Note: Search the archive for more than you may want to know about Sembler. The CIA leak case story follows the profile of Sembler.
By John Gorenfeld, AlterNet
Posted on November 8, 2005, Printed on December 16, 2006
But where Melvin Sembler, 74, demands attention is as an object lesson in how cruelty can be redeemed by the transformative power of political donations. For 16 years, Sembler, with his wife Betty, directed the leading juvenile rehab business in America, STRAIGHT, Inc., before seeing it dismantled by a breathtaking array of institutional abuse claims by mid-1993. Just one of many survivors is Samantha Monroe, now a travel agent in Pennsylvania, who told The Montel Williams show this year about overcoming beatings, rape by a counselor, forced hunger, and the confinement to a janitor's closet in "humble pants" -- which contained weeks of her own urine, feces and menstrual blood. During this "timeout," she gnawed her cheek and spat blood at her overseers. "I refused to let them take my mind," she says of the program. The abuse took years to overcome.
"It sticks inside you," she told Williams, "it eats at your soul." She told AlterNet that she was committed at 12, in 1980, for nothing more than being caught with a mini-bar-sized liquor bottle, handed out by a classmate whose mother was a flight attendant. Samantha's mother suspected more. A STRAIGHT expert was on hand to nurture fears her daughter was a drug fiend, not to be trusted. So the small blond junior high-schooler was lured under false premises to one of the warehouse-like outposts of STRAIGHT.
Overcome by dread in the lobby, Samantha tried to run but was hauled into the back by older girls. Inside, as was standard operating procedure, she began the atonement process that cost over $12,000 a year: all-day re-education rituals in which flapping the arms ("motivating") and chanting signaled submission to "staying straight." She was coerced, she says, into confessing to being a "druggie whore" who went down on truckers for drugs. "You're forced to confess crimes you never committed." (Some survivors call it extortion.)
Melvin Sembler stepped down earlier this year as Our Man In Rome -- he also served under the first Bush as Ambassador to Australia. Were Monroe's story unique, his STRAIGHT clinics might still be in business. Instead, his creation, which he stubbornly defends, closed in 1993 after reports of sexual abuse, beating and stomping to boys called "faggots" for hours while being spat upon -- humiliation so bad that a Pennsylvania judge recently ruled it potentially mitigating of a Death Row sentence for a former STRAIGHT teen who committed a homophobic murder.
Although prosecutors closed the clinics, six-figure settlements sucked it dry, and state health officials yanked its licenses after media reports of teen torture and cover-up, Sembler himself escaped punishment. As one of the preeminent and hardest-working GOP fundraisers, Sembler has received the honor of living during the George W. Bush presidency at the Villa Taverna, the official residence for the U.S. ambassador, which has the largest private garden in Rome. One night in May at "The Magic Kingdom" (as Mel and Betty call it), the dining room filled with smoke from fine cigars, as the ambassador entertained Bush Sr. and an entourage -- until Betty complained that the old friends were stinking up "my house," the Washington Post reported.
He's come home, but still wafting across national drug policy is the influence of his STRAIGHT, which has legally changed its identity to the Drug Free America Foundation (director Calvina Fay denies it's the same organization but the name change is listed in Florida corporate filings). Subsidized by tax dollars, it lobbies for severe narcotics policies and workplace drug testing, with an advisory board that includes the like of Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife Columba, and Homeland Security Director of Public Safety Christy McCampbell. A more pressing issue is that former overseers of Sembler's company, true believers in the STRAIGHT model, are still running spin-off businesses that treat teens with the old methods.
The story begins in 1976 when Sembler, who'd made his fortune in Florida real estate, founded STRAIGHT from the ashes of The Seed -- an earlier program suspended by the U.S. Senate for tactics reminiscent, said a senator, of Communist POW camps. But as the Reagan years rolled into view, and a climate of fear nurtured a Shock and Awe approach to teens, the Semblers found a new world of acceptance for an anything-goes treatment business, meting out punishment in privately run warehouses. Endorsers from Nancy Reagan to George H.W. Bush lent their names to the program, celebrating a role model weapon in the "war on drugs."
Nine years before the elder Bush took office, Sembler was a faithful political supporter, and raising millions beginning in '79 for the Bushes' clash with Reagan for the Republican nomination. In 1988, as Bush finally accepted the GOP's nomination for president, Sembler sat in the front row. With his man in the White House, STRAIGHT would become a vehicle for purchasing eminence as a Drug War thinker. By 1988, Sembler wasn't just running the Vice President's "Team 100" soft money campaign and enjoying steak dinners with him -- he was sojourning in George and Barbara Bush's living room, briefing the candidate on drug policy. As a token of his friendship, he gave Bush a new tennis racket, receiving this note in return: "Maybe we can play at Camp David someday."
And Sembler's success grew and grew as the Clinton era spooled out. The slickly dressed go-getter smashed records as RNC Finance Chairman from 1997 to 2000, chairing the "Regents" club that accommodated such super donors as Enron's Ken Lay to fund George W. Bush's campaign machine.
Meanwhile, a coast-to-coast trail of human wreckage had ensued during STRAIGHT's reign from 1976 to 1993 -- its survivors claimed physical, sexual and psychological trauma. The Web sites Fornits.com and TheStraights.com have collected many of their stories. Posts Kelly Caputo, an '88 alumna: "I don't think I will ever be the same. My every thought has been violated, confused, degraded and warped."
"My best guess is that at least half of the kids were abused," says Dr. Arnold Trebach, a professor emeritus at American University who created the Drug Policy Foundation to find alternatives to harsh laws. He has singled out STRAIGHT in his book "The Great Drug War" as among drug warriors' worst mistakes.
But today, Sembler's trail of purchased political friendships has led him through the opulent doors of the $83 million "Mel Sembler Building" in Rome, christened this year with help from a longtime ally in Congress, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). Not the palace where Sembler worked as ambassador, but another of the Eternal City's architectural treasures, built in 1927 and now dedicated as an annex to the U.S. Embassy in a $30 million renovation at taxpayer expense. "Narcissus is now Greek and Roman," said the Washington Post of the monument. No one could remember any other diplomat receiving such honors, not even Benjamin Franklin.
"We don't do that, do we?" George W. Bush reportedly told the congressman, according to Congressman C.W. Bill Young 's (R-Florida) speech during the ceremony. "We don't name buildings for ambassadors where they have served."
"Mr. President," the politician replied, "I introduced the bill and you signed it." Bush may have missed the Sembler Building provision, tucked as it was into an appropriations bill. But he owed much to the longtime family friend, whom he thanked on "The Jim Lehrer Report" [RealAudio] in 2000 for raising $21.3 million at a single dinner in April, a new record. Asked what favors the money paid for, Bush professed wonderment at the premise: "I know there's this kind of sentiment now -- I heard it during the primaries ... [that] if someone contributes to a person's campaign, there's this great sense of being beholden."
At the Sembler Building, visitors can stroll among the Italian frescoes of cherubs and heavens, and marvel at the spoils of Bush family loyalty, and meditate on the human costs that made Sembler's paradise possible.
Melvin Sembler's Jekyll-and-Hyde empire appealed to parents with cheery pamphlets bearing pictures of happy and reunited families that had put their horrible pasts behind them.
Even Princess Diana had graced the clinics with a visit, celebrating STRAIGHT as a humanitarian institution. George H.W. Bush named the program among his "thousand points of light." But many called it Hell.
Taking in new kids without much discrimination -- many addiction-free -- STRAIGHT staff assured parents that a variety of troubled teens could benefit from their brand of discipline.
Vanished from home and school, the newcomer would enter the care of a "host home" overseen, at night, by the same counselors up in her face by day. Over the months, patients like Samantha Monroe earned back basic privileges like speaking or, in the distant future, going to the bathroom alone, without an ever-present minder's thumb in the belt loop -- literally. The counselors were themselves STRAIGHT kids, who had been molded into drug warriors in the heat of humiliation. They'd learned to play along and join the winning side, becoming the hall monitors and the muscle that enforced the rules.
From the outset, STRAIGHT's method was on thin ice with regulators. The underpinnings had long struck critics as more Pyongyang than Pinellas County. Sembler took his blueprint from another St. Petersburg program, The Seed, in which his son had enrolled in the 1970s. The Senate was less impressed than Sembler with The Seed. Senator Sam Ervin, who'd brought down Richard Nixon, killed the program's federal subsidies for funding a method
Finally, one by one, the 12 clinics, which had once formed a nine-state empire, went dark. Much of the money was lost in settlements, but jury verdicts offered a peek into the regularity of the abuses. Florida patient Karen Norton was awarded $721,000 by a jury after being thrown against a wall in 1982 by the Semblers' treatment guru of choice: Dr. Miller Newton, whose unaccredited Ph.D was in public administration, but was tapped by the Semblers as STRAIGHT National Clinical Director. He's emblematic of how the creature Sembler built just won't stop sprouting heads, having personally launched spinoff businesses with names like KIDS. As a result, Newton has paid out over $12 million to his victims. Having moved back to Florida, he now calls himself "Friar Cassian," a priest in the non-Catholic Antiochian Orthodox church.
But just last month, Betty Sembler testified in a case against a STRAIGHT critic that Miller Newton, the dark cleric of rehab, is "a very close and dear friend and a valued one," and an "outstanding individual." Had he committed outrageous acts? "Absolutely not," she said, adding that it was incomprehensible that ex-STRAIGHT teen Richard Bradbury was picketing Newton. Thanks to her judgment of character, Newton has been given a voice in national drug policy, listed as a participant in a Drug Free America Foundation "International Scientific and Medical Forum."
From the beginning, critics were shocked to find that the keepers freely acknowledged many of the tactics -- yet insisted they were necessary. Mel Sembler even seems to have been emboldened by painful questions about his clinics. "We've got nothing to hide -- we're saving lives," he said in 1977 after six directors quit over practices that included kicking a restrained youth. He remained closely involved in personnel management. Almost two decades later, recalling how the ACLU was furious about STRAIGHT's practices, Sembler told Florida Trend Magazine in 1997 -- "with a grin," the reporter wrote -- that "it just shows that we must have been doing things right."
And rather than clean up Florida's program, he apparently leaned on health inspectors in 1989 to go easy on it. Reports of a cover-up wouldn't emerge for four more years -- long years, for the teenagers committed to a program that wouldn't lose its license until 1993. STRAIGHT foe Bradbury, believing he'd been "brainwashed" into becoming an abusive counselor, brought the clinics to the attention of the state after years of protest. Inspector Lowell Clary of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services found that reports of illegally restrained and stomped-on teens had been swept under the rug, likely with help from Republican state senators, who went unnamed, but made phone calls urging the clinic stayed open. A "persistent foul odor" hung over this use of power, said a St. Petersburg Times Op-Ed applauding the death of STRAIGHT.
"While at the facility," wrote Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services Acting Inspector General Lowell Clary on May 19, 1993, "the team [of inspectors in 1989] received a phone call informing them that no matter what they found, STRAIGHT would receive their license." "If you do anything other than what I tell you on this issue, I will fire you on the spot," an HRS official was told. Clary wasn't positive, but evidence suggested that "pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler and other state senators."
By now, Clinton was in office. Four years earlier, while young "druggies" were still being restrained to chairs for 12 hours, denied medication and sent to the hospital with injuries, the 1989 report would have tarnished President George H.W. Bush's "points of light." Bush had designated STRAIGHT an American treasure. On that fragile premise, not one but two STRAIGHT presidents had been named ambassadors in 1989, the year of the Florida inspection. Sembler got the Australian assignment. The other post sent co-founder Joseph Zappala to Spain armed for diplomacy with a high school education. The two were mocked in People as "too hick to hack it." They'd clowned around during the nomination process, turning in nearly identical answers on Senate disclosure forms. In the "languages spoken" box Sembler had written, humorously, "English (fluent)."
That took real cheek. These two pranksters had been leaders of a group characterized as a destructive cult by top authorities on cult abuse ranging from Steve Hassan of the Freedom Of Mind Center to the late Dr. Margaret Singer of UC Berkeley, an expert on the abuse of American servicemen in the Korean War whose expert testimony was used to close a facility in Cincinnati. Bradbury, the whistleblower, concurs, saying the program modified his personality into something monstrous. Bradbury attended the St. Petersburg, Florida clinic. "You don't understand what they did to these kids," Bradbury told AlterNet. "They put stuff up my butt."
But you wouldn't know from Sembler's State Department biography that his claim to fame has such a shoddy legal record. The program has the honor of being described as a "remarkable program" in his bio, and it credits STRAIGHT with saving 12,000 kids. The ambassador did not return attempts to contact him during the reporting for this story, and declined the author's interview requests last year through a U.S. Embassy spokesman.
In addition to receiving a second Ambassadorship from the second Bush president, his Governor Jeb Bush named August 8, 2000, "Betty Sembler Day" for her "work protecting children from the dangers of drugs," labeling her "ambassadorable." The next year, at a drug policy conference in Florida, a writer from the Canadian legalization magazine Cannibis Culture asked her about the STRAIGHT victims. "They should get a life," he quotes her as replying. "There's nothing to apologize for. The [drug] legalizers are the ones who should be apologizing."
The ambassador's wife is an outspoken critic of what she calls "medical excuse marijuana," and serves on the boards of such mighty anti-legalization campaigns as the International Task Force On Strategic Drug Policy, which works with Latin American countries to lobby for harsh drug laws. Mel himself used his Rome ambassadorial pulpit for a global conference in 2003, appealing to the "moral imperatives" of the drug war and urging a "culture of disapproval of drug abuse." DFAF, founded by the Semblers, receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Small Business Association to advance workplace drug testing in businesses -- for example, a handout in 2000 of $314,000. Betty Sembler is president and Melvin has served as chairman.
Though Sembler's clinics were shuttered, the spirit of STRAIGHT lives on as a flourishing model for drug rehabilitation. That includes offshoots run by former STRAIGHT staff, such as the Orlando STRAIGHT spin-off, SAFE, which was described by 16-year-old Leah Marchessault in 2000 as "something from the Twilight Zone" in a report by Florida's WAMI TV station.
Leah had gone to visit her sister, in for heroin abuse, only to be told she herself was a "druggie" -- sound familiar? And when Leah fled, she was pinned against a wall and assaulted by a pack of nine women members who forced her to undergo a full-body search. Another girl told WAMI of being "forced to stand for about an hour and a half, the attention being focused on me, and about every 10 minutes I was told how I was full of crap, how I needed to be flushed out."
Despite their cheery names -- SAFE in Orlando, Florida; Kids Helping Kids of Cincinnati, Ohio; Growing Together of Lake Worth, Florida -- these barely regulated warehouses cry out for oversight. Hungry for recruits, they appeal to the fears of parents by warning a child will die on the streets if uncorrected by their methods.
In the TV report, the presence of a spokeswoman named Loretta Parrish was evidence that SAFE was the child of STRAIGHT -- she'd been the local STRAIGHT's marketing director until 1992, when the old company closed under state scrutiny, and SAFE, a new company, almost immediately sprang up to replace it. A new head for the hydra: Parrish didn't dispute the visiting sister's horrifying experience, but called it necessary, as if explaining something obvious to her since the '80s.
"Yes we do require that," said Parrish. "And if they don't, then they have to remove the other child. This is a family treatment program. And unless the entire family is in treatment, it doesn't work."
And so with the former STRAIGHT bosses rich in Republican honors, and insulated in a political Xanadu not unlike the alternate reality field engulfing the White House, a new generation of teenagers is going under the hammer, as an old generation of victims finds cold comfort for their own suffering. If this is the compassionate kind of conservatism, how harsh the other variety must be.
John Gorenfeld, a freelance writer in San Francisco, will be blogging further details of this story at gorenfeld.net/john.
© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved. View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/27725/
By Joshua Micah Marshall, Laura Rozen, and Paul Glastris
On Friday evening, CBS News reported that the FBI is investigating a suspected mole in the Department of Defense who allegedly passed to Israel, via a pro-Israeli lobbying organization, classified American intelligence about Iran. The focus of the investigation, according to U.S. government officials, is Larry Franklin, a veteran Defense Intelligence Agency Iran analyst now working in the office of the Pentagon's number three civilian official, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
The investigation of Franklin is now shining a bright light on a shadowy struggle within the Bush administration over the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran. In particular, the FBI is looking with renewed interest at an unauthorized back-channel between Iranian dissidents and advisers in Feith's office, which more senior administration officials first tried in vain to shut down and then later attempted to cover up.
Franklin, along with another colleague from Feith's office, a polyglot Middle East expert named Harold Rhode, were the two officials involved in the back-channel, which involved on-going meetings and contacts with Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and other Iranian exiles, dissidents and government officials. Ghorbanifar is a storied figure who played a key role in embroiling the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra affair. The meetings were both a conduit for intelligence about Iran and Iraq and part of a bitter administration power-struggle pitting officials at DoD who have been pushing for a hard-line policy of "regime change" in Iran, against other officials at the State Department and the CIA who have been counseling a more cautious approach.
Reports of two of these meetings first surfaced a year ago in Newsday, and have since been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Whether or how the meetings are connected to the alleged espionage remains unknown. But the FBI is now closely scrutinizing them.
While the FBI is looking at the meetings as part of its criminal investigation, to congressional investigators the Ghorbanifar back-channel typifies the out-of-control bureaucratic turf wars which have characterized and often hobbled Bush administration policy-making. And an investigation by The Washington Monthly -- including a rare interview with Ghorbanifar -- adds weight to those concerns. The meetings turn out to have been far more extensive and much less under White House control than originally reported. One of the meetings, which Pentagon officials have long characterized as merely a "chance encounter" seems in fact to have been planned long in advance by Rhode and Ghorbanifar. Another has never been reported in the American press. The administration's reluctance to disclose these details seems clear: the DoD-Ghorbanifar meetings suggest the possibility that a rogue faction at the Pentagon was trying to work outside normal US foreign policy channels to advance a "regime change" agenda not approved by the president's foreign policy principals or even the president himself.
The first meeting occurred in Rome in December, 2001. It included Franklin, Rhode, and another American, the neoconservative writer and operative Michael Ledeen, who organized the meeting. (According to UPI, Ledeen was then working for Feith as a consultant.) Also in attendance was Ghorbanifar and a number of other Iranians. One of the Iranians, according to two sources familiar with the meeting, was a former senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who claimed to have information about dissident ranks within the Iranian security services. The Washington Monthly has also learned from U.S. government sources that Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, attended the meetings, as did the Italian Minister of Defense Antonio Martino, who is well-known in neoconservative circles in Washington.
Alarm bells about the December 2001 meeting began going off in U.S. government channels only days after it occurred. On Dec. 12, 2001, at the U.S. embassy in Rome, America's newly-installed ambassador, Mel Sembler, sat down for a private dinner with Ledeen, an old friend of his from Republican Party politics, and Martino, the Italian defense minister. The conversation quickly turned to the meeting. The problem was that this was the first that Amb. Sembler had heard about it.
According to U.S. government sources, Sembler immediately set about trying to determine what he could about the meeting and how it had happened.
Since U.S. government contact with foreign government intelligence agencies is supposed to be overseen by the CIA, Sembler first spoke to the CIA station chief in Rome to find out what if anything he knew about the meeting with the Iranians. But that only raised more questions because the station chief had been left in the dark as well. Soon both Sembler and the Rome station chief were sending anxious queries back to the State Department and CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., respectively, raising alarms on both sides of the Potomac.
The meeting was a source of concern for a series of overlapping reasons. Since the late 1980s, Ghorbanifar has been the subject of two CIA "burn notices." The agency believes Ghorbanifar is a serial "fabricator" and forbids its officers from having anything to do with him. Moreover, why were mid-level Pentagon officials organizing meetings with a foreign intelligence agency behind the back of the CIA -- a clear breach of U.S. government protocol? There was also a matter of personal chagrin for Sembler: At State Department direction, he had just been cautioning the Italians to restrain their contacts with bad-acting states like Iran (with which Italy has extensive trade ties).
According to U.S. government sources, both the State Department and the CIA eventually brought the matter to the attention of the White House -- specifically, to Condoleezza Rice's chief deputy on the National Security Council, Stephen J. Hadley. Later, Italian spy chief Pollari raised the matter privately with Tenet, who himself went to Hadley in early February 2002. Goaded by Tenet, Hadley sent word to the officials in Feith's office and to Ledeen to cease all such activities. Hadley then contacted Sembler, assuring him it wouldn't happen again and to report back if it did.
The orders, however, seem to have had little effect, for a second meeting was soon underway. According to a story published this summer in Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, this second meeting took place in Rome in June 2002. Ghorbanifar tells The Washington Monthly that he arranged that meeting after a flurry of faxes between himself and DoD official Harold Rhode. Though he did not attend it himself, Ghorbanifar says the meeting consisted of an Egyptian, an Iraqi, and a high-level U.S. government official, whose name he declined to reveal. The first two briefed the American official about the general situation in Iraq and the Middle East, and what would happen in Iraq, "And it's happened word for word since," says Ghorbanifar. A spokesman for the NSC declined to comment on this and other meetings and referred The Washington Monthly to the Defense Department, which did not respond to repeated inquiries. Ledeen also refused to comment.
No one at the U.S. embassy in Rome seems to have known about this second Rome meeting. But the back-channel's continuing existence became apparent the following month -- July 2002 -- when Ledeen again contacted Sembler and told him that he'd be back in Rome in September to continue "his work" with the Iranians (This time Ledeen made no mention of any involvement by Pentagon officials; later, he told Sembler it would be in August rather than September.) An exasperated Sembler again sent word back to Washington, and Hadley again went into motion telling Ledeen, in no uncertain terms, to back off.
Once again, however, Hadley's orders seem to have gone unheeded. Almost a year later in June 2003, there were still further meetings in Paris involving Rhode and Ghorbanifar. Ghorbanifar says the purpose of the meeting was for Rhode to get more information on the situation in Iraq and the Middle East.
By the summer of 2003, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had begun to get wind of the Ghorbanifar-Ledeen-DoD back-channel and made inquiries at the CIA. A month later, Newsday broke the original story about the secret Ghorbanifar channel. Faced with the disclosure, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld acknowledged the December 2001 meeting but dismissed it as routine and unimportant.
Ghorbanifar, however, laughs off that idea. "Run into each other? We had a prior arrangement," he told The Washington Monthly: "It involved a lot of discussion and a lot of people."
Over the last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee has conducted limited inquiry into the meetings, including interviews with Feith and Ledeen. But under terms of a compromise agreed to by both parties, a full investigation into the matter was put off until after the November election. Republicans on the committee, many of whom sympathize with the "regime change" agenda at DoD, have been resistant to such investigations, calling them an election-year fishing expedition. Democrats, by contrast, see such investigations as vital to understanding the central role Feith's office may have played in a range of a dubious intelligence enterprises, from pushing claims about a supposed Saddam-al Qaeda partnership and overblown estimates of alleged Iraqi stocks of WMD to what the committee's ranking minority member Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) calls "the Chalabi factor" (Rhode and others in Feith's office have been major sponsors of the Iraqi exile leader, who is now under investigation for passing U.S. intelligence to Iran). With the FBI adding potential espionage charges to the mix the long-simmering questions about the activities of Feith's operation now seem certain to come under renewed scrutiny.
Research assistance provided by Claudio Lavanga.
Image in web link is a photo of Ghorbanifar from the mid-1980s, around the time of Iran-Contra.