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How a Radical Lawyer Set for Prison Joined Longtime U.S. Gov’t Foe in Failed Bid to Free a Hostage

Web ExclusiveDecember 30, 2014
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We continue our interview with Stanley Cohen, a lawyer directly involved in secret talks to win the freedom of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, who argues that the U.S. government missed a chance to prevent Kassig’s beheading last month by the Islamic State in Syria. Cohen is a controversial attorney whose past clients include Hamas, Hezbollah and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. He also responds to the charges against him that led to an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, and he says was politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial clients. He is due to begin his sentence next week.

Click here to see Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: We continue our look at how the U.S. has failed to win the release of hostages captured by ISIS and other militants, continuing with the case of Peter Kassig. A former U.S. soldier turned aid worker in Syria, Kassig was captured by ISIS just over a year ago. Last month, he was executed in the latest ISIS beheading of a Western hostage. Kassig, who was 26, converted to Islam in captivity and was also known as Abdul-Rahman.

Just over a month after Kassig was killed, a New York lawyer has come forward to reveal he had brokered secret talks aimed at winning Kassig’s release and that he believes the U.S. government missed a chance to prevent his death.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Stanley Cohen, controversial attorney whose past client list includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Using his extensive contacts and working with the FBI’s blessing, Cohen flew to the Middle East, where he developed a plan to free Peter Kassig through talks between figures aligned with al-Qaeda and Islamic State. But the plan fell apart when Jordan arrested a leading cleric who played the key role in the talks and the U.S. refused to intervene. Kassig was beheaded shortly after.

Stanley Cohen joins us now. Next week he’s due to begin an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, a case he says was politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial clients. But before we talk about your own career and why you are now headed to prison, I wanted to ask you to continue from part one, about our discussion with Peter Kassig—


AMY GOODMAN: —about how the sheikh, Abu Muhammad Maqdisi, was arrested right at the point where you felt Peter Kassig could be released.

STANLEY COHEN: We had negotiated a protocol between the Jordanian government and the United States government, with the blessing of Sheikh Maqdisi and Sheikh Qatada, probably the two most important so-called jihadi imams in the region. Sheikh Maqdisi was considered to be the grand mufti of al-Qaeda. That protocol, among other things, guaranteed that he could talk to leaders of ISIS without being arrested, that he could talk in uncontrolled environments, that he was permitted to speak to three separate religious leaders, including one of his students, who is now the grand mufti or religious leader of ISIS.

Those talks began. They were approved by the U.S. government. They were approved by the Jordanian government. They were underway for several days. I saw the series of exchanges in WhatsApp. I had a U.S. court interpreter with me the entire time. They were moving towards the point that Sheikh Maqdisi was going to make a request that, as a gesture, as part of a movement of ending the public jousting going on between al-Qaeda and the sheikhs and ISIS, that Peter Kassig be released.

We later learned that there was a Sharia court that was held as a precondition to his release, where they found that his conversion to Islam was righteous. We were of the opinion that Mr. Kassig not only would have been released within three or four days of that point, but that the practice, the policy of taking hostages to behead them, particularly journalists and civilians and aid workers, would have ended.

AARON MATÉ: Why are you so convinced of that?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, when you have Sheikh Maqdisi, who the U.S. government describes as the “most important jihadi,” quote-unquote—and those are his words—religious leaders in the world, who was the religious leader of al-Qaeda in the war in Iraq, with Zarqawi, that whole front, when they are making a commitment that this is going to happen; when this is a group that’s already produced the release, along with Gitmo veterans, of some 36 peacekeepers; when no beheadings had occurred for some six weeks, when they had been occurring before almost every week or every two weeks; when videos were being released showing hostages being held in a much better condition; when you had people on the ground in Kuwait talking to ISIS; when you had the religious leaders in Jordan talking to ISIS; and when Turki bin Ali, the religious leader who sat to the right of Abu Bakr, who’s the head of ISIS, saying this is going to work, I’m convinced it would have worked. This isn’t money. This isn’t bankers. These aren’t corporate guys doing discussions. This is the most important sheikh in the world talking to one of his students about releasing Mr. Kassig and about a cessation of this practice of attacking civilians. I’m convinced it would have worked. The good faith was six weeks of no executions. Before I traveled to the Middle East, it was a condition that we set that no hostages could be executed. And none were for some six weeks.

AARON MATÉ: Why are former Guantánamo prisoners, as you say, involved in this effort to help Americans? What’s their incentive or motive?

STANLEY COHEN: It’s interesting. These are people that had been tortured in Bagram, in Kandahar, in Gitmo. They are opposed to attacks on civilians Islamically and politically. They are opposed to beheadings. They are opposed to taking journalists and civilians and aid workers as hostages. And they saw this practice as giving the United States—they see regional instability as giving the U.S. and the West and Israel an excuse for more and more attacks, for drone attacks, for re-entering into the region. They’d like to ratchet it down. They’d like to begin a new day in the region. And that’s one of the ways they thought they could stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: When you’re an attorney representing very controversial figures, the U.S. is hardly on your side. Why did you trust what was happening? Here, I mean, you were actually working with the U.S. government in this negotiation.

STANLEY COHEN: Well, it wasn’t the U.S. government that reached out to me. It was after some Palestinians from Sabra-Shatila who knew Peter Kassig and some Veterans for Peace reached out to me.

AARON MATÉ: That’s a camp in Lebanon for refugees.

STANLEY COHEN: That’s right. They reached out to me to see if I could do anything about saving Kassig. They had a relationship with him. I called a friend, who is a man who did seven years in Gitmo, who was at one time a major al-Qaeda leader—or that’s what the U.S. government believes. They had already negotiated the release of dozens of U.N. peacekeepers. He called me a day later and said, “Yes, we can do this. We’re opposed to this. We’d like this to happen.”

I brought the government in at one point only because it became obvious to me that there might become a time or a reason where I had to get the U.S. engaged in order to accomplish this. I wasn’t working as a U.S. agent. I didn’t have to report to them. I didn’t have to do what they asked me to do. The one occasion where they asked me to do something affirmatively—namely, meet with a federal agent on the ground in Jordan—I refused. And lo and behold, there came a time when I asked for one single thing to be done, which was this protocol, which was negotiated and agreed. And to answer your question, for—

AMY GOODMAN: Protocol being?

STANLEY COHEN: The protocol which allowed Maqdisi to call Turki bin Ali without fear of being arrested. And lo and behold, for the first time in 30 years of being an adversary of the U.S. government, in this particular situation, I trusted the—at least the person I was dealing with. And I have no problem with the person I was dealing with, personally. I think political decisions were made, because I couldn’t imagine that they would take—that they would refuse to follow up on an agreement, knowing full well that an American would be murdered. And that’s what happened. I put the sword in this case in the hands of whether it’s the White House, the State Department or the CIA. There was a deal that was brokered. There was a deal that was broached. We got sandbagged. An American was beheaded. And a whole protocol that was underway to build a bridge for the future ended.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you talking with Peter’s parents?

STANLEY COHEN: No, they didn’t even know we were there.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you since talked to them?

STANLEY COHEN: No, I spoke to a representative of—excuse me—of Peter’s parents last week who called me from the U.K.

AARON MATÉ: On this point of your involvement working with the U.S., in this long Guardian piece that tells the behind-the-scenes of this dramatic story, you quote a State Department official who says, “We’re sending a Jewish anarchist lawyer who represents Hamas to the Middle East to negotiate with ISIS and al-Qaeda over Kassig?” And apparently someone also in the government responded, “Who the [bleep] else would we send?”

STANLEY COHEN: Well, it shows a level of maturity. Look, I’ve spent 20 years in the Middle East. I’ve represented Hamas. I’ve done work for Hezbollah. I’ve done work in South Yemen. I’ve represented people from al-Qaeda. There’s a degree of trust. There are connections. There are people that I know and can speak with and sit down and talk to, with my reputation, with my history, and get things done in ways that others can’t in the United States, including the intelligence divisions, including the NSA and including the White House. So the answer was yes. They weren’t sending anyone. But the view that “how could we expect Cohen to be able to do what we can’t?” shows the kind of government ignorance and arrogance that is at the root of this disaster called foreign policy, in general, and hostage negotiations, in particular.

AARON MATÉ: The arrest of Maqdisi by Jordan, do you think the U.S. had prior knowledge of that, or do you think that they were blindsided, as well, like you were?

STANLEY COHEN: I think they were blindsided, but I think they very easily could have picked up a phone, called Abdullah and said, “We give you $2 billion a year…” And I actually proposed, look, send him home, put him under house arrest, get him out, keep these negotiations going.

Most of all, I think what Americans have to understand is this betrayal of Sheikh Maqdisi, after a commitment from the U.S. government, means that no one on the ground, no private state—no private actor, will trust the word of the United States again around any issue having to do with hostages or anything else in the region. This was a betrayal, and the U.S. could have undone it with one simple phone call and elected not to do it, which essentially guaranteed Mr. Kassig, Abdul-Rahman Kassig’s murder and guaranteed that this long-term discussion for building a bridge to stop the attacks on civilians would fall apart. Now, there are some who believe the United States is comfortable with that, because they thrive on regional instability. I happen to be one of those people who believe that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stanley Cohen, a controversial lawyer, attempted to broker this agreement, secret talks for Peter Kassig’s release. Next week, he’s due to begin serving an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, a case he says was politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial cases. But you pled guilty to a tax offense. What was that?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, the interesting thing is it’s impeding the IRS code. When it came to my sentencing, the probation department said to the judge, “Mr. Cohen denies his guilt. When he was interviewed, he denied all these overt acts.” And I did.

There were reasons why I chose to dispose of this. And the judge, who I’ve known for 20 years, and has not like me for 20 years, and who I’ve had problems with for 20 years, turned around and said, “I reject what the probation department is saying. I believe Mr. Cohen is owning up to his responsibility.” I made a decision, after some 17 years, 16 years, whatever it is, of harassment, after spending $600,000, of which $400,000 is owed in legal fees, after another $100,000 in accounting fees, after raids on my office, after intimidation of clients, after harassment of my family, I wanted to bring this to a close. We faced upwards of five more years’ worth of trials and appeals. We faced years’ worth of interfering with work that I’ve been doing in the United States and overseas. And I decided I want to put a close to this, end this chapter and move on, because it’s obvious something that began with my work with Hamas in the mid-1990s moved along with my work with Hezbollah, which generated battles over my refusal to fill out and sign OFAC agreements, which in essence—


STANLEY COHEN: Office of Financial Assets Control requires that when you represent designated, quote-unquote, “terrorist” movements or persons, you’re supposed to fill out a form identifying who you’re representing, where you’re going, how long you’re going to be there and what you’re doing there. My view of that is, if I’m not getting paid—and almost all of my work in the Middle East for 25 years has—20 years, has been pro bono—I’ve got no obligation to fill that out. They threatened to indict me for violations of that. They tried and failed. They threatened and they investigated me for writing op-ed pieces they claimed I wrote for Hamas, which ended up in major newspapers throughout the United States, which became the subject of the Humanitarian Law Project, the material support case, in front of the Supreme Court. They spoke to Palestinians, saying, “We know that Cohen is a member of the inner circle of Hamas”—a Jewish anarchist from the Lower East Side—”exchanging information and running money back and forth.” This went on for years. The Northern District of New York, where I had beaten this very prosecutor, who—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the Northern District is?

STANLEY COHEN: The Canadian border, where there’s a huge—where the Mohawk territory is. I’ve represented Mohawks for 25 years. I was charged with seditious conspiracy in Canada for a standoff in 1990. The case was dismissed. The Northern District, who I’d beaten for years; judges that I had won cases against, who took positions; prosecutors that I had beaten, including the prosecutor that went after me; agents that I sued, who were suspended—this went on for years. The Northern District somehow ends up with a tax investigation of a lawyer who doesn’t live in the Northern District, who lives in the Southern District. There’s no basis for them investigating. So they start this huge investigation, and they end up with impeding the IRS code, whatever that means.

AMY GOODMAN: So they say that you didn’t report some income, that you—

STANLEY COHEN: They’re saying I made it difficult for the IRS to figure out exactly what my income was. My response to that was: Where are the—where’s the fruits? Where’s the property? Where’s the boats, the planes? Where’s the bank accounts? Where’s the pensions? Where’s the 401(k)s? Where’s the Stock Exchange? Where’s the money? There is none. This ended up being a face-saving decision by the Northern District. After years of investigating me, this is what ended up being returned.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this mean that you will not be able to practice law?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, it’s not a crime in New York state, so I still have my New York state license. I have been removed from the Northern District of New York. I’m going to have to withdraw from upwards of a half-dozen terrorism cases either I’m representing in district courts or on appeal. And after I get out of jail, which will be probably about a year, I will then make an application to pick up and proceed representing clients. In all likelihood, I expect to be leaving the country, relocating to the Middle East, continuing working with a group of lawyers that’s brought lots of human rights cases and which we currently have about five or six pending.

AMY GOODMAN: But technically, what you pled guilty to?

STANLEY COHEN: Impeding the IRS code.

AARON MATÉ: And why plead guilty if you’re innocent, as you say?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, you got $600,000? Do you know how many people plead guilty every day in the United States in federal courts who aren’t guilty? You know how many clients that I’ve had who make a decision, strategic decisions, because if you go to trial and you lose, and especially in front of the judge that was handpicked, after 16 years of it just continuing and continuing and continuing with no end? Overt acts attributed to me, including sweat equity, representing people in the projects in exchange for them doing work for me as messengers—that’s an overt act. I made a strategic decision when it started not only impacting—and it had for a number of years—the finances of my family, but started harassing my family, started harassing my practice, and it promised to go on for four or five or six years—who knows how long?

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned your clients, doing pro bono work for clients in the Middle East.


AARON MATÉ: A lot of unorthodox choices for a lawyer. But talk about your approach to the law and who you’ve represented.

STANLEY COHEN: You know, I have—look, all clients, when you’re a defense attorney, are political clients. Almost everyone prosecuted in this country is on the basis of color, is on the basis of class, is on the basis of gender, is on the basis of politics. Anyone who believes otherwise is being very naive. I have a traditional practice, which is, you know, drug cases and assault cases and robbery cases, and I’ve had that for many years. I started out in the Legal Aid Society in the South Bronx, represented Larry Davis many years ago. My political clients are different.

AMY GOODMAN: With—that was with William Kunstler?

STANLEY COHEN: I was originally the attorney, brought William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart in—Lynne, who’s also been convicted of crimes that she didn’t do and was disbarred.

There’s two components to my political practice. I either have to share a solidarity with the politics of the person or the movement, or I have to like the person personally, because you’re talking about working very intensely for long periods of time with an individual. Or you have to have both. And fortunately, in almost all of my practice, whether it’s in the Middle East, whether it’s representing Indians in Canada, whether it’s representing black bloc, Anonymous, squatters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, whether it’s the Kassig situation, the common thread is that it is resistance. It is becoming friction unto the machine. It’s challenging the government. It’s exposing the government. It’s going after agencies. It’s going after federal prosecutors. It’s jumping into this machine the way very few other attorneys do, especially of late.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who you represented, who was convicted on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. Abu Ghaith is the most senior al-Qaeda member to be tried in a U.S. civilian court in the years since 9/11. During testimony, he described meeting with bin Laden inside a cave in Afghanistan just hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but denied having prior knowledge. You were the court-appointed lawyer. You were—

STANLEY COHEN: No, no. I was retained by the family in Kuwait. It’s one of the cases that was not pro bono. I was hired to bring together a team of lawyers, and I brought six other lawyers in.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the videotape.

STANLEY COHEN: It’s not about words. It’s not about association. There are clear requirements under the law. You know, if you want to turn around and indict people for words, there’s about 270 congressmen and women right now that have said some pretty incendiary things about a lot of things. Maybe we should start there.

AMY GOODMAN: That was you standing outside the courthouse. Explain who Sulaiman is, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and what his conviction was all about.

STANLEY COHEN: Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is a wonderful, wonderful imam who, interestingly enough, during the occupation by Iraq of his country in Kuwait, at a very young age, worked with the United States trying to get money to people in the community, had no problems with the United States. He’s a man whose entire life has been as an educator, as a teacher, as a religious leader. He happened to go to Afghanistan three months before 9/11. He went there to see what was going on. He was asked to meet with Osama bin Laden, which is not unusual, because he had a reputation in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain his family relationship with—

STANLEY COHEN: The family relationship is somewhat misleading, because he married Osama bin Laden’s daughter his seventh year of prison in Iran. So there’s this notion that they had met initially, that they married initially. It’s not true. Abu Ghaith spent 11 years in prison after he fled Afghanistan during the U.S. bombings in Tora Bora. While in prison in his seventh year, the eldest daughter of Osama bin Laden had been arrested herself. Her husband had been killed in a battle. For her safety, he married her, because you couldn’t have a single woman in a prison in Iran. So when they call him Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, it’s true, but bin Laden didn’t know that, didn’t bless it, didn’t introduce them. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith—

AMY GOODMAN: And did they meet, Sulaiman and his wife?

STANLEY COHEN: They met in prison, seven years after 9/11. When they say that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was this close—look, every single government witness in Sulaiman Abu Ghaith’s trial said he had nothing to do and there’s no proof he had any knowledge of the twin embassy bombing cases, he had nothing to do with the attack on the Cole, there was no evidence he knew of or had anything to do with 9/11. There wasn’t a single shred of evidence that he was involved in any conspiracy to kill any American, to bomb any building or do anything with the 1 percent of al-Qaeda that were involved in acts of terrorism, while the vast majority were involved with fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. He made a series of incendiary speeches. He made speeches which attacked the United States, which threatened future acts which could carry out. This occurred during a three-month period. There were probably four speeches, two audio tapes, and that’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was when?

STANLEY COHEN: Three months prior to 9/11 and for about three months after 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: And he met Osama bin Laden right after the attacks?

STANLEY COHEN: Within a day—within a day of the attack, Osama bin Laden asked him to come to his house—he did—and asked him, as a religious leader, as a respected religious leader, to sort of dovetail bullet points with religious context and what had occurred. He made several videos, he made several speeches, and then fled. He was arrested by the Iranians, not charged, held for 11 years, released and then kidnapped, renditioned by the United States government and put on trial.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was renditioned from where?


AMY GOODMAN: And he was sent to? Jordan?

STANLEY COHEN: Sent to the United States directly. If Sulaiman Abu Ghaith had any information, if he had any knowledge, if he was the player that they claimed he was, he would not have been put on an airplane immediately after landing in Jordan, but would have been sent to some black hole, would have ended up in Gitmo, would have been tortured. This was a safe case. The Obama administration needed to get someone at—in federal court in New York City, to try him, someone who hadn’t at that point been tortured, someone who there weren’t, quote-unquote, “national security problems,” although there became national security problems because we tried to get Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to testify, the judge wouldn’t permit it. He was a very safe—he was Osama bin Laden. Without bin Laden, they put him there, and that’s what he was convicted, on the basis of association and speech. There wasn’t a shred of evidence that he did anything to further any acts of terrorism at any time.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he was convicted of.

STANLEY COHEN: Material support for terrorism and conspiracy to murder Americans. The theory of the conspiracy was those speeches automatically meant—became responsible for all previous acts and all acts which, in essence, occurred while he was in prison for 11 years. That’s what he was convicted of. No conspiracy to bomb, no conspiracy to murder, no plotting, no meeting, no getting together, no gathering—none of that, nothing. Pure speech, pure association, as repugnant and as offensive as it may have been and as disturbing as it was.

He was the perfect guy to put on trial. From the U.S. propaganda standpoint, he was. We knew what the U.S. would do with those videos. I predicted in the opening statement: You’re not going to see a shred of evidence tying this man, but you’re going to hear the name bin Laden 300 times, you’re going to see the buildings on fire, 9/11, 300 times. And they did. And it was impossible to get this guy a fair trial. Every turn we made, every move we tried was shot down—national security; people are in Gitmo, they can’t testify. We had the U.S. government scaring away Salim Hamdan, who was the driver for Osama bin Laden, who agreed to be deposed in Yemen. He ended up refusing to testify. He was afraid of retaliation. It was a showcase. It was a zoo. That’s what it was. It was part of the political agenda of this administration, and it worked.

AARON MATÉ: Hasn’t Abu Ghaith claimed he was tortured?

STANLEY COHEN: Abu Ghaith was tortured while in Iranian custody. He had a seizure. He had various back problems, limbs that were broken. He had a child who died while he was in custody. He was tortured on an airplane, the 13-hour air flight that brought him from Jordan to the United States. The typical—the enhanced interrogation techniques, they call, with the earmuffs and the eyemuffs, and every time he stopped talking, the muffs went back on, the chains went back on. And as long as he kept talking, the chains came off.

Now, Abu Ghaith took the witness stand. He was the first one. He took the witness stand and said, “Look, what do you want to know?” And the U.S. government, which had looked for him, they claim, for all these years, and we know had negotiated with Iran over trying to get him for some period of time and then walked away from it, cross-examined this major al-Qaeda leader for three hours on the witness stand. Ask your questions—and didn’t, and sat down.

AMY GOODMAN: How long is his sentence, and where is he serving it?

STANLEY COHEN: He got a life sentence, which I believe will be reversed on appeal. Unfortunately, I am now stripped from representing him on appeal. He is somewhere in the middle of the United States on the way to Supermax in Colorado. I believe he’s got a dozen great appellate issues. I believe he’ll prevail. I believe there will be a new trial. And unless there is a change in U.S. attitude and policy or laws, it’s an uphill battle again. But again, he’s been stripped of his attorney of choice.

AMY GOODMAN: And where will you be imprisoned?

STANLEY COHEN: I’ve just received notice yesterday, because I made the phone call, because I never got the letter I was supposed to get. There is a high-security facility that also has, quote-unquote, “a camp” in Pennsylvania, that I report to a week from today. I will do approximately a year in jail. And then I will be released.

AMY GOODMAN: And where will you go after that?

STANLEY COHEN: I suspect I’m going to come back and fight to make sure my state license is back in order, and then I’m going to leave the United States. I’m probably going to move to the Middle East. I’ve had offers to join firms that I work with and do international human rights litigation in the Middle East. I’ve spent probably half my life in the Middle East the last 20 years. Interestingly enough, I had recently offers of political asylum from six countries, including four in the Middle East. I have family in the Middle East. I have friends in the Middle East. Unfortunately, I’d like to go to Palestine, but I can’t get in, because I’m banned by both Israel and Egypt, and now probably Jordan, the only ports of entry.

I’ve decided that strategically, I can do the most effective work, the rest of the years that I have, litigating overseas. I’ve got cases in The Hague. I’ve got cases in the International Criminal Court. I’ve got a case in the African Union against Egypt right now. I’ve sued the United States overseas. You know, it’s very clear—I’ve spent 20 years as being friction under the machine on exposing, challenging and embarrassing the United States and its system of surrogate governments in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stanley Cohen, I want to thank you for being with us, veteran human rights attorney, brokered secret talks for Peter Kassig’s release. Ultimately, Peter Kassig was beheaded. Next week, Stanley Cohen is due to begin serving an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, a case he says was politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial cases. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Thanks for joining us.

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