July 10, 2003

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THE WAR THAT JESSE BUILT

By KENNETH R. TIMMERMAN

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July 10, 2003 -- AS the president and Pentagon ponder whether to send U.S. troops to Liberia, many Americans will be surprised to learn that the crisis there was in part the creation of a U.S. political leader who claims to champion Africans' right to self-governance: Jesse Jackson.

As President Clinton's special envoy for Democracy and Human rights in Africa, starting in October 1997, Jackson became the administration's point man for Africa.

It was Jackson who legitimized both Liberian strongman Charles Taylor and his protégé, the machete-wielding militia leader in neighboring Sierra Leone, Cpl. Foday Sankoh. The two hacked to death several hundred thousand citizens of their respective countries.

Jackson's involvement in the diamond wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone arguably caused tens of thousands of African children to be murdered, because his political support for ruthless killers masquerading as political leaders encouraged them to continue their mayhem.

The tragic story of Liberia's long spiraling descent into the inferno requires many more pages than a newspaper column can permit. I devote an entire chapter to it in "Shakedown," my unauthorized Jackson biography. But here are some lowlights:

* In May 1999, Jackson "kidnapped" President Laurent Kabbah of Sierra Leone, according to Kabbah advisers I interviewed, and flew him to neighboring Lome, Togo, where Jackson forced him to sign a cease-fire with rebel leader Foday Sankoy.

* That July, under the terms of a powersharing agreement which Jackson helped negotiate and which Kabbah vigorously resisted, Sankoh was released from house arrest, made a vice president in a new national unity government and put in charge of Sierra Leone's diamond mines.

* Sankoh then began smuggling out thousands of diamonds, many of which he sent to Charles Taylor in Liberia in exchange for weapons. Jackson repeatedly raised the issue of the illicit diamond trade and the clandestine arms supplies with Taylor, who simply denied the charges. Jackson never pressed him further.

* Jackson stayed in contact with Sankoh, phoning him repeatedly with words of encouragement. Braced by this support and funded by the diamond trade, Sankoh built up his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces, ignoring Jackson's pleas to disarm and give peace a chance. New fighting broke out in January 2000 in the hinterland. Jackson's cease-fire lasted less than six months.

* By May 2000, the fighting in Sierra Leone took on crisis proportions, when Sankoh's fighters murdered U.N. peacekeepers and took 500 of them hostage. Meanwhile, Liberia, which has no diamonds, reported that it had exported $300 million worth of diamonds the previous year.

* Jackson made one final attempt to halt the bloodshed in mid-May 2000, but was warned by the U.S. embassy in Freetown not to set foot in Sierra Leone because of widespread popular anger over his role in rehabilitating Sankoh, a known mass murderer. One local journalist wrote bitterly that the U.S. civil rights leader was better known in Africa as a "killer's rights" leader.

* Jackson's final contributions to the "peace process" were vain attempts to cajol Taylor to "negotiate" an end to the hostage crisis, since Taylor was the godfather of the RUF and Sankoh's arms and diamond broker.

* Arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, at the peak of the crisis, Jackson declared, "President Taylor has been doing a commendable job negotiating for the release of the hostages. All the hostages should be freed, and freed now. There is no basis for delay, there is no basis for negotiations."

Jackson's comments would have been absurd were it not for the quantities of innocent blood that had been shed, thanks to his self-serving bumbling.

At this point, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker declared on June 5, 2000, that the United States was "not part of that [Jackson-brokered] agreement." Jackson was soon summarily fired as Clinton's special envoy.

The Clinton State Department is not innocent in this affair. Declassified dispatches and briefing documents show that top State officials primed Jackson with information, talking points and background papers throughout his three years as Clinton's envoy.

With tragic results.

As Jackson himself commented to me in an interview for "Shakedown," "When it worked, you're a genius. When it blew up, you're an idiot." Sierra Leone and Liberia both blew up in a big way.

Now Charles Taylor, indicted for war crimes by the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, is seeking asylum in neighboring Nigeria. He should not be allowed to escape prosecution.

Among the first questions prosecutors should ask Taylor is whom he paid off using Foday Sankoh's diamonds. U.S. intelligence officers reported these payoffs at the very moment that Jackson was negotiating a favorable role for Taylor and for Sankoh in Lome, former CIA officers and other sources have told me over the past two years. As a result of the payoffs, Taylor continued to enjoy support among the Congressional Black Caucus and with the Clinton State Department.

But who received the diamonds, how were they brokered onto the international marketplace in Europe and where the cash proceeds went remains a mystery. Taylor knows many of the answers. Watch Jesse Jackson try to save him now.


Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of "Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson," and a senior writer for Insight magazine.

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