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Civilian casualities mount in Chechnya - CNN's coverage of Leonard Peltier

1) Russian Bombing of Chechnya

The Russian government justifies bombing Chechnya as an appropriate response to terrorism, which is similar to rationalities used by the U.S. and Israel after "relataliatory strikes." Nevertheless, violence begets violence. Are the bombs so smart that they only explode on terrorists? Communities are devastated and terrorists become more supported at a time when weapons of mass destruction are increasingly more available. All people have mutual interests for peace, security, freedom and well being. Stop the violence, the bombing of innocent people in Chechnya.

"Civilian casualties mount in Chechnya"
October 24, 1999 Published at 17:54 GMT 18:54
UK BBC Online News

2) CNN's coverage of Leonard Peltier
Leonard Peltier Defense Committee's critique
Fwd. From: "LPDC"
Subject: CNN critique-Leonard Peltier
Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 18:38:04 -0500

Sunday evening 9:00 P.M. September 10, 1999

For those of us who have long followed the tragic case of Leonard Peltier, and who are familiar with the full and rather frightening factual record, the CNN broadcast of Sunday evening, September 10, 1999 was disturbing indeed. False and conclusory statements were made about Mr. Peltier and the June 26, 1975 gun battle: statements which have no support or basis anywhere in the record or the available evidence. Worse yet, information of critical importance was simply omitted altogether or presented only superficially.

While we are grimly accustomed to false and misleading statements by U.S. officials in this case, we must question why a news organization of the caliber of CNN could so fail, either to have done its basic homework or to have maintained its professional neutrality and courage. Was this a form of self censorship resulting from the recent forced recanting of the Vietnam scandal and the discharge of two top level journalists? Has the chilling effect of that negative experience indeed set such deep roots so quickly?

Let us be specific in our criticisms. The broadcast failed to present the clear and massive evidence that the FBI officials simply manufactured a case against Mr. Peltier because he represented their last chance at obtaining a murder conviction for the deaths of their agents.

He was extradited on the basis of a fictional affidavit obtained through FBI intimidation and coercion of a local woman. Other witnesses openly admitted that they too had been coerced; and changed their testimonies repeatedly. A key ballistic test was withheld for years from the defense because it showed that the fatal bullets could not have been fired from Mr. Peltier's alleged weapon. A red pick up truck mysteriously metamorphosed into an orange and white van as the trial approached. Even the U.S. Prosecutor now admits that no one knows who did the killing. Yet Mr. Peltier remains in prison, long overdue for parole and in deteriorating health. What more shameful a symbol of United States repression and injustice against Native American peoples could exist?

We would ask that the CNN journalists reflect on the following facts and issues:

I. The program makes virtually no mention of the context in which the deaths of the two FBI agents and the Native American youth occurred. These facts are of crucial importance for many reasons, including legal ones. The American public needs to know that during the 1973 AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, the United States government responded with military force, firing nearly half a million rounds at the men, women and children inside the town. The siege ended only when the White House promised an investigation, convincing the AIM members and supporters to return home.

The investigation never materialized. Worse yet, for the next two years, the AIM members were subjected to what is now known as the "Reign of Terror" on Pine Ridge Reservation. During the next three years, 64 AIM leaders and traditionalist supporters, and their relatives, were murdered, and scores more were harassed, beaten and threatened. The victims included men, women and children. Despite a massive FBI presence, no one ever stood trial for these crimes. Instead, hundreds of charges were brought against AIM members over the Wounded Knee siege. Most were dismissed when the courts ruled that the United States had illegally deployed military force in its response. In many of the court hearings, the FBI was rebuked for coercing witnesses and otherwise tampering with the evidence. In one notable case, the outraged judge wrote that the FBI had "polluted the waters of justice". It was in this atmosphere of terror, tension , and repression that the 1975 shoot out occurred. As Judge Heaney of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has noted, the FBI bears equal responsibility for the skirmish which took place. It is simply irrefutable that the unmarked FBI car drove onto private property, and that shooting unexpectedly began, trapping children in the cross fire, and creating immediate and very understandable confusion and fear amongst the AIM members camping out nearby. They believed they were about to die. So many of their friends already had.

None of this justifies the close range killings of Mr. Williams or Mr. Coler, or the sniper killing of a young Native American named Joe Stuntz. However, this context makes it very clear that AIM was not simply a terrorist group launching a premeditated and cold blooded ambush of two unsuspecting FBI officers. The AIM people were the ones being hunted and brutalized. They were returning fire in the full good faith belief that they were acting in self defense. The conditions at that time certainly justified their assumption. The jury, in the trial of Mr. Robideau and Mr. Butler for these murders, listened to this evidence and agreed, finding that the act of returning fire had indeed been a matter of self defense. Notably, this critical background evidence was withheld at Leonard Peltier's trial.

We do not condone the murder of any human being, whether Native American or FBI agent.. However, to this day no one knows who carried out the killings, nor how they occurred. Perhaps, as stated by a heavily disguised witness years ago, someone had approached the agents, incorrectly believing them to be dead. When one of them moved and fired, he reflexively shot them both to protect himself. Then again, perhaps someone else shot the agents in a moment of rage and grief that had been accumulating throughout the "Reign of Terror". Perhaps we will never know what really happened that day. Even the prosecutor, Mr. Lynn Crooks, has long since admitted that the government does not know who fired the fatal shots. Why then, does Mr. Peltier remain in prison?

What gives us the greatest cause for concern here is the fact that CNN apparently found it appropriate to spend a great deal of footage on the two slain FBI agents, while the 64 Native Americans murdered for political reasons were deemed scarcely worth mentioning. Unlike Judge Heaney, the journalists seemed unable to comprehend that the United States too bore responsibility for the tragic shoot out. The program comes dangerously close to portraying the incident as the mere act of irrational savages. Hence our opinion that racial insensitivity and indifference did indeed play a role in the production and editing of this broadcast.

2. Given these realities, we were rather taken aback by the statements of both the FBI Officer Nicholas O'Hara and the U.S. Prosecutor Mr. Lynn Crooks, to the effect that Mr. Leonard Peltier is a cold blooded killer and even a "mad dog". As made clear in the above discussion, we find no reasonable basis for such claims, and we question why the reporter made no attempt to ask for the actual facts behind these declarations. As anyone at all familiar with the case knows, Mr. Lynn Crooks himself has long since admitted that he does not know who fired the fatal shots at the FBI agents.

He made this admission in court after being confronted with the long concealed FBI ballistic test stating that the bullet in question could not have been fired from Mr. Peltier's alleged rifle. At that point, of course, there was little else Mr. Crooks could say. There is simply no evidence tying Mr. Peltier to the actual murders other than the fact that he was present at the Jumping Bull Ranch on that fateful day, and that he was an adult leader. In this respect, he is in exactly the same position as Mr. Robideau and Mr. Butler, who were acquitted so many years ago. The suggestions of the FBI and Mr. Crooks that Leonard Peltier actually ordered or directed the killings are, in our opinion, simply without basis. Why would experienced CNN reporters merely accept these official declarations instead of demanding proof and facts? After the all we have learned about the FBI abuses of power against minority leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King or Mr. Geronimo Pratt, or even in the recent Waco case, have our eyes not been opened enough to at least question what we hear from such officials?

3. We were also surprised by the statements that the two slain FBI victims had driven onto the ranch and been accosted by Mr. Peltier in an orange and white van. Again, if the reporters had done their homework, they would have known that this version of the facts has long ago been uncovered as yet another instance of tampered evidence and altered testimonies; precisely the sort of abuse of power that Mr. Peltier's supporters are complaining about.

The story of the "orange and white van" is as follows. On the day of the actual shootout, FBI Agents Coler and Williams were looking for a young man named Jimmy Eagle, and had information he was driving a red pick up truck. There exists evidence showing that the two agents knew Mr. Eagle was staying at the Jumping Bull Ranch, had spotted his pick up on the road, and had chased him onto the ranch. On the day on the day of the shoot out, FBI Officer Adams heard Agents Williams and Coler on their radio, stating that they were at the house on the Jumping Bull Ranch, and that people were getting out of a red pick up truck and shooting at them. Other agents also heard the agents refer to a red truck or similar open red vehicle. Shortly after the agents were killed, a red pick up was seen speeding from the Ranch by approaching FBI officials. The day after the tragedy, the FBI Director Mr. Clarence Kelley gave a press conference, referring to the suspect red pick up truck described by the Agents Williams and Coler in their radio communications. In fact, for some time thereafter, all red pick up trucks or similar vehicles on the reservation became the subject of intense FBI scrutiny. At the trial of Robideau and Butler, FBI officials Adams again reported the red pick up truck description. Once the acquittals occurred and Mr. Peltier presented the FBI's last chance at revenge, the pick up truck suddenly turned into an orange and white van. Jimmy Eagle and the red pick up were forgotten about. A year later, U.S. government officials decided to discard any case against Jimmy Eagle, "so that the full prosecutive weight of the Federal government could be directed against Leonard Peltier." Given all this, we were disturbed to hear Mr. Lynn Crooks state that there was no evidence about any red truck, and that this must be some new "theory" of the defense. This is not a new theory. The evidence comes directly from the FBI's own records, dating from the first few weeks following the tragedy. We understand that the CNN journalists had many of these FBI documents in their possession. Why then, were these not mentioned or used?

4. The FBI refers to "witnesses" who supported their various theories, apparently referring to the three Native American youths who gave inconclusive, vague and highly self contradictory testimonies throughout the trial as well as before. None of them pinned Mr. Peltier to the actual killings. Notably, two refused to swear on the Sacred Pipe. According to various reports, all had been threatened with serious FBI prosecutions and long sentences if they did not "cooperate". One was threatened with a beating even after he stated that he did not wish to answer questions. He had no lawyer. His original statements and his trial testimony were vastly contradictory on key issues. Another witness was tied to a chair and threatened with a murder indictment; he later admitted that some of his statements to the grand jury were false. The third had similar experiences. Are these the witnesses the FBI and the prosecutor are referring to as the basis of their air tight murder case? Where was CNN on these issues?

5. Similarly, we were disturbed by Mr. Crooks' statement that the fact that the FBI coerced Myrtle Poor Bear into signing completely fictional affidavits identifying Mr. Peltier as the killer, was harmless. In previous interviews, he has declared that the coercion of witnesses and intentional use of perjured evidence bothers his conscience "not one whit". In the CNN interview he blithely reports that these grossly illegal acts did no harm, since Ms. Poor Bear was not permitted to testify in Mr. Peltier's actual trial. We beg to differ.

Terrorizing Ms. Poor Bear into signing an affidavit falsely stating that she was Mr. Peltier's girl friend and had directly witnessed the murder had a very immediate and harmful result. Mr. Peltier was extradited from Canada and returned to the United States in chains to stand trial, despite the fact that there was no genuine evidence against him. A fraudulent extradition is hardly "harmless".

More importantly, the fact that Ms. Poor Bear was not allowed to testify to the jury was extremely harmful to Mr. Peltier's case. In other prosecutions against AIM members throughout the "Reign of Terror", the defense counsel had been allowed to introduce evidence about the FBI's repeated and current tampering with both witnesses and evidence in order to obtain convictions of AIM leaders. This permitted the jury to carefully evaluate the prosecution's evidence; to question whether or not witnesses might have been improperly coerced, to be alert for signs of falsifications. Had Ms. Poor Bear been allowed to testify, or had the defense been able to show the FBI pattern and practice of misconduct in AIM prosecutions, the jury would have been far better equipped to evaluate the numerous and otherwise inexplicable contradictions in the testimonies of the three Native American youths. The jury would also have scrutinized the ballistic and other information with far greater care.

However, all of this information was withheld from the jurors. They were left to innocently trust their government officials. Myrtle Poor Bear was a good enough witness to use in an extradition case; but too "unstable" to permit her to open the eyes of the jury. We have no doubt in our minds that if a jury heard the whole truth today, they would immediately acquit Mr. Peltier.

6. Perhaps the most painful misrepresentations concern the long concealed ballistic test. At Mr. Peltier's trial, the FBI ballistic expert said he had carried out two tests. He claimed that the first test had not been carried out on the key bullet casing found near the slain agents' car. That bullet casing was tested much later. Although he would have liked to perform the more precise test, called the firing pin test, he was unable to do so because of the damage done to the rifle during a fire. Instead, he had to make do with the less precise extractor test. According to the expert, this extractor test showed that the casing could have come from Mr. Peltier's alleged rifle. This is the expert testimony that went to the jury. Years after Mr. Peltier's conviction and imprisonment, his attorneys managed to gain access to a portion of the FBI's files through the Freedom of Information Act. There they found two FBI reports indicating that the far more precise firing pin test had indeed been performed on the correct casing. That was the first test, performed shortly after the tragic shoot out. The same FBI expert had concluded in writing that the bullet casing did not come from the rifle in question. The FBI and Prosecutor in the program brush this aside, and claim that the reports were not conclusive and were confusingly written. In fact the language is crystal clear: "Recovered .223 caliber colt rifle received from SA ( redacted) BATF, contains different firing pin than that in rifle used at resmurs scene" and "casings not identifiable with AR-15 rifle".

The officials' argument that they are correct in their statements about the ballistics tests because the courts ruled in their favor is a bit circular. Leonard Peltier's supporters, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among many others, have recognized him as a political prisoner, not because they have not bothered to read the court rulings, but because they have indeed read them and found them to be irrational. Our position is that the courts have failed utterly in this case, largely as a result of FBI misconduct. For this reason we are seeking justice from the other branches of our government, as provided for in our constitutional system of checks and balances.

7. We also note that the CNN program makes short shrift of Mr. Peltier himself. Mr. Peltier has now been in prison for 23 years for a crime that he clearly did not commit. The truth about his case has been withheld from the public for decades; even the distribution of Mr. Peter Matthiessen's book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" was delayed for years by litigation. Mr. Peltier is fifty five years old and long overdue for parole. The same government officials who openly admit that they do not know who fired the fatal shots, have blocked his parole, insisting perversely that he is a cold blooded killer, or that he has not shown enough contrition for a crime he has said time and again that he did not commit.

It is difficult for us to imagine what mental anguish and long term psychological suffering these abuses have caused. Those of us who know Mr. Peltier have always found him remarkable in his ability to maintain hope, humor and an unbroken spirit from day to day, and to continue with his many humanitarian efforts, including his Native American Youth Scholarships and other excellent programs he carries out from behind bars. Yet there are times when his sudden silences and unspoken sadness cause us great concern.

Far more disturbing is the current deterioration of his health. He is now near blind in one eye as a result of poor medical treatment. He is diabetic and suffers from a heart condition as well, conditions which can only worsen swiftly and dangerously if he remains in prison. He also suffers from a worsening jaw problem, which leaves him unable to move his lower jaw. This makes it difficult to speak and chew properly. It also causes him constant and intense pain. Prison physicians have been unable to properly treat this condition. A Mayo Clinic jaw specialist is willing to treat Mr. Peltier free of charge. Permission has been denied.

Given all of this, it is hardly difficult to understand why Mr. Peltier might view outsiders and questions with caution and even outright distrust. Nor is it difficult to understand why, in a moment of tension, fatigue, or quiet despair he might have misheard a question or mispoken an answer. We are all capable of human error. Leonard Peltier has been in prison for far too long.

Once again we note that CNN journalists never posed any hard hitting or decisive questions of any kind to the FBI officials or to the U.S. officials involved in this disturbing case. Why such disparate treatment?

8. In the CNN broadcast, Mr. Peltier's vast and often illustrious list of supporters is noted, but quickly dismissed by U.S. officials with vague insinuations. According to them, we are blindly objecting to a garden variety murder conviction because, for some reason we don't wish to see a Native American in prison. We are romanticists who have never troubled ourselves with learning the facts. We certainly feel that the above analysis sets this misconception to rest.

Amnesty International, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the National Conference of Churches, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury are only a few of the world renowned human rights leaders and organizations which have recognized Leonard Peltier as a political prisoner and are demanding his immediate and unconditional release. These world leaders are hardly irrational romanticists. They are fully aware of the full factual record.

That is why they are protesting Mr. Peltier's imprisonment. That is why so many of us have protested Mr. Peltier's imprisonment since the day of his arrest nearly a quarter of a century ago. We stand by Mr. Peltier because we have taken the time to learn the facts, and because we have the courage to take a stand against such gross abuses and acts of corruption. We had hoped that CNN would do the same.

Mr. Peltier is a remarkable Native American leader who deserves to walk free at last so that he can dedicate his remaining years to serving his people. This is not a matter of being soft on crime. This is a matter of being tough on official corruption and the abuse of power. The COINTELPRO program of the FBI has destroyed many lives, from Dr. Martin Luther King, to Mr. Geronimo Pratt, to the Pine Ridge residents and AIM supporters, to Leonard Peltier, to name only a few. We have only to look to the recent Waco disclosures to see that these problems have followed us into recent years as well. Our most basic concepts of democracy demand that these corrupt practices and abuses
being swiftly exposed, examined, and corrected, not covered up or concealed. We had hoped for better from CNN.

Jennifer Harbury
Attorney at Law,
Human Rights Director, Global Exchange

Gina Chiala
Leonard Peltier DefenseCommittee

It's 1999, why is Leonard Peltier still in prison???

Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
PO Box 583
Lawrence, KS 66044


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