Off the Cuff: Douglas Farah and David Kaplan

Douglas Farah and David Kaplan came to campus Tuesday to give a lecture titled “Mafias, Cartels and International Investigative Journalism.” Farah, a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author, and Kaplan, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, journalist and author, spoke on investigative reporting, organized crime, illegal trafficking, and government-sponsored abuse in the age of globalization.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Mr. Farah, you described globalization as the “proverbial gasoline to the mix” of organized crime. Can you discuss how globalization acts to fuel the industry?

Farah: Globalization changes everything. It is the proverbial gasoline in the fire. Only this time, the fire is the information and communications revolutions. It means that organized crime on the other side of the world can get into your computer, into your bank account and into illicit flows of all kinds of contraband, from the sushi you eat, the tobacco you smoke, to the drugs that kids are using. It’s changed everything. Borders have come down; people can communicate to filtered cell phones in rural areas of east Africa. They can arrange things like they never could before. And add to that newer tools like GPS and social media. There’s a brave new world of criminal activity out there that law enforcement intelligence agencies and the media are far behind in understanding.

Mr. Farah, you mentioned how aid to developing or transitioning countries often “disappears.” Can you explain where this money goes? Do the “kleptocracies” you mentioned play a role?

Farah: Kleptocracies are governments by theft and we find them all over the world: the former Soviet Union, in Latin America, in South Asia. It’s a kind of organized crime, really. And to broaden the definition of what organized crime is, I go back to the U.S. justice department’s definition of racketeering as a continuing criminal enterprise. These are groups of people who engage in a criminal conspiracy. Well, we have entire countries and multinational corporations that fit that definition. So when you’re talking about organized crime, really you’re talking about huge chunks of the global economy that are involved in illicit trade. Now take somebody who is running a country that’s in transition that’s had serious development and economic problems and are running in effect a criminal state. Who are they accountable to? It’s a kleptocracy. When you give aid to a country like that, there’s been very little accountability and much of the aid disappears. Suddenly when regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fall, people are asking what happened to the money. Well, it’s been sent overseas; it’s been laundered to accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein and Isle of Man and other offshore tax havens.

How and why does organized crime thrive? Particularly, what roles do developed and globalizing countries, such as the U.S., play in organized crime?

Kaplan: It’s a system that’s designed to not be accountable. Well, I don’t know if it was designed that way but it’s become implemented in a way that there’s no accountability. So, you can meet the minimum legal requirements that have no bearing at all on whether what you’re doing is going to benefit or not benefit crime happening. Particularly in the case of weapons, if you have an End-User Certificate, which can literally be handwritten on paper, if you’re the weapons merchant, if you see one of those pieces of paper, you can legally sell me anything I ask that’s on that list. You don’t have to check whether it makes any economic sense, whether I’m at war, whether my country could ever use that, whether I’m really who I am. So no laws were broken, really. But the consequence of that type of movement of weapons, particularly, is devastating.

Farah: There are loopholes in those laws that allow truly outrageous act to occur. They’re gray markets where they’re allowed to thrive and gain toeholds. And then there’s this whole shadow financial system that spans the globe. Tax havens, secrecy accounts, fake foundations, trade mispricing, money-laundering techniques. This is how money much of the globe financial system operates, yet we don’t study it systematically, there’s not nearly enough activity by international law enforcement and national governments to tackle it.

Both of you drove home the message that “it matters what you buy.” Can you elaborate on that sentiment and explain how students can internalize and act upon it?

Kaplan: There are a few obvious cases like diamonds, though not a lot of college students are buying diamonds, but where the impact of blood diamonds is incredibly visual and powerful. It was hard, though not impossible, to mobilize public opinion on it because when you see pictures of a two year old with their arms amputated because somebody wanted to take over a diamond field, that’s a pretty simple message to absorb. It gets a lot more complicated when you get into some of the areas like Dave was talking about: tuna, tobacco. I think that one of the imperatives is to pay attention a little bit. You can’t do everything well all the time, but if you pay attention to the black market trade in cigarettes in Colombia, you would know very quickly that buying Marlboro cigarettes there is directly supporting cartel money laundering. You don’t buy the Marlboro cigarettes on the street if you’re moderately aware. It mostly comes down in part to educating yourself and caring a little bit about where the money that you’re spending goes because in the illicit world, particularly in the drug-trafficking world, really the worst elements of society are the ones who are most successful. If you are capable of chopping someone up with a chainsaw and murdering their families to get to the top, you’ll get to the top. But is that really the type of people you want running organizations? And I think if you’re aware of the price downstream that other people pay for the things we consume, you pay a little bit more attention.

Farah: Ordinary people can’t do much about the international financial system that is laundering money by the billion around the world. You have to have governments take that on. It certainly helps for people to be educated and to say this is a priority, but they’re such huge abstract concepts, it’s a real challenge. At least you have to make it part of the debate because it’s one of the most important challenges that a globalized world faces. What we’re really talking about in the end is cleaning up the world. How do you even begin to do that? Well, you have to start with these off-the-books economies, these warlords, these criminal states and these illicit enterprises all around the world.

What do you perceive to be the role of the journalist in the new age of fast-paced media, particularly in the context of massive cutbacks in the news industry?

Farah: I’m not sure the role of the journalist has changed. The best journalism remains true to its tradition. It’s about getting the truth out to people; it’s about keeping powerful forces in society accountable; it’s about being a watchdog on people with people in society, whether you’re a government official, a corporate chief or a mafia boss. If you have a certain amount of power in society, our job is to look at you and see if you’re using that in an accountable way. We’ve had a hundred-year-old tradition in the United States of great muckraking journalism. I don’t think that’s going to change. In fact, a technology in some ways is making it better, even more effective.

Kaplan: I think a lot of it is explanatory. If people don’t understand why things matter, then it doesn’t matter. One of the things we’ve lost in journalism besides the hauling out of investigative journalism is the explanatory pieces that say: “This is what happens if you destroy collective bargaining. This is what happens if you do away with the EPA. This is the consequence in your lake, in your stream, in your forest of the dumping of these toxins.” There’s not a huge amount of resource going into that either, and I think that the accountability is tremendously important and also making people understand why it is [important]. As a journalist you should have the time to gather the facts. You don’t have time as a mother of two and working or a guy going out and coming back after eight or nine hours, to gather all that information yourself. And journalists should have that time to say, we’ll help you understand what the consequences of these decisions are. And if you make that decision, than you make that decision, but it should be an informed decision.