I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Transcript - Mac McClelland

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Mac McClelland, who is a reporter for Mother Jones, who has been providing some of the nation's best on the scene reporting of the BP oil spill, essentially from the start, including effort to restrict coverage, and we're here to talk about some of her reporting.

Thanks so much for joining me.

Mac McClelland: Thanks for having me.

GG: One of the things that has struck me about your reporting from the start is that it seemed to be conveying so much more urgency about the magnitude of the disaster than the American media generally was conveying, and so I wanted to begin by asking you what motivated you to go there and do this on the scene reporting, and when is it that you realized the magnitude of this crisis?

MM: I was actually already in New Orleans reporting a different story, and one day when I was supposed to be meeting soon, I looked at a map and saw the direction the spill was moving in, and so I drove down to one of the barrier islands that looked like it was going to be in the path of destruction, and I happened to arrive as oil was washing up on the shore. I think the second that you see it, literally the second you see it, you realize how massive this disaster is.

I mean, that was only the very, very beginning of the brownish rust-colored stick globules that have washed up, but still, they were all over the beach, and a lot of them are in tiny pieces and are broken up, and there is stuff all over the shore, and if you think about, how could somebody possibly pick this up and clean this up? Especially when it's going to be washing in in big black waves for the next many, many months. It's hard not to see the urgency of it, I think.

GG: One of the issues that you've been writing about most in terms of what is hard to find in other places, is the concerted effort on the parts of lots of different entities, law enforcement entities, and BP especially, to prevent coverage of what was really happening, and on May 22 - and this is one of just so many examples, but it was pretty stark - you wrote, quote:

It's Saturday May 22, a month into the BP oil spill, and I've been trying to get to Elmer's Island for the past two day. I've been stymied at every turn by Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies, brought in to supplement the local police force of Grand Island, a 229-year-old settlement here, at the very southern tip of Louisiana.

Can you talk about just in general the efforts that you encountered to prevent you and other members of the media from covering the spill?

MM: Sure. Well, it started with sheriff's deputies; I was encountering sheriff's deputies all over Grand Isle as soon as oil had washed up, and they're actually still there, doing the blockades now, a month later. They have also brought in private security contractors, and some of the actual just clean-up workers will be conscripted into security duties. They stepped up a lot of security shifts of the sheriff's deputies from several parishes here in Louisiana. One parish has 57 extra shifts per week that they are devoting entirely to, basically, BP security detail, and BP is paying the sheriff's office, reimbursing them for that overtime.

There's a lot of security down here, and you can see - someone from the local TV station down here was thrown off a beach. I still get thrown off of beaches, so as much as people are saying, we're not doing that anymore, and the Coast Guard is saying that the coast is clear, it's obviously not the case when you're actually on the ground.

GG: There's been some discussion about the role that the federal government has played in those efforts to prevent media coverage including restrictions on how low helicopters could fly, obviously the use of dispersants, it was suggested was an effort to prevent detection. Have you encountered that, the role of the federal government in what seems to be coverage-preventive efforts?

MM: Yeah, I was actually on a helicopter flyover, I guess it was about a week ago now, and the federal government had by that time already announced that they had eased the restrictions and that now helicopters that were carrying civilians or press - non-military or BP related people - could fly as low as 1500 feet, and that is absolutely not true. It certainly wasn't true when I was in the air; our pilot had to be at least 3000 feet in the air.

He had extreme restrictions, and we could see people related to the government or BP flying well below us, so they're still allowed in that lower air space, but we had to stay 3000 feet in the air. And even when we were that high up, there were military guys coming over the radio harassing my pilot for being in the area at all. So, that certainly is not the case that those restrictions are totally eased.

GG: One of the interesting things you write about in media criticism is that a lot of times people listen to media in a very kind of abstract and theoretical way, even if they sympathize with it, it's
very hard almost believe in a visceral that it's actually happening, and yet one of the things that often occurs is that when somebody has first-hand knowledge of an incident, because they're involved in it or seeing it, and then compare that to how the media is covering it, they really get a vivid understanding of how the media can distort things or how coverage can be distorted by the government or others, and prevent the media from covering it.

So, in terms of your being on the scene from the start, was there a disparity between the way the media was conveying what had happened here, the seriousness of it, and the reality, either because the media just did a bad job or because it was prevented from covering it in a way that would have informed people about what was taking place?

MM: I think it's hard, since I've not been here for two months, and the local media is freaking out, obviously. All of the front page stories on the local papers are about this spill. I imagine that that is not the case elsewhere in the country. Again, I check in with The Times and see that they're, it doesn't seem to be anywhere near the alarm bells ringing in other papers as there are down here. I think it's difficult to feel the whole distress of the situation unless you are really immersed in it, and it's possible that media outlets are concerned about people getting coverage fatigue because we've been talking about this for such a long time now. And we're going to keep talking about it for many, many months.

I lived here during Katrina and we saw the same thing, where people stopped talking about what was going on, and down here it was a totally different tone to the story. I mean, it's all anybody talks about. Every single radio show is about the oil spill. All the news shows are about the oil spill. The newspapers, the conversation, on the street, in bars, in diners - it's all-consuming because it really is going to change everybody's lives in a huge way.

GG: There was an incident this week that you documented, and have been investigating, and I'm going to link to your description of what took place, but still if you could just walk me through what it is that happened, how you learned about that, and what you were incensed, that would be really helpful.

MM: There is a conservation coordinator from the American Birding Association, as you can tell by his title, he's a very threatening individual, and he was videotaping himself giving a monologue about Corexit, and how dangerous Corexit is, in front of BP...

GG: Corexit is what?

MM: Is the chemical dispersant that they're using.

GG: Right.

MM: He was basically talking about how Corexit is going to kill us all, and was across the street on private property in a sugar cane field, but you could see the BP building was in the background. But it was across traffic and all the way across the street.

GG: When you say, it was on private property, it was not on BP private property, right?

MM: Oh yes, right. Not on BP-owned, private citizen property is that he was standing on.

GG: And he was essentially filming this narration with BP in the background to dramatize that it was BP that was releasing this dispersant that was so dangerous.

MM: Correct.

GG: And so then what happened?

MM: The a sheriff's deputy from Terrebonne parish approached him, and you can't see the deputy on camera, but you can hear him clearly and he tells him that BP doesn't want anyone filming there. He asked him for ID, and the guys asks, him, am I breaking any laws, and the cop says, not particularly, but BP doesn't really want people filming here, so all I'm going to do is strongly suggest that you need the of leave. I'm just going to strongly suggest that you leave And he tells him that a couple times.

He runs his information to see if he has any warrants, and he doesn't. and so the deputy leaves, and the guy goes on with his business After that, he packs up his camera, he gets in his car, and he drives away, and as soon as he starts driving away, the cop pulls him over, and...

GG: the same cop you had warned him to leave?

MM: Right Same cop. Pulls him over, except now he has somebody in the car with him, and it's a guy whose badge says Chief BP Security. So the cop went back to BP to pick up this security guy, and brought him back and together they pulled over this conservation coordinator. Basically the cop just stood by while the BP guy asked this citizen they had pulled over questions for 20 minutes. He asked him who he worked for, who he answered to, what he was doing there, why
he was in Louisiana, etc., etc. And then after, he called in, the BP guy was calling in information about this guy as he was answering it, and after about 20 minutes they let him go.

GG: Now I guess there was some kind of a-- someone notified you that the police officer was off duty and was working for directly for BP at the time, how did that happen?

MM: I finally got a hold of - you know, police departments aren't the fastest people to call the press back down here, and especially right now. but I finally got a hold of somebody from the
Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Department, and he said that that guy was not actually on duty, he was working private security detail. He was moonlighting basically, but the thing about that is is that in Louisiana, you can wear your uniform, your sheriff's uniform, no matter who you're working for, and use your car.

So, I mean, you wouldn't know that this guy was essentially a security guard and not a sheriff's deputy at that particular time, unless he pulled you over and you said, you are dressed like a cop, and in a cop car, but are you actually a cop right now? There's no way to tell who they're working for or on whose authority they're pulling you over or interrogating you.

GG: And when police officer had warned him to leave the area and to stop filming in front of BP headquarters though not on BP property, was the claim also that he was not acting in his official
capacity as a police officer?

MM: That guy never said anything about who he was working for at the time, and the guy he pull over had no idea, and so he just said, I'm going to strongly suggest that you leave because BP doesn't want you here. This guy assumes that he was speaking on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office. When I talked to the guy from the sheriff's office who was explaining to me that all of this behavior was totally on the up and up, it was completely standard, because that guy could have been a terrorist, so even though none of... this conservation coordinator was not breaking any laws, he was still be suspicious, and since he was being suspicious, it's fine that the sheriff pulled him over and let this BP guy interrogate him.

GG: I mean the reason, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about this is that I found this so incredibly creepy. I mean it's essentially, it sounds like a corporate police state, basically. In you experience, is this a one-time aberrational incident, or has there been a lot of cooperation along these lines between BP and law enforcement?

MM: There is definitely a lot of cooperation between BP and law enforcement. This Terrebonne parish sheriff's department, they alone have 40 of their deputies who are in the private employ of BP on they're time off, so just in that one little parish there's 40 cops who look like cops but are not necessarily always cops. In the rest of the parishes, where they have stepped up their security detail that they're working for BP, BP is paying them.

They're paying these sheriffs departments, so there' s obviously a lot of collaboration between and part of the things that had originally happened when I tried to get down to Grand Isle and I was originally encountering all of these restrictions, the BP liaison, who was married to a sheriff from the department that was telling me that I wasn't allowed through, said, we have a lot of sway over the sheriff departments. And of course the sheriff's departments will say that that's not true, but anyone down here can tell you that all the evidence points of the contrary.

GG: And have you found that your ultimately able to circumvent these restrictions and provide that coverage and get the access that you want, or have you been meaningful impeded in being able to convey what's going on there as a results of these police actions?

MM: I definitely haven't seen as much as I would be able to if there weren't a whole bunch of cops standing in my way telling me I can't go and look at stuff. I made it onto, there was one wildlife refuge I made it on to there after I had to wait for two days because the sheriff's blockade wouldn't let me through until BP gave me permission, and it took them - and you have to be escorted.

So it took me two days to get a BP escort as if I were in a war zone or something to get to this wildlife refuge and since then the way that I've beenkeeping up with it is that one of the clean-up workers who is on that island called me in the middle of the night and tells me what's going on, because there's not press on that island, and so he'll calling to give me updates like, hey, by the way, on this 8 mile stretch of wildlife refuge we only have 60 workers. And they're not really doing anything. And it looks worse every day.

Those are the sort of things that nobody is getting pictures of because it's hard to get on there. When I tried to get on to that island the second time, with PBS who's down here, and they asked me to take them and I did, and they couldn't get on because they were told they would have to wait for two days. And that's a story killer for a lot of people. I mean this guy can't just hang around and wait for a couple of days, and then the video wouldn't be ready for broadcast.

So they did actually totally successfully keep PBS from getting footage of this island, and that's only one of many beaches around here where I've been told that I have to leave or that I can't get on at all. Sometimes I can kayak cause a lot of these islands are pretty close - I kayaked to a couple of them to get around their restrictions. You can't get everywhere in the Gulf on a kayak

GG: Right. So, just the last question: can you - and it's a pretty broad question, so I'll let you kind of pick and choose what you think is the most important to hear and you talk about, just first-hand witness the extent of the devastation of the Gulf from this oil spill and the wildlife and wetlands and other things that you actually seen in a way that may be national media hasn't totally conveyed. Through no fault of their own, but just in terms of what you've seen, and also in
terms of the adequacy or inadequacy of the cleanup efforts , what kinds of things have you seen that would let you believe there there's not enough being done in response.

MM: The cleanup effort is probably most alarming me about the things that I've been looking at. You see the pictures, everybody knows that these beaches are covered in crude, and I think we're going to see more pictures of that now that Florida and these beautiful white sandy beaches are also being destroyed, but there seems to be no oversight of these cleanup efforts and they're pretty important obviously. That, like I said, Elmer's Island is a wildlife refuge; there were 60 guys on there.

I went to an island that five miles of beach - it was the island where those really famous AP photos of the birds that are just drowning in really, really thick crude, those photos - on that island there's 30 guys. There's 30 guys on that whole island and so there oil everywhere. It doesn't even look like anyone is trying to take care of the problems and to consider how much more is going to wash up, it's mind boggling to think that anyone will ever be able to restore these beaches at the the rate that it's going.

And I can't find any evidence that the government is really watching this closely and taking care of it. The Coast Guard sends out these press releases where they say, we have twenty-some thousand responders on the ground, and when I called the coast guard and I said, can I get a break down of these numbers, they said, Oh, that's BP's information, that's not actually our numbers, so we're going to have to ask them. So the government is not only disseminating official BP stats as a official government stats, but there not even fact checking it. They're not even following up and asking for a spreadsheet of who these volunteers are and where they are.

So the people down here who live here and whose lives are totally altered are also very concerned that the response isn't enough. isn't fast enough, and most importantly, nobody's watching, because nobody believes that BP has the citizens and the environment at the top of their priority list. So they really want someone who does those things at the top of their priority list paying attention and being in charge and that does not appear to be happening.

GG: Well your reporting has, as I said at the start and I really mean it, been really great. I've used it as one of my primary resources to feel like I have been able to be informed about what going one, and the most recent episodes involving the the deployment of a police force to carry out BP corporate interest in violation of the law by intimidating people who are trying to cover, is just unbelievably disgusting and outrageous and I hope you'll continue to write about that, and I'm sure you will, and the more attention that's brought to those kind of things the better. So thanks so much for the work you've been doing and taking the time to talk to me about it. I appreciate it.

MM: Of course.

GG: Thanks very much.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames
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