James Abourezk: Radical Senator
From the Mideast to South Africa to Cuba to defending Native Americans and taking on Big Oil and other corporate interests, the senator from South Dakota pushed the envelope on issue after issue.
The most radical US senator in the post-World War II era has died.
He only served one term, decided not to seek re-election, saying “I want to be my own person again.”
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James Abourezk, who represented South Dakota from 1973 to 1979, breathed life into issue after issue.
He represent the Iranian government for a time and remarkably tried to broker an agreement over the hostage crisis which might have saved Jimmy Carter’s presidency and dramatically altered history, but Carter turned it down, see below.
He tried to expose some operatives who were spying for Israel in the 1970s, circles around Richard Perle, which help form what would become the “neocons” and help propel the invasion of Iraq.
He went on to found the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
In 2002 he went to Iraq, warning the US public of the consequences the then-impending invasion.
Following the release of his Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate, in a 1990 interview with C-SPAN’s “Book TV” Abourezk talked about how much more he enjoyed life after leaving the Senate. But he added with a seeming touch of guilt that this meant others — Palestinians, Native Americans, consumers — would be worse off.
In the interview, Abourezk denounced “The Establishment” which “has taken over every aspect of this country’s politics, of its society, its communications, virtually every aspect.” Television he said had become a “selling medium”.
When pressed by reporters as to why he wasn’t running for another term, Abourezk once blurted out because the Senate was “a chickenshit outfit.” While politicos from Trump to McCain pretend to be mavericks, Jim, as he often preferred to be called, actually was one.
Alexander Cockburn called him the most radical US senator in the post-World War II era. Cockburn would write with Jeffrey St. Clair about other lawmakers using Abourezk as a model:
Within a year of getting into the Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies to within three votes of passage in the Senate. Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed. He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues. [Some of Abourezk’s writings are at Counterpunch.]
Indeed, Jim was the most outspoken and flamboyant of senators in the 1970s who challenged the establishment in ways that “The Squad” is nowhere near. Frank Church held hearings on the CIA, Mike Gravel put the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and even Republicans like Charles Percy attacked the power of AIPAC.
But it was Abourezk who, with his pugnacious personality, would push the envelope like no other senator.
When the far rightwing Menachem Begin first became prime minister of Israel, Abourezk questioned him when he met with a group of senators, saying at one point that the PLO, which the US government refused to recognize in 1977, was “at least as legitimate as the Irgun was back when you were running it.” Abourezk would later recount “Bedlam followed. My God, I had committed a grave social error by insulting the prime minister of Israel. Senator Alan Cranston of California, who was chairing the meeting, abruptly adjourned the proceedings before I could make more trouble.”
Ohio Sen. John Glenn would quip: “Abourezk could start a riot in an empty hall.” See Jim’s columns, full of wit, for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Special Prosecutor Law
Abourezk was also largely responsible for creating the office of the special prosecutor. In his book, Advise & Dissent, Abourezk wrote: “Such an office seemed necessary to me after watching Nixon order his attorney general not to prosecute members of his administration. No one on the committee really wanted the amendment, so I literally had to force it on them by threatening a filibuster in committee. It was eventually accepted, under threat of course, and became law.”
Argus Leader, a daily in South Dakota, wrote in 2017 that the office has come and gone but in 1978, with Watergate still fresh, Congress was afraid to vote against a reform measure. He told the paper: “The Judiciary Committee was afraid to vote against it, because they were afraid of being called crooks — which they were,” Abourezk said. “They were scared shitless to vote against it, so it passed easily.”
The Armageddon Network
In 1978, when Michael Saba, then with the National Association of Arab Americans, overheard a conversation between Stephen Bryen, then a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, in a DC hotel offering confidential documents to top Israeli military officials, he called Abourezk.
Saba now recounts: “Jim and I had visited many times starting in the early 1970s about the deeds of the Zionist lobby and their cohorts in the US government like Bryen and [Richard] Perle. Jim had always told me to keep my eyes open for their dastardly deeds for Israel. It was to that end that the serendipitous experience of overhearing the conversation between Bryen and the Mossad agents led to me calling Jim. When he answered my call and I told him what had happened, he said: ‘Bingo, we finally found something on that guy. Get over here right away so we can figure out what to do next with this case.’”
Bryen was forced to resign, but despite troves of evidence in possession of the FBI, the case against him was dropped. Saba later learned that Bryen’s lawyer was close friends with Phillip Heymann, the deputy attorney general who squashed the case.
Saba would examine this network around the group Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which also included Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in his 1984 book The Armageddon Network. Saba says now: “These were some of the roots of the so-called neocons who would lead the push for the Iraq invasion. They were not dealt with in the 1970s and they reconstituted themselves.”
Abourezk would back Saba’s unsuccessful senate run in 1980 in North Dakota.
After the Abscam story broke, where FBI agents posed as Arabs to bribe politicians, he founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “How does ‘Jewscam’ sound?” asked Abourezk.
Abdeen Jabara, who would later head the group, recalled that Abourezk called 30 Arab American leaders to meet in DC. He then “took the bull by the horns and arranged barnstorming trips across the US” to organize the group. He displayed the power he envisioned for the group with his hands: "If I push you with this finger it's not going to do anything, but if I push you with this fist, it will move you."
Said Jabara: “ADC had some real success combatting stereotypes, but that was the easy part. Changing policy on Palestine was something different.” (Disclosure, I was with the ADC from 1996-1997, see below.)
In his lively manner, Abourezk would regularly MC at ADC conferences when they were vibrant, if flawed, affairs.
The ADC’s southern California regional director, Alex Odeh, was killed by Israeli assassins in 1984 and there was apparently a plot to kill Jim as well.
Jim took serious issue with Chomsky’s view regarding the pro-Israeli lobby, writing to Jeffrey Blankfort:
I had never paid much attention to Chomsky's writings, as I had all along assumed that he was correct and proper in his position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But now, upon learning that his first assumption is that Israel is simply doing what the imperial leaders in the U.S. wants them to do, I concur with you that this assumption is completely wrong.
I can tell you from personal experience that, at least in the Congress, the support Israel has in that body is based completely on political fear — fear of defeat by anyone who does not do what Israel wants done.
Have a Cuban Cigar
In typical Abourezk style, in 1977, Jim presented a grimacing Jimmy Carter with a pair of Cuban cigars in the Oval Office. This was at a time when Cuba cigars were illegal in the US. George McGovern, the other senator from South Dakota, and a friend of Abourezk’s, who also had gone to Cuba, looked on.
Abourezk was a sharp critic of the South African apartheid government. In 1984, he was arrested with eleven others including Rev. Sean McManus, an Irish activist, at the South African embassy in protests organized by TransAfrica.
I worked at the ADC from 1996 to 1997 and, after I resigned, I got a call from Jim, who had stepped back from a formal, operational role with the group. He thanked me for my work, saying that I’d displayed “some much needed competence” I think is how he put it. But we stayed in touch and I’d turn to him in my then-new perch at the Institute for Public Accuracy. It was always joyful to work with him, one of his email addresses was GeorgePatton@…. and I was always glad to get something from him. I’d feature him on a fair number of news releases over the years. In 2002, as the US was moving toward invading Iraq, we turned to him to be an important part of one of several delegations to Iraq, a project that was the brainchild of IPA’s executive director, Norman Solomon.
Jim would later recount:
In September, 2002, I traveled to Iraq with the express purpose of convincing the Iraqis to allow the weapons inspectors back into the country (Clinton kicked them out in 1998 so he could bomb Iraq). I told the Iraq government that George Bush was bound to invade, that I was opposed to such an invasion, and that in order to remove Bush’s excuses, they should immediately allow the inspectors back in. The Iraqis did so, the day after my request. But during my discussions with Tariq Aziz, the told the that he felt they were “doomed if they do, and doomed if they don’t.” He said that the first group of inspectors, whom he believed were spies, wanted access to the palaces. They resisted, but finally agreed to do so, and they brought with them GPS systems, he thought, for targeting purposes. In any event, they were very upset about the outcome. And, his prediction that they were doomed if they did proved to be correct. George W. Bush wanted to invade no matter what. In fact, I just saw a film clip on television in which George W. Bush was saying that Saddam was not disarming, so we were going in to disarm him.
The mendacity of Bush and his people is unparalleled in our history.
A Deal to End the Iran Hostage Crisis and Save Carter’s Presidency
What overshadowed much of Carter's presidency, effectively destroying it, was the Iranian hostage crisis.
Abourezk effectively argued that Carter destroyed his presidency because he didn't want to hold hearings about US support for the tyrannical Shah:
I was actually general counsel for the government of Iran here in Washington at that time, for the embassy here in Washington. It was about two weeks after the embassy was taken over, I decided I'd go over and try to obtain the release of the hostages. So I went over and I negotiated with [Abolhassan] Banisadr, who was then chairman of the Revolutionary Council. And I worked out a deal with him. I -- what the Iranians wanted was to air their grievances against the United States, of which they had many at that time, by the way. You know, we had supported the Shah while he was torturing and killing Iranian citizens. They had found, by the way, in the basement of the American Embassy a CIA counterfeiting operation, counterfeiting [Iranian] money. …
They were very upset about that.… And so anyhow, I -- knowing this -- I said to Banisadr, "Look, if you want to air your grievances, I think, in return for the release of the hostages, that I can get the US Senate to hold big publicized hearings allowing you to do just that." Well, we worked out a deal. It'd be a three-step deal, where we would announce the hearings, he would release the hostages and then we would have the hearings. And he said, "All right. You take that to the Senate and I'll take it to the Revolutionary Council. We'll try to work it through."
So I called Senator Byrd, who was of West Virginia, who was majority leader, and proposed it to him. I called him from Iran. Then when I got back from Iran, I called him up and he said, "Well, the administration is opposed to that kind of a thing." Because Jimmy Carter at that time was standing tough. He was trying to look like he didn't want to negotiate.
Instead, the hostages would be released just minutes after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
This would simply have meant the US government disclosing facts and in return, the hostages could have been returned. Carter’s presidency could have been salvaged and history could have been radically different. In both this attempt and with the trip to Iraq, Jim tried to broker a serious deal which could have averted a great deal of human suffering and set the US on a path of peace.
Jim was born at home in Wood, South Dakota, which was at one time part of the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in 1931. He was born on Feb. 24, the same date as his death.
His parents, Charles and Lena Abourezk, immigrated from Lebanon. His third wife, Sanaa Abourezk, is from Syria and runs a celebrated vegetarian Arabic restaurant.
Abourezk’s father, who was 60 when Jim was born, was an immigrant from Lebanon. He ran a grocery store on a reservation and, Jim would later recall, generous to a fault, he repeatedly declared bankruptcy. As a child, Abourezk recalls, "Kids used to beat me up and call me a goddamned black Jew.”
Abourezk would later recall that he had to overcome his own racism against Native Americans. He was the first chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. This led to a number of acts including the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act, which sought to preserve Native American families.
AP recalls that when the American Indian Movement seized and occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 to protest the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans, he and McGovern traveled to Wounded Knee to negotiate with activists in a standoff with federal law enforcement. Abourezk is in the film “Incident at Oglala - The Leonard Peltier Story” and “One Bright Shining Moment - The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.”
His son Charles Abourezk has served as a tribal judge in the Oglala Sioux Tribal Courts. His other children are Nikki Pipe On Head, Paul Abourezk, and Alya Abourezk. He also has one stepdaughter Chelsea Machado, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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Thank you, Sam, for introducing me to James Abourezk... up until now a man about whom I don't recall every reading before. In the process of that introduction, you also shed some new light on the Israeli lobby and their hold over policy. One often reads contradicting perspective about this in various opinions- i.e. either that Israel is merely a U.S. puppet, or that Israel, through its lobbies, wields a lot of undue influence over U.S. policy.
I suspect it's a bit of both as Israel is at least a proxy for U.S. power projection in the Mid East, and a willing supporter at the UN, etc., and the U.S. will defend Israel from international criticism and sanction no matter how many injustices , no matter how repugnant its Apartheid is.
If only we might see one day again, a few dozen more Abourezks - people willing to fight for principles of justice regardless of the personal consequences.
He attended a meeting of the Break the Bonds group with Dayton to try to get him to divest from Israeli bonds a few years ago. We will miss him. Thanks for the eulogy.