Monday, September 21, 2015

The Surprising Return Of Opus & Bloom County: Just In Time For The 2016 Madness

Back in 2008, Berkeley Breathed, the gifted but reclusive creator of Bloom County, the beloved comic strip that at its height in the mid-1980s enjoyed more than 10 million loyal readers, announced he was quitting his newspaper gig altogether to focus on children's books and films. 

Breathed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987, had grown weary of the future prospects of the funny papers and print journalism in general. And who could blame him?

But a few weeks ago, Berkeley surprised me and just about everyone with new, almost daily Bloom County strips on his Facebook page (they're online only) featuring the entire gang, including Opus the penguin, Milo, Steve Dallas and Bill the Cat. Ack! Remarkably, Bloom County 2015's content is as fresh, timely and funny as ever. 

Breathed is characteristically coy about why he's returned to Bloom County. But surely this unexpected resurrection has something to do with, well, just look around you. The inmates are indeed running the asylum. There are 2,000 channels on our cable box and still nothing to watch. 

American society has degenerated to a point where a buffoonish, racist reality TV star/real estate developer with really bad hair who calls everyone "stupid" and wants to ship 11 million people to Mexico and whose companies have declared bankruptcy four times is the early frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. 

I mean, is this day and age perfect fodder for Berkeley's magic, or what? It's only a matter of time before Opus and Kim Kardashian become an item.

Breathed recently told the Washington Post, “There is no media that will allow a Charlie Brown or a Snoopy to become a universal and shared joy each morning at the same moment across the country. Maybe the rather marked response to my character’s return is a reflection of that loss. A last gasp of a passing era.”

The Comic Strip for the 'Tweener Generation

At its height, Bloom County had no rival in its hilarious and often poignant exposure of the inanities and insanities of our modern world. But it was gentle venom. How can you get too ticked at a naive, bemused, hopelessly optimistic little penguin? Sorry, Snoopy, but there's never been a more lovable anthropomorphic comic strip character than Opus.

I've always believed that Bloom County was meant for those of us on the tail end of the baby boom -- the ones born roughly from 1957 to 1965. We're the Americans whose primary political and cultural references come from the years just after Vietnam and Watergate. 

We're not really boomers at all, we're 'Tweeners. And happily so. Not as narcissistic as the hardcore boomers, but not as dysfunctionally cynical as the Generation X'ers, we relate to and know a little more about Jimmy Carter, disco and the plane crash that killed the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd than we relate to and know about Richard Nixon, Woodstock and the Day the Music Died. 

Berkeley's sensibilities resonate with us a bit more deeply than, say, Garry Trudeau's, which are full-on, "Big Chill, "Four Dead in Ohio" boomer. Bloom County is just as smart as Doonesbury, and just as topical and satirical, but there's a sweetness and silliness at its center, a childlike innocence and joie de vivre that reveals itself even when the strip is being politically snarky. 

That's what makes it so unique and appealing. 

My Conversation with Berkeley Breathed

My Newsweek interview with Breathed in 2007 was a joy for me, and a bit of a coup. Breathed, who is married with kids, rarely talks. He's like Garbo on 'roids. During our chat I mentioned that his work was a wonderful blend of silly and smart, and asked him how this combination pushes its way into his life.

"It's represented in some ways by my interest in children’s books," he told me. "Cartooning is about deconstruction: you gotta tear something down to make a joke. A story for a child at bedtime, on the other hand, better damn well build something. That yin-yang balance in my art keeps me sane. I want my head clear when it's time to get hit by a train for my kid."

More a libertarian than a liberal, Berkeley has also called libertarians a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners. I asked him if he was a man without a political affiliation? 

"No, me and a few other desperately cold pragmatists are the founders of The Meadow Party," he said. "Remember that one? That's one where you don't support silly things not because they conflict with political ideology, religion or philosophy, but because they sound silly. Invading a Muslim country, blowing it up and assuming we could leave in a few months with it looking like Vermont was silly. Cartoon silly. Opus silly. Worse, Bill the Cat silly."

Then I asked him how he felt about the state of American journalism. 

"Wobbly," he replied. "There's some great people doing great work under brave and dedicated editors, but they're under siege.  I still buy newspapers and news magazines and subscribe to sites like Salon that are doing courageous, confrontational pieces. The terrorist won't implode America. Fox News—and its deafening silence—will."

Judging from Berkeley's latest strip this past weekend, he remains a staunch advocate for journalism and the printed page. My fellow ink-stained wretches, and any one of you who loves newspapers and magazines, should dig this one:

Welcome back, Bloom County!

Friday, September 11, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: Who Attacked Us On 9/11? America Seems To Have Forgotten

As we pause today to remember the horrific terrorist attacks on Sept. 11,  2001, a deep irony remains stuck in my craw: our ongoing cozy alliance with Saudi Arabia. 
Many Americans seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew, that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. They were not Iranians. They were not Iraqis. They were not Syrians. Osama bin Laden himself was a Saudi. If we took a poll of Americans in 2015, I do not believe many would correctly identify who hijacked those airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I doubt that most of the current presidential candidates know, either.

Another shocker that has not been widely reported is the fact that that the five primary living defendants accused of planning the 9/11 attack have still not been brought to trial, 14 years later.  

I don't blame the public for not knowing this as much as I blame the collective media. My fellow journalists, where is your coverage? We have all read some of the really wacked conspiracy theories about 9/11. But we rarely see the press posit the one theory that happens to be fact: Saudis attacked us, and those Saudis had links to the Saudi government. 

This is the same Saudi government that has one of the largest military budgets in the world but won't lift a finger to help fight ISIS. The same Saudi government that won't accept any of the current refugees who are desperately fleeing Syria. 

A stockpile of evidence suggests that these corrupt, oppressive Saudi royals, our alleged pals in the Middle East who still treat women like third-class citizens and yet make our Presidents so giddy, not only knew about the terrorist attack, they supported and even funded the Al Qaeda hijackers.

Despite the links between the Saudi government and the anti-American terrorists, as I reported for Newsweek for years and reported for The Daily Beast in 2012, the worst attack on American soul in our nation's history could sadly remain a story with missing chapters. 

As I reported for the International Business Times in 2013, President Obama still refuses to release to the public the 28 redacted pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) of 9/11 issued in late 2002, which several of my Congressional sources tell me sheds more light on the Saudi connection to the attack. 

In a two-part series you can read on the San Diego Union-Tribune San Diego website, I address many of these unanswered questions. 

More anti-American hate in Saudi Arabia than Iran

We're so busy in 2015 setting off alarms about Iran, which has never attacked us, and Syria, which has never attacked us, while we forget that individuals from Saudi Arabia had so much hate for America that they devised this sinister and complex plot to kill us. 

We act as if 9/11 were a closed case because bin Laden is dead and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-described mastermind of the attack who came up with the idea of using hijacked airplanes to kill innocent Americans, is in custody. But former Senator Bob Graham, who led the Joint Inquiry, is convinced that we still don't know the extent of the Saudi government's role in the attack and says the 9/11 Commission’s final report does not exonerate them.

As Graham told me, “San Diego was ground zero in terms of the connections between the terrorists and the Saudi government, but there was also a significant investigation in Sarasota, Fla., which most people probably don’t even know about, and which I was not aware of during the inquiry.”

The FBI-led investigation in Sarasota focused on Saudi millionaire Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud. Their upscale home was owned by Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the nephew of King Fahd.

The al-Hijji family reportedly moved out of their Sarasota house and left the country abruptly in the weeks before 9/11, leaving behind three luxury cars and personal belongings including clothing, furniture, and fresh food. They also left the swimming pool water circulating.

This account, first reported publicly by author Anthony Summers and Florida investigative reporter Dan Christensen, noted that the gated community’s visitor logs and photos of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers, as well as other members of al Qaeda, had visited the al-Hijji home.

San Diego connections to 9/11 run deep

In San Diego, allegations of links between the Saudi government and the 9/11 hijackers revolve around two enigmatic Saudi men: Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, both of whom have long since left the United States. Al-Bayoumi had previously worked for the Saudi government and was alleged by many San Diego Muslims to be an agent for the Saudi government who reported on the activities of Saudi-born students living in Southern California. 

In early 2000, al-Bayoumi invited two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, to San Diego from Los Angeles. He told authorities he met the two men by chance when he sat next to them at a restaurant.

As Newsweek reported in 2002, al-Bayoumi’s invitation was extended on the same day that he visited the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles for a private meeting. Al-Bayoumi arranged for the two future hijackers to live in an apartment near the San Diego Islamic Center mosque and paid $1,500 to cover their first two months of rent. 

When asked not long after the 9/11 attacks about al-Bayoumi’s possible involvement, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, then the San Diego head of the FBI, told me that there was no evidence al-Bayoumi played a role. 

Gore would not elaborate on how the bureau had come to this conclusion. But a former top FBI official later contradicted Gore, telling Newsweek, “We firmly believed that al-Bayoumi had knowledge (of the 9/11 plot).”

After 9/11, al-Bayoumi was detained by New Scotland Yard while living in the U.K. Gore said the FBI sent agents to London to interview him, but he was released a week later and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia.

Newsweek reported that classified sections of the congressional 9/11 inquiry indicated that the Saudi Embassy in London pushed for al-Bayoumi’s release. Where is al-Bayoumi now? “I can’t say too much, but what I can tell you is that he is still alive and living in Saudi Arabia,” Graham told me a couple of years ago.

As for Basnan, whom Graham calls “Bayoumi’s successor," Newsweek reported that he received monthly checks for several years totaling as much as $73,000 from the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and his wife, Princess Haifa Faisal.

The checks were sent because Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, needed thyroid surgery, Newsweek and other media outlets reported. But Dweikat inexplicably signed many of the checks over to al-Bayoumi’s wife, Manal Bajadr. This money allegedly made its way into the hands of hijackers Almihdhar and Alhazmi, according to the congressional report.

At a post-9/11 gathering in San Diego, Basnan allegedly called the attack “a wonderful, glorious day” and celebrated the hijackers’ “heroism,” a law-enforcement official told Newsweek.

Despite all this, he was ultimately allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and Dweikat was deported to Jordan.

Shaikh was never allowed to testify before Congress

Another man who might have helped investigators get to the bottom of this mystery is Abdussattar Shaikh, a longtime FBI asset in San Diego who was friends with al-Bayoumi and invited two of the San Diego-based hijackers to live in his home. However, Shaikh was not allowed by the FBI or the Bush administration to testify before the 9/11 Commission or the JICI.

“For me, that was the low point of the [JICI] investigation,” Graham told me for my Daily Beast story. “Bayoumi introduced the hijackers to Shaikh, who clearly knew a lot, but the FBI, who had Shaikh in protective custody, seemed to care more about protecting their asset than allowing us to find out what he knew about 9/11.”

During roughly the same period after the 9/11 attacks, San Diego FBI agent Steven Butler alerted his superiors about a flow of money from Saudi government officials that had made its way into the hands of two of the San Diego-based hijackers, according to U.S. News & World Report. But the warning was ignored.

“Butler is claiming that people [in the FBI] didn’t follow up,” a congressional source told U.S. News & World ReportAnother congressional source said Butler "saw a pattern, a trail, and he told his supervisors, but it ended there.”

The investigation into the Saudi government’s alleged connections to the hijackers came to an abrupt stop. Arguably the greatest crime mystery of our time has since become a cold case.

What more do you need to know?

Randall Hamud, the attorney who represented several of the San Diego-based hijackers’ friends as well as the family of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, has always insisted that the Saudis were “given a pass” throughout the 9/11 investigation.

“There was overwhelming evidence that the Saudi government was connected to 9/11, but we still let Bayoumi return to Saudi Arabia,” he told me. “What more do you need to know?”

So on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, as President Obama tries to convince the world that the Saudi Arabia is our friend, it’s important to remember who actually attacked us 14 years ago today. It was not Saddam Hussein or Assad or even Iran’s undeniably dangerous regime. It was a group of individuals from Saudi Arabia, where hatred for the United States remains much more palpable and dangerous than in Iran.