by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Just one week after the State Department denounced a right-wing televangelist's call for the CIA to "take out" Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington's federal disaster agency endorsed sending donations for victims of Hurricane Katrina to the televangelist's main charity.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Web site listed Operation Blessing, an agency founded and chaired by televangelist Pat Robertson, third on a list of organizations to which cash donations could be made.
Operation Blessing, which has been investigated for diverting aid to Robertson's African mining interests and political contributions, was listed just after the American Red Cross and America's Second Harvest, a national coalition of food banks for poor people. It was ahead of much larger mainstream church and secular relief organizations, such as Church World Service and Catholic Charities USA.
Altogether, 24 groups were listed on FEMA's Web site.
FEMA spokespeople had no explanation for Operation Blessing's appearance or prominence on the Aug. 29 list, from which it was discreetly removed when the story first came to light three days ago.
"It appears to have been added at some point to a list of charities, including many members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD)," a coalition of relief agencies that coordinates responses to crises, according to The Congressional Quarterly. The publication noted Operation Blessing was not a NVOAD member.
"(S)o it had to have won FEMA's de facto endorsement via some other channel," according to the journal.
In an article entitled "Disaster Used as Political Payoff," the New York Daily News suggested Tuesday that the channel may have been Robertson's political and financial connections to the Republican Party. It noted that Operation Blessing's prominent billing on the FEMA Web site ensured that it was circulated on other lists of agencies recommended for donations to Katrina relief.
Under the George W. Bush administration, FEMA was downgraded from a cabinet-level agency to an agency within the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The agency has been harshly criticized for its performance before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
One of the criticisms has been that its top posts are now occupied by Republican political cronies with little or no experience in disaster management, including its current director, Michael Brown.
Robertson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, has been a major power in the Christian Right for more than two decades, particularly as president of the Christian Coalition.
With the help of political wunderkind Ralph Reed, the coalition gained effective control of state party organizations through much of the South, Midwest, and Southwest during the 1990s. Robertson, now 76 years old, stepped down in 2001.
Robertson and his comrade-in-arms, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, attracted considerable controversy toward the end of 2001 when both attributed the 9/11 attacks to decadence, liberalism and homosexuality in the United States.
Despite that embarrassment, however, the Zionist Organization of America awarded him the State of Israel Friendship Award for his steadfast support. A long-time Christian Zionist, Robertson broke with Bush earlier this year over the latter's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza.
FEMA's listing of Operation Blessing came just days after Robertson suggested that the CIA assassinate Chavez during his nightly monologue on current events on the "700 Club" talk show on his Christian Broadcast Network (CBN). Chavez, he said, was transforming his nation into "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent."
Killing Chavez, he said, would be "a whole lot cheaper than starting a war." Robertson added, "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then it over with."
His remarks prompted a major scandal, with Venezuela accusing him of incitement and making "terrorist statements." The State Department described his remarks as "inappropriate," while some of his Christian Right colleagues distanced themselves.
"He has brought embarrassment upon us all," said the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
Robertson himself later offered a muted apology, insisting that "take out" could also mean kidnapping or other actions short of murder.
The group has drawn controversy since it was founded, along with a number of other Robertson charitable and business enterprises in the late 1970s.
As noted by CQ, the organization was the target of an investigation by the state of Virginia (where his Robertson's empire is based) in the mid-1990s into the alleged improper diversion of donations for Rwandan refugees into his mining business partnership, in which former Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko also had a share.
The investigation ended when Virginia's Republican attorney general, the recipient of $35,000 in Robertson campaign donations, declined to prosecute.
In 2002, Operation Blessing was linked to a number to a number of gold-mining agreements Robertson had struck with Liberia's then-President Charles Taylor. After Taylor was declared a war criminal by an international court and Bush himself called on him to step down and leave the country, Robertson attacked the president.
"So we're undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country," he warned on the 700 Club.
Robertson has also had problems with the Federal Election Commission, which sued his Christian Coalition in 1996 for illegally promoting several Republican candidates for office in violation of U.S. tax law.
Robertson has long warned that liberalism and secularism would bring divine retribution in the form of hurricanes, among other disasters, against the United States. In 1998, he warned the city of Orlando, Fla, that its celebration of National Gay Pride Month could result in the city's or even the nation's destruction.
"You're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you," he said.
As CQ noted, he has also claimed to have protected the city of Virginia Beach, his operational headquarters, from destruction by mobilizing the "power of prayer" when the city appeared to be in the path of hurricanes, notably in 1985 and 1995.
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