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Birds of a Feather GOP Megadonor Mel Sembler Tortured Children for Profit & Paid Liz Cheney to Defend CIA Torture-“Enhanced” Interrogations

Alex Constantine - January 8, 2023

  1. By Alex Constantine

Time Machine, 2009 - Trip the chronological warp interface, toggle through the blur, and we come to the weirdly compatible pairing of Liz Cheney, advocate of the CIA's torture-"enhanced" interrogations, and Republican megadonor Mel Sembler, who tortured children at his Straight, Inc. "drug treatment" centers in the 1970s and '80s:

Sourcewatch: "Keep America Safe is an organization funded by Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler and operated by former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Elizabeth Cheney. It has three board members: Elizabeth L. Cheney, Debra Burlingame and William Kristol. The organization advocates positions held by Dick Cheney and the former Bush Administration, specifically opposing the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison, ending criminal investigations of CIA interrogation methods, and expansion of the U.S. war in Afghanistan."

The unspoken mission of Liz Cheney's CIA torture-"enhanced" advocacy group, founded shortly after Barack Obama took office, was spelled out by Scott Horton in Harpers, October 26, 2009:

Is that 'Keep America Safe'—or "Keep Cheney Out of Jail?'

"We find an absolute obsession with one issue: a criminal probe into the origins of the torture program by the Justice Department. The whole Keep America Safe campaign is geared to making the point that the torture program and other Cheney-authored measures that probably crossed the threshold into criminal conduct were perfectly legitimate policy alternatives. Keep America Safe seems largely dedicated to keeping Cheney out of jail."

Other reporters took notice and stirred the muck of Liz Cheney's "Keep America Safe" front group:

"Update: Major Republican Donor Plans to Fund Liz Cheney's New Organization"

By Michaael Isikoff, Newsweek, October 23, 2009

"One of the Republican Party's biggest fundraisers confirmed Friday that he plans to help bankroll Keep America Safe, the new political advocacy group started by Liz Cheney to attack President Obama's national-security policies. As reported here Thursday, Keep America Safe will run radio and Web ads criticizing Obama in the home districts of vulnerable Democratic congressmen. "I love Liz Cheney and what she's doing," Mel Sembler, a Florida real-estate magnate said in a telephone interview, adding that he planned to be "as supportive as my budget will allow." Sembler wouldn't discuss numbers. But in his case those resources are considerable. A former finance chairman for the Republican National Committee who later served as President George W. Bush's ambassador to Italy (and chairman of the Scooter Libby Defense Trust), Sembler has pumped at least $456,605 into political races over the past 12 years.

"Sembler has long been close to the Cheneys—he tried to persuade Dick Cheney to run for president in 1996 and is now encouraging Liz Cheney to run for Congress from Wyoming (although he added she's not yet convinced "the time is right"). So while not exactly a surprise, Sembler's comments help clear up one mystery: where at least some of the money will be coming from when Keep America Safe starts running ads blasting Obama for promising to shut down Gitmo."

Keep America Safe was made to order for Rachel Maddow, who, on October 23, 2009,doused it in her signature, perky sarcastic tone on MSNBC:

"America, meet Mel Sembler [photo]. He may not be a household name to most of us, but he‘s a Florida real estate mogul who is very, very well-known in Republican circles. ...

"Mr. Sembler told 'Newsweek,' quote, “I love Liz Cheney and what she‘s doing. I‘ll be as supportive as my budget will allow.'

"Mr. Sembler is a very close friend of the Cheney family. Here he is posing with the former second lady of the United States, Lynne Cheney.

"He‘s so close to the Cheneys, in fact, that in addition to bankrolling the Cheney family‘s new anti-Obama political group, Mr. Sembler is also the chairman of the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Trust set up to defend Mr. Cheney‘s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, when Mr. Libby was charged with lying and obstructing the investigation into the Bush-Cheney White House, outing a covert CIA officer as political revenge. ...

"Joining us now is MSNBC contributor and “Newsweek” investigative correspondent, Michael Isikoff.

'Mike, thanks very much for coming in tonight. Is Mel Sembler the only confirmed named donor for this effort? Have they released any other information about who‘s spending them money?

"Isikoff: No, they have not disclosed their donors. They have said they‘re not going to do that. But Ambassador Sembler volunteered that he had been contacted by Liz Cheney and was willing to help, wants to help put money in.

"And there‘s very few people who have the resources to pump money into Republican Party causes, bigger and more influential than Mel Sembler."

Sembler's "drug treatment" program has made headlines sporadically for years, but Liz Cheney didn't much mind trifles like the torture of children - she advocated torture herself, so what was the problem? England's Independent ran a first-hand account of Sembler's drug treatment regimen on March 21, 2019 - when another prominent GOP politician was feeding off of his largesse:

"I was caged, beaten and warehoused by Republicans at a 'concentration camp for throwaway teens' in the 1980s"

Straight Inc. was founded by Trump Victory co-chair and major Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler ...

By Cyndy Etler
"America is shocked by the Trump administration’s putting kids in cages, but such tactics —designed to create terror and modify behaviour — are nothing new. Republicans have been using it for decades. I know: I was a kid caged by Republicans in the 1980s.
"The same ideology that allowed Straight Inc to happen empowers Republicans like Trump to push for a Mexican border wall and turn a blind eye to children being caged at the border (EPA)I don’t have to say I was “caged.” I could say I was “impounded” or “imprisoned.” To be precise, I’d choose the word “warehoused.” Because that’s where they stored us, the tens of thousands of teens whose parents didn’t want to deal with them anymore: in warehouses across the United States.
"Our parents dropped us off, wrote a cheque and walked away. Like the immigrant children separated from their families at the U.S. border, we wouldn’t talk to our parents again for 10 months, a year — sometimes, depending on the kid, longer.
The warehouses were called Straight Inc., a “treatment” program for child drug addicts. This was strictly spin. If the founders were honest, they’d have called Straight what the ACLU did: “a concentration camp for throwaway teens”.
"Most of us had barely smoked weed ..."

In 2004, Wesley M. Fager at the, Institute for Cultic Studies in Oakton, Virginia, posted a legal analysis of Sembler's "drug treatment" program to expose federal financial underpinnings:

"Melvin Floyd Sembler, AO, George Bush's selection for United States Ambassador to Italy, has done it again. He's slipped right past another charge hurled at him. This time the complaint was lodged by Marti Heath, a citizen of Pinellas County, Florida and others from ISAC (International Survivors Action Committee), an organization formed by former students from the Straight juvenile drug rehabilitation program established by Mr. Sembler in 1976. On January 7, 2003 ISAC filed a formal complaint with the United Nations against Sembler and Straight, Inc. for the high sounding charge of crimes against humanity. ...
"And who is this American dignitary known as the Teflon Ambassador, anyway? In 1976 Mel and Betty Sembler, prominent Republicans and multi-millionaires from Saint Petersburg, Florida, founded Straight, Inc. to treat teenagers for drug addiction. For the next 17 years Straight operated the world's biggest chain of juvenile rehabilitation programs with centers in major metropolitan areas all over America. Straight made nearly $100 million as a charity, but there is a dark side to Straight. Straight is one of the most destructive drug rehabilitation programs the world has ever known. It relied on traditional Chinese thought reform technologies to strip a child down of his self esteem before trying to build him up again in the Straight image. Food and sleep deprivation, making kids sit in their own feces, urine and vomit, spitting in kids' faces and not allowing them to wipe the spit off, forced or cajoled sexual confessions open for common discussion, painful restraints--these are all trademarks of Straight treatment. Many former students have committed suicide subsequent to their confinement at Straight. As many as 50,000 kids may have been held captive at Straight. These are the charges that ISAC wants the UN to look into.
"Straights have closed under state criminal investigations, yet hardly anyone ever went to jail. There were close calls though. In 1996 Reverend Doctor V. Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director, then operating a second-generation Straight in New Jersey called Kids, agreed to repay the federal government $45,000 for 254 counts of insurance fraud in return for not being prosecuted. In Kentucky prosecutors said they would seek jail time for George Ross, Ph.D., Straight's former national education director, for allegations of coercion at his second-generation Straight called Possibilities Unlimited. That trial fell apart after key witnesses failed to show. Helen Peterman, one of Dr. Ross' character witnesses at his trial, has herself been accused of child abuse at Straight. Sarasota County Florida prosecutors were considering criminal indictments against Straight there when Straight voluntarily closed down. [Straight counselor Arthur Nicol, a former judge turned rehab counselor, got seven years for sexually abusing a 15 year-old Straight student and his 14 year-old friend.] ...
"In 1977/78 Bob Marshall of Florida's Department of Health (HRS) led a team to investigate allegations of widespread child abuse at Straight. He ultimately reported in January 1978 that out of 30 allegations of abuse, none could be substantiated. He did find some deficiencies at Straight though. Straight was placed on probation, given a temporary license and granted time to work on correcting its deficiencies.
"But John H. Dale, Jr., assistant chief of Florida’s Bureau of Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance (BOCJPA) disagreed with the HRS report. In 1976 and 1977 Straight had received startup grants of $50,000 each from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA). BOCJPA had approved these grants and City of Saint Petersburg administered the money (Saint Petersburg and Pinellas County had even made grants of their own to Straight). Mr. Dale wanted to know why Straight's federally-funded program was already embroiled in controversy. In 1978 he published his findings on Straight in a document called Special On-site Monitoring Report
"n his report, Dale disclosed that HRS officials had held back information in their January report and that state officials did indeed have information "corroborating" many allegations of client mistreatment at Straight. ... 'For whatever reasons,' the special report stated, 'the extensive initial report was withdrawn and a considerably briefer report, mostly administrative in nature, was released.' Later Bob Marshall confirmed that on January 18, the day before the substantive HRS report was to be released, he had received a call from Page and had spoken with an HRS attorney. It had been decided then to publicly announce a smaller, two page report and announce Straight would get an interim license while it made several program changes. Thus there is data supporting allegations of abuse at Straight right from its inception. Stories of widespread abuse continued to mount for the next 15 years and they became the basis for the recent charges that Ms. Heath and others tried to present to the UN's Committee Against Torture since the state of Florida and the United States government have consistently refused to show any interest in investigating these very serious charges.
"Besides substantiating allegations of criminal child abuse, Mr. Dale uncovered other problems with Straight. ... When Straight received $100,000 in federal grants from LEAA the grant guidelines had clearly stated that the money was to be used for salaries only. But the Dale Report found that Mel Sembler had violated federal conflict of interest regulations because the LEAA money had been placed in a single bank account along with other Straight funds at First Bank of Treasure Island. What's worse, Mel Sembler was on the bank's board of directors! The report further disclosed that Straight officials Richard Batchelor, Helen Petermann and Marlene Hauser had violated federal conflict of interest law because either they or a member of their family was receiving part of the grant money as salary. Now one might tend to forgive Straight for all these violations (except for criminal child abuse) because, after all, Straight was then just a startup charity, except that Jeffrey G. Symons, director of Saint Petersburg's grant program, had reported that Straight had been told previously how to structure its grants account yet had failed to do it. Furthermore John White, Straight's treasurer, was a financial officer for the City of Saint Petersburg! So Straight had to have known that it was ignoring the spirit of the giving of the federal funds."
Liz Cheney, John McCain (a torture survivor himself) and William Kristol were officers of Keep America Safe, and had no objection to generous funding from Mel Sembler. All three of them were far-right Republicans, but abruptly reversed course and adopted liberal views for public consumption. This is a lesson in strategic political disguises. And now for the smartest cliche known to man: Don't listen to what they say, watch what they do.

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