Saturday, February 25, 2017

UNcensored: After UN Eviction, Obama Team Offered Gag Order After Challenge in Foggy Bottom

By Matthew Russell Lee, Part of SeriesVideo

UNITED NATIONS, February 23 – After the UN evicted me for covering its corruption, I headed to Washington on the train. It was March 2016. Once I got to DC and Union Station, I had two hours before I had to give a speech of sorts. I paid for a DC Bike Share pass and pedaled over to the State Department, parking the bike behind the Federal Reserve. It was time to ask Obama's State Department about the UN's censorship, I'd decided.

  There is a metal detector in a building on a side street. I showed my UN pass - the difference between Green and White P not important or noticed down here -- and went through, into the labyrinth of the State Department. In their briefing room the front rows were empty. I sat in the third row, and suddenly they filled up. The wi-fi wasn't working.

  “Good afternoon,” State's deputy spokesperson Mark Toner began, handed the first question to AP, then staying in the front two row for at least a half an hour. What kind of totem pole was this? I raised my hand, and used my phone to tweet it out. When called on - I cut in - I asked about Turkey and that the UN corruption case, including  the Government Accountability Project's letter to USUN's Isobel Coleman, that she should act on retaliation.
  “I don't have anything on that,” Mark Toner said, while giving me quotes I could use on my other question, the Kurds. I left feeling it was worth it. Later I found a list of Congress member's staffer's emails, ironically from a small and surely sleazy firm working for Burundi strongman Pierre Nkurunziza's government or regime. We'll use the master's tools. I sent the email out. It was dawn in Washington.

I was slated to go to the Federal Reserve in the afternoon, but my time was my own until then. There was a briefing at the International Monetary Fund, to which I usually submitted questions over their embargoed live-stream. I bike-shared over there, went in through security and into their small and hot briefing room. There were only eight seats for journalists - all taken today and four along the wall. I took up a spot, listened and then raised my hand.

   The topic was Argentina's debt, the need for a sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, something discussed up at the UN. But here it was more detailed: what about the vulture funds who bought the debt? What would be the message if they got a windfall? “That's not for us to say,” IMF deputy spokesperson Bill Murray said. I asked him about Zimbabwe too. Then it was time to go.

  There a spacious lunch and coffee place across the street, with outlets for computers and Diet Mountain Dew. Ban Ki-moon was giving a live-streamed speech at Lehman College in The Bronx, that borough my old stomp or get stomped ground. I tuned in and found Ban babbling, how the UN stands for everything good. I emailed a guy I knew would be there, a former Bronx State Assemblyman who'd been ousted for being too independent. “I'll try to ask,” he wrote me back. “But I doubt I'll get a question.”

  I wrote and uploaded my IMF story then got back on a bike, for the ride to the State Department. I parked behind the Federal Reserve and tried to decide when it was that I'd have to leave State, whether or not I'd gotten my question in. Play it by ear, I told myself. I wanted to get this question.

  This time the State Department briefer was John Kirby. But just before he started, the number three in the office Elizabeth Trudeau came over and whispered or hissed in my ear, We just emailed you an answer. So don't just ask the question again.

  I nodded but didn't agree. Sometimes asking questions is all you can do. I got an answer from Kirby about Yemen, then re-posed my questions about the UN bribery scandal and my ouster - retaliation against the press, I called it. Vine (!) video here.

  I don't have anything on that, Kirby said, suggest you raise it up with the US Mission in New York. The blowoff. Already that mission was doing nothing. Now they'd be emPowered to do less.

  It was time to head to the Fed. I got there sweating, and through security. Up in the Board room on the second floor I made a joke to Janet Yellen -- “bike share problems” -- and some people laughed. I wanted to ask her about FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. Governor Jay Powell, who always denied my appeals, was right next to here. Maybe I'd throw Goldman Sachs into the question, just to rattle them. I did.
    The Congressional staffer who'd helped fend off Voice of America three years ago told me he was still in his office, he wanted to speak with me in person because he might see Gallach up in New York. I pedaled over there, sweating even in March, and went through low-tech Security.

  Up in his boss' suite there were two TVs, on Fox and CNN, and a bunch of staffer on Apple desktops. C'mon, the staffer (nameless here) said, taking me to a conference room looking out over Union Station. It's like last time, he said. They say the other journalists don't like you.

 It's not a popularity contest, I told him. They don't like a blog competing with them.

  So let's go over it, he said. The indictments and what's happened since. I told him.

  Right now it's all about Trump, the staffer continued. Otherwise I might be able to get you a hearing. But I'll go up to New York and talk with Gallach. The US Mission will be there too, Isobel Coleman. They said they have a proposal.

  What is it? I asked him.

  They might change the coding on your pass so that it opens that turnstile you complain about. He paused. “But in exchange, you'd have to agree not to tell anyone what had been done.”

  I thought about it, for about one second. “That a gag order, right?” I asked him.

   It might be the best I can do, the staffer told me. And as it happened it was.