Akex Park

Alex Park

Writing Fellow

Alex Park is a recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has been published in PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, Time.com, and the Believer.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

A recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Alex Park is an investigative journalist with an interest in global agriculture. He has blogged in South Africa and reported on Cyprus, and in college he published an award-winning paper on a 2008 period of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, since cited in academic works. Currently, his interests lie explaining complex social systems—be they governments, conflicts, trade patterns, or waves of immigration—for a general audience. His work has been published on PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, the Believer, and Time.com

The Government May Soon Send This Reporter to Jail. Here Are the Embarrassing Secrets He Exposed.

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
James Risen speaks at the University of California, Berkeley

The Obama administration has fought a years-long court battle to force longtime New York Times national security correspondent James Risen to reveal the source for a story in his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen may soon serve jail time for refusing to out his source. The fight has drawn attention to Obama's less-than-stellar track record on press freedom—in a recent interview, Risen called the president "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation." But lost in the ruckus are the details of what Risen revealed. Here's what has the government so upset.

In State of War, Risen revealed a secret CIA operation, code-named Merlin, that was intended to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. The plan—originally approved by president Bill Clinton, but later embraced by George W. Bush—was to pass flawed plans for a trigger system for a nuclear weapon to Iran in the hopes of derailing the country's nuclear program. "It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world," Risen wrote in State of War, "providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The flaws in the trigger system were supposed to be so well hidden that the blueprints would lead Iranian scientists down the wrong path for years. But Merlin's frontman, a Russian nuclear scientist and defector then on the CIA's payroll, spotted the flaws almost immediately. On the day of the handoff in Vienna in winter 2000, the Russian, not wanting to burn a bridge with the Iranians, included an apologetic note with his delivery, explaining that the design had some problems. Shortly after receiving the plans, one member of the Iranian mission changed his travel plans and flew back to Tehran, presumably with the blueprints—and the note—in hand. Merlin did not wreck the Iranian nuclear program—in fact, Risen wrote, the operation could have accelerated it. 

In a sworn affidavit filed in 2011, and in a recently rejected appeal to the US Supreme Court, Risen has argued that his reporting served the public good. Published at a time when military action in Iran seemed possible, State of Fear revealed how much of the effort to gather information on Iran's nuclear capability was not just shoddy but dangerous—even, in the case of Operation Merlin, helping Iran get closer to building a nuclear weapon. 

The Bush administration did not see it that way. In 2008, Bush's Justice Department subpoenaed Risen, demanding that he reveal his source—or face jail time for contempt of court. After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration renewed the Bush-era subpoena and continued to try to identify and prosecute Risen's source. Justice Department staff believe they know who the source was—an ex-CIA operations officer named Jeffrey Sterling, who was previously an on-the-record source for Risen—but they want Risen to confirm their hunch and fill in a few details. In legal filings, Justice Department lawyers have called Risen a witness to "serious crimes that implicate the national security of the United States" and argued that "there are few scenarios where the United States' interests in securing information is more profound and compelling than in a criminal prosecution like this one."  

If Risen is called to court to testify but fails to show up or refuses to talk, he's likely to become the first reporter from a major news organization since Judith Miller in 2005 to be sentenced to jail time for refusing to divulge a source. (In 2006, journalist Josh Wolf was imprisoned for 226 days after refusing to comply with a federal subpoena for a video he took of a San Francisco protest.)

This story has been amended to clarify that Wolf, and not Miller, was the last journalist to be imprisoned for refusing to disclose a source.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The St. Louis Area Has a Long History of Shameful Racial Violence

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 9:45 AM EDT
A mob blocks a street car during the East St. Louis Riot of July 1917 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Libraries

The shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent riots, protests, and police crackdown have highlighted the area's long history of racial strife. One chapter from that history, a century-old summer riot just fourteen miles away from Ferguson, in East St. Louis, Illinois, shows how black Americans were subjected to racial violence from the moment they arrived in the region.

In 1917, East St. Louis was crowded with factories. Jobs were abundant. But as World War I halted the flow of immigration from Eastern Europe, factory recruiters started looking toward the American South for black workers. Thousands came, and as competition for jobs increased, a labor issue became a racial one.

East St. Louis' angry white workers found sympathy from the leaders of the local Democratic party, who feared that the influx of black, mostly Republican voters threatened their electoral dominance. In one particularly striking parallel to today's political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called "colonization," according to the documentary series Living in St. Louis.

A cartoon from the time of the riot, lambasting then-president Woodrow Wilson for making the world "safe for democracy" while ignoring the plight of East St. Louis. Wikipedia

That May, a local aluminum plant brought in black workers to replace striking white ones. Soon, crowds of whites gathered downtown, at first protesting the migration, then beating blacks and destroying property. On July 1, a group of white men drove through a black neighborhood, firing a gun out their car window. (The perpetrators were never caught.) A few hours later, another car drove through the neighborhood. Black residents fired at it, killing two police officers.

On July 2, as news of the killings got out, white residents went tearing through black neighborhoods, beating and killing blacks and burning some 300 houses as National Guard troops either failed to respond or fled the scene. The official toll counted 39 black and eight white people dead, but others speculated that more than a hundred people died in what is still considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in twentieth-century America. Afraid for their lives, more than six thousand blacks left the city after the riot.

That the United States was then fighting in Europe to defend democracy while failing to protect its own citizens was not lost on Marcus Garvey, soon to become one of the most famous civil rights leaders of his time: "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy," he said to cheers at a speech in Harlem on July 8. "I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East St. Louis have for democracy... but I do know that it has no meaning for me."

Top image credit: STL250

How the Defense Industry Convinced Congress to Militarize Local Cops

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Police drift through a cloud of smoke on August 13 in Ferguson, Missouri

The Ferguson, Missouri, police department's display of armored cars, officers in riot gear, and assault rifles over the past week shocked Americans who didn't realize how much military equipment is now available to local police departments. But since the 1990's, more than 8,000 federal, state, tribal, and local police agencies across the country have armed themselves with the military's excess gear, free of charge. The inventory includes everything from office furniture and first aid kits to aircraft, armored cars, rifles and bayonets, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the Department of Defense office that manages the transactions under an initiative called Program 1033.

In June, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment to de-fund aspects of the program. Grayson's bill would have exempted certain military equipment, including planes and armored cars, from Program 1033. That effort failed; just 62 members of the House of Representatives voted for the measure, with 355 voting no. Maybe the outcome shouldn't have been a surprise: According to a new analysis of campaign finance data, the politicians who voted against Grayson's bill received, on average, 73 percent more campaign donations from defense industry sources from 2011 through 2013 than their peers who voted for it. 

The analysis—conducted by the Berkeley-based research group MapLight using data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics—also found that of 59 representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry from 2011 through 2013, all but four voted against the amendment.

Correction: The original version of this story said that three representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry voted against the amendment. Four representatives in this category voted against it.

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.

Wed Sep. 24, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Jul. 31, 2014 9:22 AM EDT
Sat Jul. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Wed Aug. 14, 2013 4:58 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 1, 2013 9:17 PM EDT
Wed Jun. 19, 2013 6:35 AM EDT
Thu Jun. 13, 2013 2:47 PM EDT