Friday, January 31, 2014

Otis Pike -- and U.S. Intelligence Abuses

            These days it’s the scandal involving widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency. Four decades ago it was the investigation of U.S. intelligence agency abuses by a committee chaired by Congressman Otis G. Pike. The panel’s report, revealing a pattern similar in matters of arrogance and deception to the disclosures in recent times, was suppressed—scandalously—by the full House of Representatives.

Pike, who died last week at 92, was the greatest member of Congress from Long Island I have known in 52 years as a journalist based on the island. He was simply extraordinary.

He was able to win, over and over again as a Democrat in a district far more Republican than it is now. His communications to constituents were a wonder—a constant flow of personal letters. As a speaker he was magnificent—eloquent and what a sense of humor! Indeed, each campaign he would write and sing a funny song, accompanying himself on a ukulele or banjo, about his opponent. He worked tirelessly and creatively for his eastern Long Island district.

With his top political lieutenants, attorney Aaron Donner and educator Joseph Quinn, and his dynamic wife Doris, and his many supporters—including those in Republicans for Pike—he was a trusted, unique governmental institution on Long Island.

And he was a man of complete integrity.  That, indeed, was why, after 18 years, Pike decided to close his career in the House of Representatives.

In 1975, as issues about global U.S. intelligence activities began to surface, Pike became chair of the House Special Select Committee on Intelligence.  A U.S. Marine dive bomber and night fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II, who with the war’s end went to Princeton and became a lawyer, he embarked with his committee, Donner its chief counsel, into an investigation of the assassinations and coups in which the Central Intelligence Agency was involved. His panel found systematic, unchecked and huge financial pay-offs by the CIA to figures around the world.  And, yes, it found illegal surveillance.

On the Central Intelligence Agency’s website today ( 
is an essay by a CIA historian, Gerald K. Haines, which at its top asserts how “the Pike Committee set about examining the CIA’s effectiveness and costs to taxpayers. Unfortunately, Pike, the committee, and its staff never developed a cooperative working relationship with the Agency...”

 A “cooperative working relationship” with the CIA?  Pike’s committee was engaged in a hard-hitting investigation, a probe by the legislative branch of government, into wrongdoing by the executive branch. It was not, in examining the activities of the CIA and the rest of what historian Haines terms the “Intelligence Community,” interested in allying with and being bamboozled by them.

To make matters worse, leading components of the media turned away from what the Pike Committee was doing. Pike told me how James “Scotty” Reston, the powerful columnist and former executive editor of The New York Times, telephoned him to complain: “What are you guys doing down there!”  The Times and other major media began focusing on the counterpart and less aggressive Senate committee on intelligence chaired by Senator Frank Church of Idaho.

Then, in 1976, even though a majority of representatives on the Pike Committee voted to release its report, the full House balloted 246-to-124 not to release it.

What an attempted cover-up! Fortunately, the report was leaked to CBS reporter Daniel Schorr who provided it to The Village Voice which ran it in full.

I still vividly recall sitting with Pike and talking, over drinks in a tavern in his hometown of Riverhead, about the situation. He had done what needed to be done—and then came the suppression. He thought, considering what he experienced, that he might be more effective as a journalist rather than a congressman in getting truth out.

I knew Otis as a reporter and columnist for the daily Long Island Press. Dave Starr, the editor of The Press and national editor of the Newhouse newspaper chain, always thought the world of Pike. Starr and Pike made an arrangement under which Pike would write a column distributed by the Newhouse News Service. Pike didn’t run for re-election for the House of Representatives—and starting in 1979, for the next 20 years, he was a nationally syndicated columnist.

His columns were as brilliant as the speeches he gave as a congressman. They were full of honesty, humor and wisdom—as was the man.

Starr, still with Newhouse Newspapers, commented last week on Pike’s death: “The country has lost a great thinker, a mover and shaker, and a patriot.” Yes.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Seedtime -- and the Danger of GMO Seeds

            Just out is a brilliant book, highly important and beautifully written, by Scott Chaskey, a Long Island, N.Y. farmer (for 25 years he has run the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett), poet and crusader for local, organic, sustainable agriculture.  Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics, and Promise of Seeds is about something humanity has been deeply involved in and dependent upon throughout our time on earth: seeds.
Chaskey, in Seedtime, begins by telling of entering as a farmer into “the realm of witness a kind of magical reality.” 
But that “magical reality” is under threat, he declares. “As we face the challenges of climate change and the loss of prime agricultural soils, we need a diverse seed supply to counter the unpredictable and the unknown. Instead, we continue to lose plant species—and the seeds of the future—at an alarming rate.”
“A seed,” he explains, “contains an embryo, a miniature plant awaiting the moment of transition. Seed leaves store food within the endosperm—the seed coat—that will nourish the seedling plant when it emerges.”
“A plant’s coming into being, or maturation is such a quiet progression that we tend to focus on the fruit, the colorful prize of production and the vessel of taste.”
 “Our entire food supply is a gift,” a result of the emergence of flowering plants 140 million years ago, he says, and “our health and food futures are entwined with the way we choose to nurture or manipulate the seeds of that natural revolution.”
“The value of conserving biodiversity cannot be overstated,” he relates. “Biodiversity is the source of our food....Our increasing tendency to homogenize all aspects of our ecosystems limits our ability to adapt.”
 Today the food supply for humanity is endangered—notably by genetic engineering or modification, Chaskey writes. “The altered organism, a GMO [genetically modified organism], is the result of a laboratory process by which a gene (or genes) of one species is inserted into another species. This process is fundamentally different from traditional breeding.”   
In genetic modification, genes of animals, plants, fish, insects, among other life forms, are combined.  A giant in this is Monsanto which synchronizes its production of GMO seeds with the production of pesticides it manufactures.
Also, there is a push to “limit diversity” of seeds which links to, among other things, “consolidation in the seed industry” and “mass marketing considerations.”
Monsanto, further, has been a leader in patenting GMO seeds.
Chaskey provides a detailed history of Monsanto, founded in 1901 by a “self-taught chemist” who named it for his wife whose maiden name was Monsanto, and how it became the leading producer of cancer-causing PCBs and 2,4,5-T, “the basis for Agent Orange,” the poison used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War, as well as DDT.
“Is it at all wise or beneficial for a corporation with a scarred control almost one-third of the global seed trade?” asks Chaskey.
And he tells of how the Monsanto GMO seeds have been “developed to perform in tandem with heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” Indeed, an early GMO seed was “Monsanto’s first ‘Roundup Ready’ soybean, genetically modified to resist the application of Monsanto’s foundational herbicide product, Roundup.”
There is a global challenge to GMOs, notes Chaskey. “The planting of GMO crops is largely banned in the 28-nation European Union,” he relates. In California, individual counties have banned GMO crops and “GMO-Free activists are aggressively campaigning throughout this country and worldwide.” There are now, however, hundreds of millions of acres, “concentrated in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China, planted with GMO crops.
“The health of our fields, the health of our plant communities, and the future of our food supply will depend on whether, as a global culture, we can learn to respect the whole of the biological community, and to accept our role as citizens of it (and to honor those who still retain the connection),” writes Chaskey.
“May we continue to cultivate our fields with the imperishable mystery in mind and to playfully, carefully follow these seeds and nurture them,” he says.
Seedtime is published by Rodale Books, the press that has been central for decades to the organic food movement. Quail Hill Farm in 1988 became the first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in New York State. Chaskey and the other farmers at Quail Hill are aided by apprentices and volunteers in growing locally organic food—with good seeds.