Shillers for killers
Revealed: How the tobacco industry paid journalists, scientists, activists and lawyers to cover up the most deadly crime in human history.
“Objective No. 5: To prove that the cigarette has been brought to trial by lynch law, engineered and fostered by uninformed and irresponsible people and organizations in order to induce and incite fear.”
—“Project Truth,” Brown & Williamson
If you want an unvarnished, raw peek at the pig trough of corruption and sleaze, it’s all there in the 88 million-plus pages of once-secret tobacco industry documents, online and searchable in the University of California at San Francisco’s online tobacco library.
Now it’s time to look at some of the accessories to the greatest crime in human history, which killed 100 million people last century and with one billion expected to die this century from smoking. Every one of those deaths preventable.
To rack up this many human kills for so many tens of billions of dollars in profits over so many decades and not wind up in prison, the tobacco industry has had to pay off an incredible number of people and institutions over the years.
As the documents show (some embedded below), many of those people were paid under the table to better confuse, deceive, and continue plundering the public. Those covert tobacco shills are easily the worst and most offensive, because they commit fraud on a public that trusts them.
But even those whose financial relationships with Big Tobacco are above-board, such as tobacco-hired corporate law firms, have been denounced in judicial court decisions as accessories to RICO racketeering laws—essentially mob lawyers, co-conspirators in the greatest organized mass murder-for-profit in human history.
In this article, I’m going to name names. Some are surprising; some shocking; others downright horrifying.
Let’s start with my colleagues in the media and journalism.
Malcolm Gladwell & the Third Party Advocates
“The best PR ends up looking like news," brags one public relations executive. "You never know when a PR agency is being effective; you'll just find your views slowly shifting.”
—Trust Us, We’re Experts
Three years ago, my colleague Yasha Levine discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s name on a secret Philip Morris document from the mid-1990s listing its top “Third Party” advocates—meaning advocates who Philip Morris believes can be relied upon to promote its agenda, while the public thinks they’re getting honest disinterested information.
In the marketing world, “third party advocates” are considered by far the most effective mediums for pushing out corporate messages—especially for a controversial and unpopular client like a tobacco giant. The idea is simple—use someone else, whom the public considers independent, to trojan horse your message. In plain words, as a former PR executive at Porter Novelli explained Third Party advocacy:
“Put your words in someone else’s mouth.”
In other words, fraud.
Gladwell had been trained at a tobacco-funded right-wing group called the “National Journalism Center”—whose other alumni include Ann Coulter, Fox’s Greg Gutfeld, Tim Carney, and Debbie Schlussel. A confidential Philip Morris memo describes its relationship with the National Journalism Center’s alumni:
“As a direct result of our support we have been able to work with alumni of this program.... about 15 years worth of journalists at print and visual media throughout the country....to get across our side of the story....which has resulted in numerous pieces consistent with our point of view.” [ellipses original—M.A.]
An example of Gladwell aligning with Philip Morris messaging: A Washington Post story in 1990, “Not Smoking Could Be Hazardous To Pension System,” in which Gladwell essentially rehashed a 1987 industry study carried out by a Philip Morris-backed think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research (Levine discovered a copy of this same 1987 study in the files of a top Philip Morris communications executive, Victor Han). Gladwell concludes his contrarian attack on smoking regulations by quoting another undisclosed “third party advocate” on the tobacco industry’s payroll, Gio Gori, whom Gladwell represents as a disinterested “economist” rather than a paid tobacco industry pitchman.
Other media names on Philip Morris’ third party "message development" list reads like a who’s who of 1990s conservative pundits: Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke (two-fifths of the original McLaughlin Group), Bill Kristol (whose magazine, Weekly Standard, was owned by Rupert Murdoch, a Philip Morris board director), Bob Novak, Mona Charen, and George W. Bush press spokesman Tony Snow; pollster Scott Rasmussen; funnymen PJ O’Rourke and Dave Barry (whose “humorous” columns appear in the files of RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, and the Tobacco Institute); and even magician Penn Jillette.
(Update: Dave Barry tells Pando that he is mystified as to why his name appears on Philip Morris' third party list. He writes: "I'm stunned to see this; everything I ever wrote about the tobacco industry in general, and Philip Morris in particular, was negative. I detest the tobacco indusry and I certainly was never paid by it, or colluded with it.")
There are numerous covert tobacco spokesmen in Phillip Morris’ secret files, from Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard to just about everyone associated with the CATO Institute, from its president and executive vice president down—and Reason magazine, including three editors: Bob Poole, Jacob Sullum and Virginia Postrel. The libertarians’ covert role in pushing tobacco propaganda is of course less surprising—UCSF’s tobacco investigators discovered that the Tea Party was created by an alliance between Big Tobacco and Koch brothers’ oil money.
Merrell Williams was forbidden, under threat of jail, from talking about the leaked tobacco documents to his own lawyer.
Of all the tobacco industry media cutouts of the 1990s, the one who did them the biggest solid was Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 articles in the New Republic blasting Clinton’s health care reforms won the National Magazine Award, and are credited with killing HillaryCare. Later, after the damage was done and thousands went to their graves early from lack of access to health care, McCaughey’s reporting was exposed by James Fallows and others as a complete fraud, forcing the New Republic to officially apologize to its readers.
McCaughey, it turns out, was on Philip Morris' “Third Party Message Development Contact List” identified as a “senior fellow” at the tobacco-funded Manhattan Institute. Another document reveals how Philip Morris secretly edited and guided McCaughey’s articles for the New Republic:
Worked off-the-record with Manhattan [Institute] and writer Betsy McCaughey as part of the input to the three-part expose in The New Republic on what the Clinton plan means to you. The first part detailed specifics of the plan. The second part, to be published imminently, will focus on the impact the Clinton bill will have on cities. She will explore why medical education will decline, why teaching hospitals will be driven out of business, why regional health alliances will shift the cost of caring for the poor off the federal budget onto the backs of urban workers and their employers, and why discontinuing Medicaid and enrolling the disadvantaged in HMO's will fail.
The tobacco industry covertly led the fight against HillaryCare in 1994, in part because the law would hike cigarette taxes to help pay for expanding health care coverage. If you’re already killing close to half a million Americans a year with tobacco, what’s another 50,000 or so extra deaths per year from lack of medical coverage?
Going back to the early 1950s, when the tobacco company heads met in secret in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan to plot their conspiracy to fight science they knew had proven tobacco’s deadly effects, they set up a front group which came to be known as the Tobacco Institute, and paid PR giant Hill & Knowlton to secretly run it. In its first year of operation, Hill & Knowlton memos detailed how they started changing magazine articles. One memo reads:
“Advance knowledge was obtained of a story on smoking by Bob Considine for Cosmopolitan magazine. Information was supplied resulting in seven revisions and five qualifying additions to the story which was already in type.”
Hill & Knowlton also “contacted” a writer for TRUE magazine, Donald Cooley, as he prepared an article on smoking. Contacting him “entailed conferences with the author to work on factual revisions.”
Eventually, with the tobacco industry’s direct help, Cooley and TRUE issued a 48-page pro-smoking booklet, “Smoke Without Fear,” which had 350,000 copies distributed by the tobacco industry to journalists and others around the country. The booklet begins:
IF you are a man or woman who smokes, relax and enjoy it. If you have tried to give up smoking a dozen times and failed, quit trying. If you have guilty feelings that you are weak-willed, immoral, and suicidal, begin anew to smoke with peace of mind.
They also succeeded in suppressing anti-tobacco journalism, in part by using intelligence gathered from their huge web of media contacts about upcoming articles. A 1954 Hill & Knowlton report boasts of having taken a nationwide informal survey on “articles planned on the smoking controversy,” articles which they were able to lean on:
“Twenty magazines of nation-wide circulation were working on pieces and contact was established with authors and editors. Such regular checking continues as a standard practice, requiring numerous contacts weekly.”
They were especially effective in snuffing out any negative journalism on the new television medium. An early 1950s memo reads:
“One negatively aimed program (WNBT) which was being scheduled on the cigarette controversy was postponed after discussion of [Tobacco Institute] facts.”
“Another TV program (ABC-TV, Martin Agronsky), which did deal with the cigarette controversy, ended on a favorable note after conferences with producers and presentation of facts.”
Even fearless McCarthy-killer Edward Murrow secretly caved. A 1954 memo describes a meeting between tobacco PR executives, Murrow, and Fred Friendly:
“The Murrow staff emphasized . . . that the facts are still not established and must be sought by scientific means such as the research activities the Tobacco Industry Research Committee [front group] will support. Mr. Murrow was assured of continued cooperation from the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to the extent possible . . .”
The journalist who wasn’t afraid of taking down the witch-hunting tyrant Joe McCarthy rolled over for tobacco, despite the fact that science had already proven beyond all reasonable doubt that smoking caused cancer. Murrow died of lung cancer a decade after he agreed to spin tobacco science.
And it’s not just the mainstream press that rolled over for tobacco propaganda. An article in the New Times, a 70s New Journalism glossy, attacked the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute as “the cancer establishment” and a “self-perpetuating bureaucracy” beholden to Big Medicine against alternative cancer therapies— “a network of vigilantes prepared to pounce on anyone who promotes a cancer therapy that runs against their substantial prejudices and profits.”
The American Cancer Society was a leader in the fight to expose cigarettes as mass-killing devices. But the article, written by Ruth Rosenbaum, avoided any mention of tobacco. It was considered maverick enough by the left-alt press that, even years later, it was included in a Project Censored Top 20 Censored stories compilation put out two decades later, in 1997. Stanford history professor Robert Proctor, author of “Golden Holocaust,” explains what was wrong with this story:
Rosenbaum was fêted as a lefty maverick, but a search of the tobacco industry’s archives reveals a more sinister story.
Rosenbaum wrote her article with the help of Hill & Knowlton, the industry’s public relations firm; she was also a personal friend of Fred Panzer at the Tobacco Institute and he, too, helped her with it. None of this was known to Jensen when he celebrated Rosenbaum’s review for his Project Censored—nor, apparently, the fact that her articles had earned her invitations to work for the industry in litigation.
“[O]ur medical/scientific witnesses will say whatever we want them to say.”
—Gabriel DiMarco, RJ Reynolds vice president for research
One of the first things the tobacco cartel chiefs agreed to in 1953 when they secretly met to coordinate their anti-science strategies was to set up a fraudulent-science front called the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, later renamed the Council on Tobacco Research (CTR).
Secret tobacco industry memos describe it as a “front” and a “shield.” The front group wound up funding an enormous amount of medical research supposedly into links between tobacco and cancer, and cancer in general. The purpose was to steer cancer research away from outside causes like smoking, to focus instead on micro-level biochemical mechanisms — for example, how some genes are turned on or off during carcinogenesis. This way, science gets diverted, bought off, corrupted, and flooded with biases.
You can see this same strategy at work with the powerful Koch brothers’ large donations to cancer research at Sloan-Kettering — the purpose is not just PR, but also to control the direction of the research, which invariably will lead away from causes like pollution from petrochemicals produced by the Kochs, and into other areas of research. (Sloan-Kettering was funded by tobacco companies from the 1950s through the 1970s; its director, Frank Horsfall, said he believed cigarettes got “undue blame” for cancer.)
This science front group set up something called “Special Projects”—hatchet jobs for pay, using scholars to assassinate the credibility of other scholars’ work.
A billing ledger discovered in the tobacco library shows Glenn Greenwald’s name in a Wachtell Lipton bill to Philip Morris
Columbia University statistician George Saiger was paid $10,873 in 1966 (about $80,000 today) just to testify before Congress denying any link between cigarettes and cancer. The former chairman of Stanford’s Dept of Statistics, Ingram Olkin, was paid $12,000 in 1976 ($50,000 today) to undermine a National Heart Institute report linking smoking to heart disease. A Lorillard memo approving Olkin’s payment demanded that he use “considerations other than practical scientific merit.”
In all, between 1966 and 1990, the tobacco companies paid out more than $18 million into the secret “special projects” funds to scholars at top name institutions— Alvan Feinstein from Yale, Carl Seltzer from Harvard, and the president of the College of American Pathologists, Victor Buhler. At least 30 of these special projects shills testified before Congress or in courts without ever revealing their covert financial ties to the tobacco industry.
Buhler, the College of American Pathologists president, testified before a Congressional committee investigating tobacco ads in 1969,
“The cause of cancer in humans, including the cause of cancer of the lung is unknown. No amount of speculation, no amount of suspicion, no amount of repetition of now familiar findings and no amount of emotion can alter this fact.”
Theodor Sterling, a Washington U—St. Louis professor of applied mathematics, testified to the same House committee, calling the Surgeon General’s first reports establishing links between smoking and cancer “probably invalid.” The tobacco industry has paid Sterling as much as $10 million over the decades to create fraudulent statistical models that call into doubt the link between smoking and cancer. As late as the 1990s Sterling called the 400,000-plus death toll from cigarettes “exaggerated propaganda” and “ludicrous,” and accused anti-tobacco people of “resorting to misinformation to encourage people to stop smoking.”
Wharton School of Business biophysical chemist Richard Hickey was paid millions to fudge statistical models to “prove” that lung cancer was caused by air pollution, not cigarettes. Yale School of Medicine epidemiologist Alvan Feinstein—a notorious contrarian and cigarette addict — was secretly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to blame the link between smoking and lung cancer on “detection bias.” When Georgetown University pathologist A. Bennett Jensen got in some trouble with his university in 1988 for receiving “Special Project” money, one of the big law firms retained by Big Tobacco—Shook, Hardy & Bacon—recommended giving Jensen a $40,000 payout from a witness slush fund “to keep him happy.”
Suzanne Oparil, former president of the American Heart Association, was paid half a million dollars between 1989 and 1995 to testify in court on the legitimacy of the tobacco front group, the Council on Tobacco Research (CTR), that paid her the slush money. Oparil testified in a 1997 class action by flight attendants suffering from secondhand smoke that the CTR is “a legitimate valuable scientific research organization” of “excellent quality.”
The tobacco companies also bought off the top universities. As Robert Proctor—the source for so much of my research—writes,
“It would take many thousands of pages to chronicle the full extent of Big Tobacco’s penetration of academia; the scale of such collaborations is simply too vast.”
In 1964, the year of the first major Surgeon General report that established the government’s position that smoking causes cancer, Harvard solicited the maker of Camel cigarettes by noting the wonderful public relations benefits it would receive:
“By making a major unrestricted grant for teaching and research in the medical sciences at Harvard, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company would enjoy enormous public relations benefits, starting with the initial announcement of the gift and continuing, for generations to come . . .”
Much more recently, University of California researchers took $37 million from tobacco companies, between 1995 and 2007. The UCLA School of Medicine started taking millions of tobacco funds in the early 1970s. UCLA’s professor of oncology and chief of hematology-oncology, Martin Cline, solicited funds from the tobacco front group in a letter in which the professor wrote “we have no strong scientific evidence that tobacco is causally related to cancer.” In 2007, UCLA was caught secretly taking $6 million from Philip Morris to compare how children’s brains and monkey brains react to nicotine. Parents of children paid to participate in the study were not told that the research was funded by a cigarette maker.
And the chair of Stanford’s Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Timothy Lenoir, was paid by Philip Morris to help defend them against a lawsuit over laryngeal cancer (Lenoir testified falsely that scientists were slow to grasp the link between tobacco and cancer). Moreover, as his Stanford colleague Robert Proctor discovered, another Stanford professor—Robert McGinn, director of Stanford’s Science, Technology and Society Program—had been hired by Brown & Williamson to help them conceal their internal documents from the public. And still another Stanford professor, Paul Switzer from the Department of Statistics, was paid $647,046 over a two year period to discredit the EPA’s conclusions that secondhand smoke causes cancer.
“The most prominent and valuable of our constitutional ad ban allies is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).”
—Tobacco Institute, 1987
“If John Gotti wanted to give $10,000, we would take it.”
—Ira Glasser, ACLU executive director
In 1987, as the federal and state governments were taking up new laws banning cigarette ads, the tobacco industry began secretly pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ACLU’s coffers. The tobacco industry spends an estimated $13 billion a year marketing its products—and as we’ve since learned, the companies poured much of their efforts into hooking those most vulnerable to becoming addicts until death—young teenagers, minorities, women, the poor, mentally ill, homeless, drug addicts (see: RJ Reynolds’ “Project Scum”) and so on. Big Tobacco’s strategy was to frighten the public with the ol’ First Amendment slippery slope fallacy: today it might be banning tobacco ads, tomorrow you’ll be banned and rounded up into FEMA concentration camps.
To make this argument seem credible, they enlisted the ACLU as their “third party advocate.” Before the tobacco funding began, the ACLU did not lobby against cigarette advertising bans; nor did it push for “smokers’ rights” in the workplace, against laws banning smoking indoors. After the money started pouring in, the ACLU began aggressively lobbying to block laws banning cigarette ads on “First Amendment” grounds. And as soon as science definitively proved that secondhand smoke causes cancer and other diseases—killing 50,000 Americans a year—the ACLU set up a special project, “ACLU Workplace Rights Project,” to fight against laws banning indoor smoking.
The project was secretly fully funded by Philip Morris and RJR Reynolds. The ACLU also set up a tobacco industry lobby front called the National Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace to help Big Tobacco keep profiting off the deaths of tens of thousands of people victimized by indoor smokers.
In an ACLU fundraising proposal to be “shared with RJR contacts,” the head of the ACLU’s National Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace emphasized the group’s value as a third party advocate in fighting new indoor smoking laws—or as the ACLU called them, “Lifestyle Discrimination Laws”:
The ACLU could make a much larger contribution to the fight against lifestyle discrimination. The assets we would bring to this effort include:
Credibility — The ACLU is universally known to stand on principle. Even our staunchest opponents have never charged us with acting out of self-interest. This could be extremely valuable.
In that same memo, the ACLU executive warned that democracy and freedom were at stake in defending the big tobacco companies from laws banning indoor smoking:
“If this trend continues, smokers will soon encounter discrimination comparable to that experienced by racial minorities and women.”
In 1993, former Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz exposed the dirty deal between the ACLU and Big Tobacco in a report backed by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The ACLU responded by sending their Director of Media Relations, Phil Gutis, to Mintz’s press conference (joined by Ralph Nader) on his ACLU-Tobacco exposé. The ACLU man took notes and reported back to his ACLU bosses:
“[Mintz] is a retired nut with too much time on his hands and a bug up his ass about cigarettes... The fallout on this thing should be relatively minor as long as we can dodge as many press calls as possible while getting our side of the story out to the majors.”
The head of the ACLU at the time, Ira Glasser, went on the offensive attacking Mintz. (Glasser later led the ACLU’s support for the Citizens United decision—and, completely unrelated of course, the ACLU reportedly took $20 million from the Koch brothers, the biggest beneficiaries of the Citizens United case.)
Not everyone was happy with Glasser’s sleazy sellouts. The head of the ACLU’s powerful (and far more righteous) Southern California chapter, Ramona Ripston, complained to Glasser about the ethics of taking tobacco company money and lobbying for their “rights,” comparing it to the ACLU taking money from a company that marketed toys harmful to children and then defending the company’s “constitutional right” to advertise and market the deadly products. Glasser waited six months before responding in a frothing six-page single-spaced memo, telling Ripston,
“I am disturbed about the demonization of companies like Philip Morris.”
Much of what we know about the ACLU’s covert relationship came from Mintz’s investigations, and from leaks from a disgusted former ACLU employee named John Fahs, author of, “Cigarette Confidential.” Fahs calls the ACLU’s Big Tobacco tie-up a “conflict of interest unparalleled in the history of the modern civil rights movement,” and sums it up:
“The work the ACLU has undertaken on behalf of cigarette manufacturers has been undertaken in direct exchange for funding—a quid pro quo arrangement in direct conflict with the institution’s status as a government-subsidized, tax-exempt, nonprofit institution. To wit, the ACLU has successfully mounted an ambitious nationwide legislative lobbying campaign on behalf of cigarette companies in the areas of employment protections for smokers, freedom of speech protections for unrestricted cigarette advertisements, national health care reform legislation favoring smokers over nonsmokers, and protection of smokers’ rights in parental custody cases of asthmatic children.”
The tobacco library reveals other civil liberties and privacy groups offering their services to Big Tobacco. In 1994, an RJ Reynolds marketing director wrote to the head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jerry Berman, sending him a list of topics they hoped to discuss about protecting tobacco advertising on the Internet. Topics included:
* What will the sysop's liability be for online services relative to minors and tobacco/alcoholic beverage commercial messages?
* Will commercial messages delivered via online services/interactive media systems fall under FCC regulations, which prohibit alcoholic beverage and tobacco advertising? Or, will they fall under the protection of the Bill of Rights like print?
Five months later, at the end of 1994, the EFF’s executive director wrote RJ Reynolds’s direct marketing manager, Peter Michaelson, a proposal soliciting tobacco money to fund an EFF project that would protect Big Tobacco’s online marketing, under the guise of First Amendment protections and Internet Freedom. Titled “Project on the First Amendment and Content Regulation in New Interactive Media,” the EFF’s director explained that they opposed government regulations on online speech—such as “commercial tobacco advertising”—because in the Internet age, the user has control over content, and can therefore self-regulate to avoid smoking ads. The EFF called for using “content blocking” technologies, rather than “intrusive” government regulations.
The EFF head then laid out the strategy:
A. Phase I White Paper “New First Amendment Parameters for Content-Based Regulation in Interactive Media.”
During the first six months of 1995, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the new public policy group under my direction, the Center for Democracy and Technology, will prepare a White Paper...
[The] paper will outline a regulatory model for non-mass media interactive services which (a) permits interactive service providers to transmit, without liability, all lawful content, commercial or non-commercial, provided that they (b) clearly identify the nature of the programming (adult, tobacco sponsored, general viewing, etc) and provide subscribers user-friendly means for making viewer choices for themselves and their children.”
In “Phase III: Public Education and Consensus Building,” the EFF proposed working with “civil liberties groups” as well as Newt Gingrich’s “Progress and Freedom Foundation”—heavily supported by Big Tobacco groups—to host meetings between the EFF, “the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy...”
Finally, the EFF head said it would cost $350,000 running “1 and ½ policy staff in 1995” to lobby against regulating tobacco content on the Internet, one-third of that coming from ISPs, and “100,000 for 1995 (payable in December 1994 if possible) and possibly an additional $25,000 later in the year” from RJ Reynolds. At the end of the letter, Berman suggests another possibility if RJ Reynolds finds this plan too complicated:
“We are also prepared to pursue a legal test of this alternative approach to regulation. For example, if MARC [RJR’s direct marketers] or RJR decided to put one or another sponsored on-line service up on the Internet or via America-on-Line or other on-line service, the white paper could become the basis of a legal brief challenging the constitutionality of any governmental effort to block the programming on the basis of current advertising bans in electronic media. . . . We have not budgeted for this alternative at this point.”
By 2005, Internet accounted for 14% of cigarette sales, through hundreds of sites. Not only have the cigarette companies been able to avoid sales taxes and thus starve states of revenues needed to treat cigarette-induced health epidemics, but a 2003 study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) found that children as young as eleven were able to get cigarettes through the Internet 90 percent of the times they tried.
It all sounds so awfully familiar—civil libertarian groups clutching the Constitution, sounding the alarm on behalf of causes that somehow seem to benefit huge commercial interests, all in the name of freedom and liberty...
Whistleblowers, lawyers & Glenn Greenwald
“We learned of a tobacco insider who might know the whole story—who could tell us whether or not the tobacco industry has been leveling with the public. That executive was formerly a highly placed executive with a tobacco company. But we cannot broadcast what critical information about tobacco, addiction, and public health he might be able to offer... if we were to broadcast an interview with him, CBS could be faced with a multibillion dollar lawsuit. The fact is we are not even allowed to mention his name, or the name of the company he worked for. And of course, we cannot show you his face.”
—“60 Minutes” on tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand
“The threats just scared me to death. I mean, they’re intimidating.”
This is the age of the whistleblower, the leaker of secrets for the public good: Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks... While their leaks have helped expose illegal government surveillance and (in the case of Manning) possible US collusion in war crimes in Iraq, Jeffrey Wigand, called “60 Minutes Most Famous Whistleblower,” helped expose a conspiracy that killed 100 million people in the 20th century, and will kill one billion people, mostly from the developing world, where the tobacco companies now focus their marketing efforts. There is no war, no weapon, no man made death machine that comes close to cigarettes in terms of kills.
We know about it now, thanks in part to whistleblowers like Wigand and a paralegal named Merrell Williams. But if the tobacco industry lawyers had their way, their names and the information they exposed would likely still be secret.
Jeffrey Wigand, a top executive at Brown & Williamson, was finally persuaded by 60 Minutes producers to go public with what he knew about how tobacco companies knowingly spiked their cigarettes to hook smokers for life. Agreeing to blow the whistle cost Wigand his upper-middle class life—his wife left him, he and his family came under such severe threats and harassment that CBS had to hire a coterie of former Secret Service agents to protect him round-the-clock, and he wound up going from top executive living in a mansion, to working as a public high school chemistry teacher.
And the worst of it was—when it came time to air his secrets, Wigand was censored from the 60 Minutes show due to threats of multibillion dollar lawsuits.
Wigand’s name could not be mentioned in the broadcast; his face could not be shown. Perhaps even more chilling and bizarre is what happened to the other big tobacco whistleblower of the early 1990s, Merrell Williams, a paralegal at a tobacco law firm who was so appalled by what he read, he leaked thousands of pages of documents that eventually wound up with UCSF’s Stan Glantz, who now runs the digital tobacco documents library.
In 1996, a judge in Merrell Williams’ home state of Kentucky put a gag order on the whistleblower, legally barring him from talking not just to 60 Minutes and other media, but, under threat of jail, from talking about the leaked tobacco documents to his own lawyer.
You can watch the famous episode of 60 Minutes showing how these whistleblowers were gagged—by the power of private governments that are tobacco giants. Recall that the annual revenues of the top five tobacco companies are larger than the GDP of about 80% of the countries in the world. That is power—private government power.
Here is some of the transcript of Mike Wallace sitting before a gagged Merrell Williams and his lawyer:
WALLACE: You want to tell me anything, Mr. Williams, about these documents?
[CUT TO: Williams shown keeping his mouth shut and staring ahead]
WILLIAMS’ LAWYER: He cannot. He’s prohibited from making any public statements about the documents, or his employment, or anything he learned during his employment, or anything he learned as a result of what he learned from the employment.
WALLACE: What would happen to him if he talked to me now about those documents?
LAWYER: He very well could go to jail for six months.
WALLACE: Say this again?
LAWYER: There is presently pending a motion by Brown & Williamson to hold Merrell in criminal contempt. And even under that circumstance, I’m still not allowed to talk to my client. [Merrell Williams shifts uncomfortably in his seat, sighs, but keeps quiet.]
WALLACE: I don’t understand—you’re not allowed to talk to your client? You’re sitting with your client right now.
WALLACE: And you’re not permitted, despite the fact that you represent him?
LAWYER: Oh I can ask him about the Reds and what he thought of the World Series and things like that.
WALLACE: But you cannot—
LAWYER: About the guts of the case. About the documents. What did you do? Why did you do it? It’s been our position that if Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate people—
WALLACE: Killed and ate people—the serial killer?
LAWYER: Correct. And he had counsel. Complete access. Adrich Ames had sold our country’s national security secrets—he had counsel. The lesson to be learned here is that you can kill and eat people, you can sell national security stuff, and you’re entitled to counsel. But if you take Brown & Williamson’s documents, your rights are suspended.
Add to that: Even Chelsea Manning has counsel; even Daniel Ellsberg had counsel; even Edward Snowden would be granted counsel.
It’s hard to comprehend how 60 Minutes was so intimidated, after decades of fearlessly taking on the power of everything from “The CIA’s Cocaine” to mass foreclosure fraud to accusing the Vietnam War’s top commander, General Westmoreland, of lying about enemy troop strength to keep the war going. How not even the US military, CIA or the mortgage industry power could intimidate 60 Minutes into censorship the way Big Tobacco could.
Frontline followed up the 60 Minutes tobacco shocker with its own investigation, “Smoke In the Eye” (available online). Host Daniel Schorr—who himself had been dragged before Congress for leaking the suppressed 1976 Pike Committee report on US intelligence agency abuses—interviewed Wallace about the whistleblower gag, and how Wallace was cowed by the most fearsome threat he’d ever faced as a journalist:
DANIEL SCHORR: Mike Wallace was forced to admit he was gagging his own whistle-blower on orders.... Wallace would later admit he had never encountered anything quite like this.
MIKE WALLACE: Never before. Never before. From time to time, corporations will make their displeasure known to the honchos at CBS News, but we're always protected from it. In this particular case, it was the CBS lawyers who told us that if were we to go ahead, there was a good possibility that the Brown & Williamson Tobacco corporation would sue and sue for perhaps $10 billion, $15 billion.
The reason Wallace and “60 Minutes” had to take the threat seriously was because ABC-TV news had just been forced to settle a $10 billion lawsuit filed by Philip Morris over an investigative story accusing them of spiking cigarettes to hook smokers. ABC was right, of course—but the tobacco giant’s power-lawyers managed to break ABC-TV, right or wrong, forcing them to issue a hugely humiliating (and damaging) public apology in the middle of a Monday Night Football game — an apology that Philip Morris then reprinted in newspaper ads all across the country. As part of the settlement, ABC-TV news also agreed to cover the $15 million legal bill.
A lot of people probably forgot that broadcast TV investigative journalism once actually took on power—private power, government power. Investigative reporting by TV broadcast news really grew big in the 1970s during the Watergate and CIA scandals, and was largely snuffed by the end of the 1990s after a number of expensive, deadly lawsuits—by powerful corporations, our private governments.
And there’s no doubt that the Philip Morris lawsuit, litigated by the power law firm Wachtell Lipton against ABC-TV, broke the back of adversarial TV investigative journalism. And with huge consequences. Thanks to Wachtell Lipton’s threats, ABC canceled what would have been the next tobacco exposé—calling out, for the first time on TV, the huge shift in Philip Morris’ and other tobacco companies’ marketing strategies to focus on selling to poorer, more vulnerable markets in the developing world. The public was never shown that episode; and since then, smoking rates have soared to catastrophic levels, as marketing and sales in developing countries continues thanks to the lobbying help of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Between 2005 and 2030, about 176 million people will die from smoking—77 percent of them in developing countries, a massive reversal from a few decades earlier. In Russia, smoking rates for men and women tripled in just 15 years from 1985 to 2000—to two-thirds of men and one-third of women. In Mexico— where the richest man in the world (and New York Times owner) Carlos Slim aligned his cigarette empire with Philip Morris—60,000 people die a year from cigarettes. Compare tobacco’s legal death toll with the war on illegal drugs’ death toll—a total of 60,000 killed in the six worst years, 2006-2012. In other words, it took six years for the drug war in Mexico to kill as many as legal tobacco kills every year. That drug war is tapering off, while tobacco’s legal death toll is set to soar.
The ABC-TV exposé in 1994 on how the tobacco companies were ramping up sales and marketing to vulnerable developing countries was never shown. ABC-TV got a box full of secret Brown & Williamson files leaked by whistleblower Merrell Williams shortly after airing their first controversial show. But thanks to the Philip Morris lawsuit filed by Wachtell Lipton, ABC-TV’s lawyers panicked and immediately seized all the leaked files from their journalists, seized the copies of those leaked files, seized and impounded their reporters’ hard drives, and prohibited their reporters from talking about “the single most important pieces of paper in the history of tobacco versus public health.”
When Frontline’s Daniel Schorr asked one of the ABC-TV reporters, Walt Bogdanich, if it was true that ABC had the Brown & Williamson leaks—and scoop—long before anyone else, Bogdanich, a Pulitzer Prize winner, answered:
“Well, there's a lot I'd like to say about that topic. Unfortunately, I can't. My company has taken the position that no one is to speak about this and since I work for the company, I've got to respect that.”
That was in 1996, meaning Bogdanich was still gagged more than two years after receiving the leaks.
So it was thanks to Wachtell Lipton’s vicious and aggressive lawsuit on behalf of Philip Morris that TV journalism was kneecapped, that 60 Minutes was too frightened to take on tobacco, that a mass American audience never learned of Big Tobacco’s plans to bring their mass-murder business to the more vulnerable regions of the developing world—and that the biggest whistleblowers of the 1990s were gagged from showing their face or having their name mentioned on the most popular TV show in America . . . even managing to gag a whistleblower from talking to his own attorney, under threat of prison.
And this is where whistleblower-irony becomes so dense, it collapses on itself: Because one of Wachtell Lipton’s young associates working on the Philip Morris lawsuit against ABC-TV was a lawyer by the name of…. Glenn Greenwald.
We know Greenwald worked at Wachtell Lipton’s New York office at the time of Wachtell’s lawsuit because Greenwald himself has talked about working for Wachtell, beginning in 1993 as a summer associate, then joining out of law school in 1994, and staying on until the end of 1995.
But, of course, that isn’t necessarily evidence of hypocrisy. Perhaps Greenwald had no idea that the law firm he chose to work for was representing Philip Morris in the most talked about case of 1994. That even though his own boss, Henry Wachtell, was a regular on national TV news defending their tobacco clients, he was still oblivious. Greenwald perhaps didn’t watch television.
Or read newspapers?
As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time in an article titled “More Young Lawyers Want To Just Say No to Tobacco Industry”:
Unpopular clients have always posed problems for lawyers, but the tobacco industry’s need for litigators is rising to unprecedented levels just as antismoking sentiment, particularly among young lawyers, is reaching a crescendo. As a result, more firms are finding that tobacco work can cause problems ranging from conflicts with other clients to difficulty in hiring. [...]
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is one example. The firm, which previously worked for tobacco companies only on corporate matters and securities litigation, recently took the job of representing Philip Morris in a high-profile libel lawsuit against Capital Cities/ABC. The New York law firm is now handling the No. 1 cigarette maker’s lawsuit seeking to prevent Massachusetts from trying to recoup the costs of smoking-related illnesses.
It’s reasonable to assume Greenwald—ever the diligent researcher—must have joined Wachtell fully aware that they were helping gag whistleblowers and threatening journalists: Greenwald says that he chose to work for Wachtell in 1994 after being recruited by over a dozen top law firms. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean he worked on the specific Philip Morris case.
Except that a billing ledger discovered in the tobacco library shows Greenwald’s name in a Wachtell Lipton bill to Philip Morris....
Other Wachtell Lipton memos show Greenwald’s name prominently displayed on the letterhead in aggressive, threatening letters against ABC-TV, against whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and against whistleblower Merrell Williams...
One Wachtell letter to ABC’s lawyers with Greenwald’s name up top, dated December 14, 1995, warns that Wigand’s testimony in a Mississippi tobacco trial is “in direct defiance of a Kentucky Court order”— and demands that ABC turn over their source’s private testimony to Wachtell Lipton. The purpose of course is to threaten Wigand and ABC and thus to muzzle them.
Greenwald’s name appears on the Wachtell Lipton letterhead of threatening legal letter after letter—targeting ABC-TV and tobacco whistleblowers . While it would be a stretch to say that Greenwald’s name appearing on the letterhead of so many Wachtell Philip Morris legal threats means Greenwald was working on that case right up through late 1995, one would have to stretch much further to believe that Greenwald was completely unaware of what his own law firm was doing in the most famous legal case in the country -- a case he worked on.
The question isn’t that young Glenn Greenwald was a named player in the lawsuits which destroyed broadcast TV journalism and gagged the most consequential whistleblowers in history; the question is, why has he never said peep about Wigand and Merrell Williams? Greenwald styles himself as the most fearless outspoken defender of whistleblowers today—and yet he has absolutely nothing to say about the most famous whistleblowers of the 1990s, a case he worked on from the other side.
The same can’t be said for other young lawyers from his law firm: In 1992, a year before Greenwald first joined Wachtell, a young junior associate named David Murphy wrote a memo to his superiors calling out what he saw as his law firm’s complicity in criminal fraud. Directed to Henry Wachtell himself, the April 28, 1992 memorandum refers to Lorillard attorneys’ request to secretly funnel $40,000 in slush fund money to a Georgetown pathologist “to keep him happy.” Murphy, the junior associate a couple years above Greenwald, writes,
In my overcautious view, the Jensen issue raises a larger question — whether “CTR Special Projects" funds . . . were used to purchase favorable judicial or legislative testimony, thereby perpetrating a fraud on the public. Admittedly, this notion of fraud was unknown to the common law, but if we assume the other side of the looking glass . . . perhaps it is cause for concern.
Again, in the two decades since, whistleblower champion Glenn Greenwald has never said a single word about this case or about the role his law firm played in crushing TV investigative journalism. As far as our research can tell, Greenwald has never taken a position on tobacco laws or spoken about the horrific death toll smoking is taking. (For comparison, the first five years of Obama’s drone wars killed an estimated 2,400 people; smoking kills that many people around the world every four hours.) The closest thing I could find is a Salon.com column by Greenwald attacking federal government regulations of prescription drugs:
I’ve always been interested in the topic of prescription drug laws because — even more than laws which prohibit adults from using recreational drugs — it seems absolutely unjustifiable for the government to prevent adult citizens from deciding for themselves which pharmaceutical products they want to use.
This is not a topic I write about much — actually never — because I realize it is a view shared by such a small minority and is not exactly of interest to everyone.
Actually, a lot of pharma companies who profit off deadly pill mills would find Greenwald’s position interesting—as would the rising numbers of victims of prescription pill mills—these legal pharmaceutical dispensaries have helped fuel a four-fold explosion in prescription drug deaths, particularly in poorer regions of the country (like tobacco).
Besides Greenwald’s belief that Big Pharma should be able to sell all of its drugs to any adult who wants them, a very tobacco-industry-esque argument—there’s little to suggest anything like regret, remorse, or any reaction whatsoever to his work on behalf of Philip Morris’ lawsuit against adversarial journalism and whistleblowers. Quite the contrary, Greenwald went on to a close friendly (and paid) relationship with the CATO Institute, one of the tobacco industry’s most active friends in the think tank world.
There’s a huge amount to be said about the complicity of lawyers in the tobacco industry’s campaign to send journalists to jail rather than allowing them to tell the public the truth about the mass deaths attributable to smoking. And no one said it better than Judge Gladys Kessler in her 2006 ruling finding tobacco companies guilty of criminal conspiracy under RICO (the law used to take down mob syndicates). In that ruling she singles out tobacco industry lawyers as the lynchpin of the whole criminal conspiracy:
Finally, a word must be said about the role of lawyers in this fifty-year history of deceiving smokers, potential smokers, and the American public about the hazards of smoking and second hand smoke, and the addictiveness of nicotine. At every stage, lawyers played an absolutely central role in the creation and perpetuation of the Enterprise and the implementation of its fraudulent schemes. They devised and coordinated both national and international strategy; they directed scientists as to what research they should and should not undertake; they vetted scientific research papers and reports as well as public relations materials to ensure that the interests of the Enterprise would be protected; they identified “friendly” scientific witnesses, subsidized them with grants from the [Council] for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research, paid them enormous fees, and often hid the relationship between those witnesses and the industry; and they devised and carried out document destruction policies and took shelter behind baseless assertions of the attorney client privilege…. What a sad and disquieting chapter in the history of an honorable and often courageous profession.
Note: Sources include the excellent history by Stanford professor Robert Proctor, “Golden Holocaust”; John Fahs’ tragically neglected “Cigarette Confidential: The Unfiltered Truth about the Ultimate Addiction”; the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library; PBS Frontline’s “Smoke In the Eye”.