it’s way beyond what my opinion is about the death penalty, in general, versus a particular case. That’s a very serious matter involving the killing of a Philadelphia police officer. We’re going to let the system take care of itself, and we’ll see what happens.


    Your name?

    “CAPTAIN HENRY MORGAN”: Captain Henry Morgan, my friend.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: And that’s the name you’re sticking to?

    “CAPTAIN HENRY MORGAN”: Absolutely. Captain Morgan for president!


    As we were leaving the Pepsi Center, we ran into a symbol of the massive corporate presence at the convention. Masquerading as a candidate for president was “Captain Morgan,” the mascot of the brand of rum.


    What’s Captain Morgan’s vision for Iraq?

    “CAPTAIN HENRY MORGAN”: Some of these issues, we’re going to let Obama and McCain discuss. What we’re going to focus on is putting the party back into politics. Right? They’re doing a great job. They’re having a great time. They’re really focused on those. We’re here to make sure that we’re having fun every day that we wake up by putting the party back into politics.

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: He’s totally vetted. Captain Morgan [inaudible].

    JEREMY SCAHILL: No, but I mean, how —- for a private company to be able do this inside of the convention, how are you guys [inaudible]?

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: Captain Morgan’s got the Captain’s Corner Lounge in the pavilion number two media lounge. So -—

    JEREMY SCAHILL: What’s it called?

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: Pavilion two?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: No, the Captain’s…

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: Captain’s Corner. It’s the official hot spot for Captain and the Morganettes. That’s their party.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: So are you an official sponsor of the Democratic and Republican conventions?

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: Diageo is the official pourer of both the Democratic and the Republican National Convention.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: The official what?

    DIAGEO SPOKESPERSON: Official pourer.


    Captain Morgan’s representative told us that they have an official contract at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Perhaps Captain Morgan’s presidential candidacy was one of the most over-the-top displays of corporate influence over this convention, but it’s hardly the only one, as Congressman Dennis Kucinich explained.

    REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: One of the enduring problems of our political system, whether it’s about Democrats or Republicans, is the role of corporations in the political process. We have a real problem in America, where corporations have infiltrated our political process so seriously that they’re putting labels on all of us. There’s not one on me, but I can say that when I go to my own Ohio delegation, and I see “Dominion” on everything — and that’s a natural gas company that’s jacking up everybody’s rates, and they need the support of a state administration to do it — don’t think that I don’t understand what that’s about. We’re in the Pepsi Arena. Obama is going to give his acceptance in Invesco Stadium. What’s this about? It’s like we’re forgetting the public sphere.

AMY GOODMAN: That report filed by Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films. This is Democracy Now! When we come back from break, the protests outside the Pepsi Center, as the main show goes on inside.

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