Roundtable: Al-Qaida, Emmet Till Case

The panel discusses the threat of Al-Qaida; and the Emmett Till case may be closed for good. Guests: economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm DC Navigators; and Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, al-Qaida re-emerges as a threat, but how big a threat? We'll talk about that. And the Emmett Till case may be closed for good.

Joining us on today's panel are Robert George - editorial writer, New York Post - economist and author Julianne Malveaux, who is president and CEO of Last Word Productions Inc., and Ron Christie - vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Welcome, everybody.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Nice to be with you.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO, Last Word Productions Inc.): Thanks.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, D.C. Navigators): Hello.

COX: Let's start with this first before we get into our schedule of topics because John McCain, as you all know, announced - sort of - again that he is running for president on television with David Letterman.

Ron Christie, these TV announcements - you know, I guess Schwarzenegger, sort of, got that ball rolling a couple of years ago for making their candidacies known. And now, candidacies are being announced in stages. Is this confusing to the public? Is it a good strategy? What's your view?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think it's confusing to the public. It's been no surprise that Senator McCain has been raising money, attending fundraisers, bringing in advisers and sending out direct mail pieces for several months now. What sort of - I find particularly amusing as these politicians who say, well, I'm announcing that I'm going to announce in April - I mean, give me a break. We all know you're running for president. Just come on out and say it.

But again, it's more towards them generating free publicity for themselves of here's my pre-announcement before my announcement before I announce. Let's try to get more attention and to try to get more people to support their cause.

COX: Well it's certainly is confusing to me to try to figure out when a candidate is officially a candidate for the presidency, Julianne.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, part of the cat and mouse - I think - has to do with the federal election laws and when they announce and what kind of money they can get as exploratory as opposed to those candidates. As Ron says, nobody is surprised that John McCain is in this race.

What is interesting is that his comment on David Letterman seems to be designed to put a little pin at Rudy Giuliani's balloon. And certainly - although I think it's fascinating, neither one of them is my cup of tea - Rudy Giuliani seems now to be leading John McCain, the former frontrunner in the polls. So, he's got to try to get some of that momentum back.

COX: You're an editorial writer Robert George. What do you say about the style of announcing?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, Tony, before I answer that question, I'm announcing that I'm about to answer that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: How much money are you collecting, Robert?

Mr. GEORGE: That's between, that's between me and the FEC. I mean, it is a little absurd, but, I mean, I have to agree with my colleagues here. Part of it has to do with the fact that the laws change every four years or every two years in terms of raising money. Part of that of course, Mr. McCain has a lot of responsibility for. So that's definitely part of it.

But they also want to try and get a little bit more creative in the context of what they're doing, because remember, the whole - the campaign season, the primary campaign season is being truncated because all of the states are moving up into the February 2008 area. So everybody's starting earlier, and they are allowing themselves to find different forums to you know, to announce.

So this time, McCain does it on, McCain does it on David Letterman, and, you know, Obama was able to announce both on the Internet, and then he'd had his nice big kick off in Illinois as well.

And so, I mean, I think it's just creative, and I think in country as big as this, there's going to be a lot of people who aren't necessary paying attention. So it's a good idea to announce as much as possible.

COX: All right, so for the next official announcement, let's stay tuned to our television sets. All right, the next topic - U.S. Intelligence Chief Michael McConnell warned the government about al-Qaida this week. He said the terrorist group represents the most serious threat to U.S. interests, saying the Afghani-Pakistani border is an al-Qaida breeding ground.

But here's my question. I'll come to you first, Ron Christie. How reliable is this intelligence? I mean, after all, just this week, the Bush Intelligence people are saying that they may have overstated at the nuclear threat in North Korea.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think this intelligence threat is a very real one. I don't think that there's any question that the individuals who work at our 16 intelligence-gathering entities across the United States take the threats to this country very seriously. The suggestion of the implication that there could be a political motivation behind the fact that al-Qaida wants to hurt the United States, I think, is misjudged.

I have no question in my mind whatsoever that al-Qaida, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups around the world want to acquire weapons of mass destruction and they want to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States. And again, that's why the - what is going on in the Middle East in the war in terrorism is so important. And as you noted, Tony, the Iraqi-Afghan - or excuse me - the Pakistani-Afghan border is such a volatile region of the world and a breeding ground, I think, for new terrorists, which is why it was important that the vice president went over and met with President Karzai.

And my final point to that is you notice that the Afghani tribal leaders told the president of Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai, as well as Mr. Cheney, that they were concerned about the American commitment to Afghanistan because of what they've been hearing of the Democrats saying that the United States is going to pull out of Iraq. Our enemies are listening.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, come on.

Mr. GEORGE: And to follow up on what Ron said there - even more significant, frankly, I think was Cheney's meeting with President Musharraf, because the Bush-Cheney administration is now trying to press Pakistani President Musharraf to try and close down this border, because I think it is also the - he, who has been a good ally with the United States, cut a deal with the Taliban to basically allow, basically giving the Taliban and al-Qaida the run of the northwestern border region between Pakistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan.

In the same - Musharraf is getting all these different kinds of pressures from insurgents within Pakistan who are running a wave of suicide bombings to try to influence elections later on. And so he has to wonder about what the commitment of the United States is going to be as well.

So, I mean, I think like what Ron said is true, that our allies and our enemies are watching the debates that go on with the United States.

COX: Well, if the intelligence is credible, let's put it that way - and there have been some issued about the credibility of U.S. intelligence. There's no question about that. But Julianne, so if this is legitimate, how did this happen? Was no one paying attention?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, first of all, if there's a big - I mean, I hear Chicken Little see in the sky is falling in one too many times. The fact is that we've had so much intelligence that was not credible. This administration has finally admitted that the weapons of mass destruction never existed.

American people have to be excused if they're cynical, if they're looking at this askance, because here we go again. And as you say, Tony, where have we been? First of all, if we have increased threats, I would posit that some of them are function of the destabilization that came when the United States went in to Iraq and destabilized it when the United States started selling wolf tickets on Iran. I mean, in terms of Afghanistan as well. I think that the United States has been wholly irresponsible. Now there were reasons - and many of us can go along with the reasons - September 11th frankly shell-shocked all of us. And we're going around looking for who did it. But we chose to find a villain as opposed to find a cause. And in doing so, we raise major questions like any other so-called intelligence that we get.

I'm also, quite frankly - I don't want to use the word amused - but amazed that there's 16 spy agencies that - post-September 11th there were conversations about the lack of coordination among our so-called intelligence agencies - and some might call them ignorance agencies - if they were paying attention.

Why is there not more coordination? So we're still getting different kinds of information from different groups of people. I do think that the McConnell testimony is a step in the right direction, at least in terms of coordination. But I am very, very skeptical, and I think many of the American people are, because we have just had so much bad information. And I am not at all reassured by Richard Cheney being anywhere.

Mr. GEORGE: I will partly agree with Julianne to the extent that the reorganization of the intelligence agencies - which the administration, you know, tried to initiate about a year and a half ago - has not gone smoothly. I mean, we're already on our second you know, Uber Director of Intelligence McConnell, because the last one decided to become deputy secretary of state.

There's been this constant juggling of government and Homeland Security and things like this. And it does, I think, create a - maybe not quite the cynicism that Julianne expresses, but at certain, you know, skepticism or just basic confusion on the part of the public.

COX: Let me just say, if you're joining us right now, you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

With me on today's Roundtable are Robert George - who you just heard, editorial writer in New York Post - economist and author Julianne Malveaux who is president and CEO of Last Word Productions, and Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

We have another topic I want to get to, but there is one more question on this that I think is worth posing. And I'm going the pose it to you, Ron Christie, and that is this: With regard to the tough talk coming from the Bush administration to President Musharraf about the crackdown on al-Qaida or risk losing U.S. funds, is that an empty threat?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think that's an empty threat. I think Robert touched on this very articulately a few moments ago. There is no question that it appears in my mind that President Musharraf has cut a deal with those entities who are either running drugs, running weapons, or running something on the Pakistan-Afghani border.

And for President Musharraf, who has proclaimed his desire to be a strong ally of the United States, he needs to take control of his country. He needs to take control of his borders, because there are those terrorist elements or those who are up to illicit activity. But I think that if he decided he wanted to have the responsibility to crack down on these elements, he would have the ability to do so.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Ron, here is the problem, terrorists or illicit activity, those are two different things and you have to deal with them differently.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I agree.

Ms. MALVEAUX: This is the problem, you all wave those terrorist flag in order to get the American people all (unintelligible) up, all frightened and all willing to allow more appropriations to go. But you're talking about two things. That is drug running, we don't like it but that's one thing. If it's terrorist activity it's another, and let's draw the line between those two.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And it is -

COX: In fact, let's draw the line all together. Let's draw the line on this topic. Let's draw the line on this topic because we will never get to the other. It's obviously a good one to discuss.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Last Word Productions.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Amen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Now, not like that. Let's talk about Emmett Till.

Mr. CHRISTIE: That's a D.C. Navigator for you.

COX: Let's talk about Emmett Till. The tragic murder of Emmett Till was so heinous. It sparked outrage, as we all know, and helped inspire the fight for civil rights. But now half a century later it looks as if no one is going to be punished for that crime.

A grand jury in rural Leflore County, Mississippi, all but closed the case by refusing to indict the woman suspected of accusing Till of whistling at her. She urged her husband to retaliate we know, according to documents made public Tuesday, and the result was the fatal beating of the 14-year-old. And the two men who allegedly carried out the murder died years ago.

So Julianne, there's no statute of limitation on murder, but no witness, apparently no case.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, you know, while this is a phenomenal tragedy, Tony, what strikes me here is this tragedy is compounded by the number of other murders that took place during the civil rights era that we'll never know about. We know about this one. We know this woman, and let me depart from policy analysis and simply say God don't like ugly and isn't over fond of cute. Girlfriend is going to pay for this one of these days.

But going back to the analyst's hat, you know, there's not a lot that can be done. What we know is that there are thousands of people who were killed - students, others, you know, people found in marshes, people who we never heard from again. And we know that the law enforcement at that era was unwilling or unable to track these people down.

So this is the epitome, as was the open casket of Emmett Till when he died -and his mother had the courage of showing his body open casket to show what have actually been done. It's the epitome of what happened to black people. We should simply be strengthened by this. We should simply be motivated to make sure that our civil rights are fully attained, which they have not yet been. And we should make sure that this basically strengthens us in struggle. But it is a tragedy, but this woman is 73 years old. And if there are not any witnesses, technically there's nothing that can be done.

COX: Well, you know -

Ms. MALVEAUX: Quite frankly, I think that there is more that could be done but people don't want to do it. We're talking Mississippi here.

COX: Well, you know, Robert George, we've had cases come out of the South where - the cold cases that have been followed for years and years and there has been justice brought many years later but not…

Mr. GEORGE: I mean, in fact, even in Mississippi they finally were able to bring justice to the murderer of the three civil rights leaders. So, I mean, that is, I mean, that's one small step, so it is not completely the case that all of those things are being swept under the rug.

I mean, the Emmett Till one, as Julianne said, it is a tragedy. If there is any kind of trying to figure out or balancing the cosmic scales, is that while his murderers were never actually brought to justice, his death, in a sense, was a great spark to shine a light on the broader injustices that were being perpetrated on black people in Mississippi and across the South. So, I mean, that is in a sense the very - the small but not insignificant saving grace.

COX: Well, Ron Christie, there was former member of the Mississippi legislature who was working at the time to present segregation who said recently in regard to this that you cannot correct all the ills of the past so why try.

Mr. CHRISTIE: It's just such a ridiculous comment that I - of course, you can right some wrongs and you can actually stand up and act as a grown-up and act as a mature individual to recognize that slavery and discrimination is one of the darkest and ugliest stains in this country.

But to suggest, for someone particularly who was in the legislature, that you can't change a wrong or you can't fix a wrong is just absolute fiction. We have grown so much as a country since the terrible atrocities that were perpetrated against African-Americans and other brave and courageous leaders of the civil rights era.

But to align myself with what Julianne and Robert said, there's absolutely no question in my mind that that Till case and others like them almost shines a light on the many hundreds of individuals whose names that we might not ever know, who were beaten but who were courageous and stood up to fight the injustices of the old South.

COX: Were any of you surprised by this outcome?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Not at all.

Mr. CHRISTIE: No.

Mr. GEORGE: No.

COX: No. And that's why…

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know the Sovereignty Commission, when you look at all the work that they did, they tried to keep these things quiet. I just am surprised that this man had the temerity to open his mouth and give a quote that connected him with this injustice. But then again, like I said, this is Mississippi.

COX: I understand. We're out of time, though. Robert George, editorial writer of the New York Post was at our New York bureau. Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm, D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions, were at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Everybody thank you. A really good conversation today, I thought.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah. Thank you all.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you, Tony.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES. We break down what the drop in Chinese stocks really means. And on Political Corner, should Condoleezza Rice run for president?

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