Investigative journalist and Harper's Washington editor Ken Silverstein wanted to find out how low Capitol Hill lobbyists would go for a buck (or at least a couple hundred thousand). So he went undercover as a corporate middleman representing the Stalinist dictatorship Turkmenistan and found that there were actually people willing to influence public policy and opinion for a regime deemed "one of the worst totalitarian systems in the world" by the European Parliament. His story originally appeared last year in Harper's, and can now be found in his new book, Turkmeniscam. Silverstein appears at the Carter Library Mon., Oct. 13.
What's it like in Turkmenistan?
"I traveled there in April. The book was pretty much done at that point. ... I have to say that after seeing the place firsthand ... I felt even better about pulling off this story. I've traveled a lot to pretty unpleasant governments' repressive regimes, and Turkmenistan, I'm not sure it was the absolute worst but it was pretty close. ... There's no public life at all other than the marketplace. There are a couple of Internet cafes. These are the big steps toward democracy that the government has taken."
Internet cafes seem like a bizarre symbol of human rights.
"It reflects the absolute – how cut off the country has been, and how entirely undemocratic it's been. Everything is relative and so better to have Internet cafes than not, but in this case it's reflective of just how little democracy or civil society or any sort of public life in the country [exists] at all that these Internet cafes would be something that the lobbyists would feed on as a means of selling the country."
How has the U.S. government, throughout a number of administrations, managed to convince its citizens that some dictators are harmless, and others are worth waging war on?
"Certainly in the case of Turkmenistan, in that part of the world, there's not a lot of sales points in terms of democracy and so the big sell has been energy security. And we're certainly not going to put human rights and civil liberties out front because it's clear that there's a limit to how ridiculous you can be."
In Turkmeniscam you talk about how journalism has gone soft in terms of undercover reporting and balanced reporting. So what do you think people really mean when they say they want "balance," and how does that affect the ability to reveal the truth?
"There is this belief in American journalism that there are two sides to every story and both sides have to be equally presented. And it makes it very difficult to make a case or build an argument. ... I think balance in many cases is just an easy way of trying to placate both sides. And in terms of being informative, I'm not sure it always works terribly well.
It's interesting because – in my case it was bogus – but if Turkmenistan does hire a lobbying firm, then you have an advocate out there with Congress and with the press. For a country like Turkmenistan ... if you can sort of get the story balanced, well, that's great. I mean, a balanced – and I'm using that term loosely – story about Turkmenistan, well, that's fabulous. Because on the surface it's a rotten place.