Gaps in coverage
From the home office in Sonoma, Calif., the top 10 untold stories this year are …
The daily dispatches and nightly newscasts of the mainstream media regularly cover terrorism, but rarely reveal how fear of attacks is used to manipulate the public and set policy. That’s the common thread of many of the unreported stories last year, according to a just-released analysis by Project Censored.
Since 1976, Sonoma State University has released an annual survey of the top 25 stories the mainstream media failed to report or reported poorly. Culled from worldwide alternative news sources, vetted by students and faculty, and ranked by judges, the stories may not have been overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo or general under-the-radar subject matter might have kept them from the front pages. Project Censored recounts them, accompanied by media analysis, in a book published annually by Seven Stories Press.“This year, war and civil liberties stood out,” Peter Phillips, who’s been director of the project since 1996, said of the top stories. “They’re closely related and part of the war on terror that has been the dominant theme of Project Censored for seven years, since 9/11.”
Whether it’s preventing what one piece of legislation calls “homegrown terrorism” by federally funding the study of radicalism, using vague concerns about security to quietly expand the North American Free Trade Agreement or refusing to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war, the threat of terrorism is being used to silence people and expand power.
“The war on terror is a sort of mind terror,” said Nancy Snow, one of the project’s 24 judges and an associate professor of public diplomacy at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Snow—who has taught classes on war, media and propaganda—elaborated: “You can’t declare war on terror. It’s a tactic that’s used by groups to gain publicity, and it will remain with us. But it’s unlikely that [the number of terrorist acts] will spike. It spikes in the minds of people.”
She pointed out that terrorist attacks have declined worldwide since 2003. Some use the absence of fresh attacks as evidence that the so-called “war on terror” is working, but a RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Department of Defense that was released in August said the war on terror hasn’t effectively undermined Al Qaeda. It suggested the phrase be replaced with the less loaded term “counterterrorism.”
Both Phillips and Snow agreed that comprehensive, contextual reporting is missing from most of the coverage. “That’s one of my criticisms of the media,” Snow said. “They spotlight issues and don’t look at the entire landscape.”
This year, the landscape of Project Censored itself is expanding. After talking with educators who bemoan the ongoing decline of news quality and have offered to help, Phillips has launched the Truth Emergency project, in which Sonoma State partners with 23 other universities. All will host classes for students to search out untold stories, vet them for accuracy and submit them for consideration to Project Censored.
“There’s a renaissance of independent media,” Phillips said. He thinks bloggers and citizen journalists are filling crucial roles left vacant by staff cutbacks throughout the mainstream media. And, he said, it’s time for universities, educators and media experts to step in and help. “It’s not just reforming the media but supporting them in as many ways as they need, like validating stories by fact checking.”
The Truth Emergency project will also host a news service that aggregates the top 12 independent media sources and posts them on one page. Carl Jensen, who started the project in 1976, said the expansion is a new and necessary phase: “It answers the question I was always challenged with: How do you know this is the truth? Having 24 campuses reviewing all the stories and raising questions really provides a good answer. These stories will be vetted more than Sarah Palin.”
1. How many Iraqis have died?
Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Iraq war has claimed. But even more astounding is that few mainstream journalists have mentioned the issue or cited the top estimate: 1.2 million.
During August and September 2007, Opinion Research Business, a British polling group, surveyed 2,414 adults in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces and found that more than 20 percent had experienced at least one war-related death since March 2003. Using common sociological study methods, they determined that as many as 1.2 million people had been killed since the war began.
The U.S. military, claiming it keeps no count, still employs civilian death data as a marker of progress. For example, in a September 10, 2007, report to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus said, “Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45 percent Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December.”
Whose number was he using? Estimates have ranged wildly, and are based on a variety of sources, including hospital, morgue and media reports, as well as in-person surveys.
In October 2006, the British medical journal Lancet published a Johns Hopkins University study vetted by four independent sources that counted 655,000 dead, based on interviews with 1,849 households. It updated a similar study from 2004 that counted 100,000 dead. The Associated Press called it “controversial.”
The AP began its own count in 2005 and by 2006 said that at least 37,547 Iraqis have lost their lives due to war-related violence, but called it a minimum estimate at best, and didn’t include insurgent deaths.
Iraq Body Count, a group of U.S. and U.K. citizens who aggregate numbers from media reports on civilian deaths, puts the figure between 87,000 and 95,000. More recently, in January 2008, the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government did door-to-door surveys of nearly 10,000 households and put the number of dead at 151,000.
And the 1.2 million figure is out there, too, which is higher than the Rwandan genocide death toll and closing in on the 1.7 million who perished in Cambodia’s killing fields. Still, a February 2007 AP poll showed Americans gave a median estimate of 9,890 Iraqi deaths as a result of the war, a number far below that cited in any credible study.
Sources: “Is the United States killing 10,000 Iraqis every month? Or is it more?” Michael Schwartz, After Downing Street, July 6, 2007; “Iraq death toll rivals Rwanda genocide, Cambodian killing fields,” Joshua Holland, AlterNet, September 17, 2007; “Iraq conflict has killed a million: survey,” Luke Baker, Reuters, January 30, 2008; “Iraq: not our country to return to,” Maki al-Nazzal and Dahr Jamail, Inter Press Service, March 3, 2008.
2. NAFTA on steroids
Coupling the perennial issue of security with Wall Street’s measures of prosperity, the leaders of the three North American nations have convened the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The White House-led initiative—launched at a March 23, 2005, meeting of President George W. Bush, Mexico’s then-President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin—joins beefed-up commerce with coordinated military operations to promote what it calls “borderless unity.”
Critics call it “NAFTA on steroids.” However, unlike NAFTA, the SPP has been formed in secret, without public input.
“The SPP is not a law, or a treaty, or even a signed agreement,” Laura Carlsen wrote in a report for the Center for International Policy. “All these would require public debate and participation of Congress, both of which the SPP has scrupulously avoided.”
Instead, the SPP has a special work group: the North American Competitiveness Council. It’s a coalition of private companies that are, according to the SPP Web site, “adding high-level business input [that] will assist governments in enhancing North America’s competitive position and engage the private sector as partners in finding solutions.”
They include Chevron Corporation, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Merck & Co., New York Life Insurance Company, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart.
“Where are the environmental council, the labor council, and the citizen’s council in this process?” Carlsen asked.
A look at NAFTA’s popularity among citizens in all three nations is evidence why its expansion would be disguised.
“It’s a scheme to create a borderless North American Union under U.S. control without barriers to trade and capital flows for corporate giants, mainly U.S. ones,” wrote Stephen Lendman in Global Research. “It’s also to insure America gets free and unlimited access to Canadian and Mexican resources, mainly oil, and in the case of Canada, water as well.”
Sources: “Deep integration,” Laura Carlsen, Center for International Policy, May 30, 2007; “The militarization and annexation of North America,” Stephen Lendman, Global Research, July 19, 2007; “The North American Union,” Constance Fogal, Global Research, August 2, 2007.
3. A guard that guards itself
The FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security have effectively deputized 23,000 members of the business community, asking them to tip off the feds in exchange for preferential treatment in the event of a crisis. “The members of this rapidly growing group, called InfraGard, receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does—and, at least on one occasion, before elected officials,” Matthew Rothschild wrote in the March 2008 issue of The Progressive.
InfraGard was created in 1996 in Cleveland as part of an FBI probe into cyberthreats. Yet after 9/11, membership jumped from 1,700 to more than 23,000, and now includes 350 of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies. Members typically have a stake in one of several crucial infrastructure industries, including agriculture, banking, defense, energy, food, telecommunications, law enforcement and transportation. Eighty-six chapters coordinate with 56 FBI field offices nationwide.
While FBI Director Robert Mueller has said he considers this segment of the private sector “the first line of defense,” the American Civil Liberties Union issued a grave warning about the potential for abuse. “There is evidence that InfraGard may be closer to a corporate TIPS [Terrorism Information and Prevention System] program, turning private-sector corporations—some of which may be in a position to observe the activities of millions of individual customers—into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI,” it cautioned in an August 2004 report.
“The FBI should not be creating a privileged class of Americans who get special treatment,” Jay Stanley, public education director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, told Rothschild.
And they are privileged: A DHS spokesperson told Rothschild that InfraGard members receive special trainings and readiness exercises. They’re also privy to protected information that is usually shielded from disclosure under the trade secrets provision of the Freedom of Information Act.
Source: “The FBI deputizes business,” Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, February 7, 2008.
4. Training ground for illegal wars?
The School of the Americas earned an unsavory reputation in Latin America after many graduates of the Fort Benning, Ga., facility turned into counterinsurgency death-squad leaders. So the International Law Enforcement Academy recently installed by the United States in El Salvador—which looks, acts and smells like the SOA—is also drawing scorn.
The school, which opened in June 2005, before the Salvadoran National Assembly had even approved it, has a satellite operation in Peru and is funded with $3.6 million from the U.S. Treasury and staffed with instructors from the federal intelligence community and tasked with training 1,500 police officers, judges, prosecutors and other law-enforcement agents a year in counterterrorism techniques. Its stated purpose is to make Latin America “safe for foreign investment” by “providing regional security and economic stability and combating crime.”
ILEAs aren’t new, but past schools located in Budapest, Hungary; Bangkok, Thailand; Gaborone, Botswana; and Roswell, N.M., haven’t been terribly controversial. Yet Salvadoran human-rights organizers take issue with the fact that, in true SOA fashion, the ILEA releases neither information about its curriculum nor a list of students and graduates. Additionally, the way the school slipped into existence without public oversight has raised ire.
Now, after more than three years in operation, critics point out that Salvadoran police, who account for 25 percent of the graduates, have become more violent. A May 2007 report by Tutela Legal implicated Salvadoran National Police (PNC) officers in eight death-squad-style assassinations in 2006.
El Salvador’s ILEA recently received another $2 million in U.S. funding through the congressionally approved Merida Initiative—but still refuses to adopt a more transparent curriculum and administration, despite partnering with a well-known human-rights leader. Numerous FOIA requests for course materials were rejected by the government, so no one knows exactly what the school is teaching, or to whom.
Sources: “Exporting U.S. ‘criminal justice’ to Latin America,” Community in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador, Upside Down World, June 14, 2007; “Another SOA?” Wes Enzinna, North American Congress on Latin America Report on the Americas, March/April 2008; “ILEA funding approved by Salvadoran right wing legislators,” CISPES, March 15, 2007; “Is George Bush restarting Latin America’s ‘dirty wars?’” Benjamin Dangl, AlterNet, August 31, 2007.
5. Criminalizing the anti-war movement
Protesting war could get you into big trouble, according to a critical read of two executive orders recently signed by President Bush. The first, issued July 17, 2007, and titled “Blocking property of certain persons who threaten stabilization efforts in Iraq,” allows the feds to seize assets from anyone who “directly or indirectly” poses a risk to the war in Iraq. And, citing the modern technological ease of transferring funds and assets, the order states that no prior notice is necessary before the raid.
On August 1, Bush signed another order, similar but directed toward anyone undermining the “sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions.” In this case, the secretary of Treasury can seize the assets of anyone perceived as posing a risk of violence, as well as the assets of their spouses and dependents, and bans them all from receiving any humanitarian aid.
Critics say the orders bypass the right to due process and the vague language makes manipulation and abuse possible.
Sources: “Bush executive order: criminalizing the antiwar movement,” Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, July 20, 2007; “Bush’s executive order on Lebanon even worse than the one on Iraq,” Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive Magazine, August 3, 2007.
6. Radicals = terrorists
On October 23, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed, by a vote of 404-6, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, designed to root out the causes of radicalization in Americans.
With an estimated four-year cost of $22 million, the act establishes a 10-member commission to study such perceived terrorism as well as a university-based Center of Excellence “to examine the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots of domestic terrorism,” according to a press release from the bill’s author, Rep. Jane Harman.
During debate on the bill, Harman said, “Free speech, espousing even very radical beliefs, is protected by our Constitution—but violent behavior is not.”
Jessica Lee, writing in The Indypendent, pointed out that in a later press release, Harman stated: “The National Commission [will] propose to both Congress and [Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff initiatives to intercede before radicalized individuals turn violent.”
Which could be when they’re speaking, writing and organizing in ways that are protected by the First Amendment. This redefines civil disobedience as terrorism, say civil rights experts, and the wording is too vague. For example, the definition of “violent radicalization” is “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change.”
Though the ACLU recommended some changes that were adopted, it continued to criticize the bill. Harman, in a response letter, said free speech is still free and stood by the need to curb ideologically based violence.Sources: “Bringing the war on terrorism home,” Jessica Lee, Indypendent, November 16, 2007; “Examining the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act,” Lindsay Beyerstein, In These Times, November 1, 2007; “The Violent Radicalization Home grown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” Matt Renner, Truthout, November 29, 2007.
7. Slavery’s runner-up
About 121,000 people legally enter the United States to work every year with H-2 visas, a program legislators are modeling as part of future immigration reform. But Rep. Charles Rangel of New York called this guest-worker program “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center likened it to “modern day indentured servitude.” They interviewed thousands of guest workers and reviewed legal cases for a report released in March 2007, in which authors Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds wrote, “Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market—the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who ‘import’ them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.”
When visas expire, workers must leave the country, hardly making this the path to permanent citizenship. The H-2 program mimics the controversial old bracero program, established through a joint agreement between Mexico and the United States in 1942, which brought 4.5 million workers over the border during its 22 years in existence.
Many legal protections were written into the program, but in most cases they only existed on paper, in a language unreadable to employees. In 1964, the program was shuttered amid scores of human-rights abuses and complaints that it undermined petitions for higher wages from U.S. workers. Soon after, United Farm Workers of America organized, which Cesar Chavez said would have been impossible if the bracero program still existed.
Years later, it essentially still does. The H-2A program, which accounted for 32,000 agricultural workers in 2005, has many of the same protections—and many of the same abuses. Even worse is the H-2B program, used by 89,000 nonagricultural workers annually. Created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, none of the same safeguards are legally required for H-2B workers.
Still, Mexicans are literally lining up to join, the stark details of which were reported by Felicia Mello in The Nation.
Sources: “Close to slavery,” Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds, Southern Poverty Law Center, March 2007; “Coming to America,” Felicia Mello, The Nation, June 25, 2007; “Trafficking racket,” Chidanand Rajghatta, Times of India, March 10, 2008.
8. Bush changes the rules
The Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice has been issuing classified legal opinions about surveillance for several years. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had access to the DOJ opinions regarding presidential power, and he had three declassified in order to show how the judicial branch has, in a bizarre and chilling way, assisted President Bush in circumventing its own power.
According to the three memos:
“There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it”; “[t]he President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President’s authority under Article II”; and “[t]he Department of Justice is bound by the President’s legal determinations.”
Or, as Whitehouse rephrased them in a December 7, 2007, Senate speech: “I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them. I get to determine what my own powers are. The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is. I tell the Department of Justice what the law is.”
The issue arose within the context of the Protect America Act, which expands government surveillance powers and gives telecom companies legal immunity for helping. Whitehouse called it “a second-rate piece of legislation passed in a stampede in August at the behest of the Bush administration.”
Sources: “In FISA Speech, Whitehouse sharply criticizes Bush administration’s assertion of executive power,” Sheldon Whitehouse, December 7, 2007; “Down the rabbit hole,” Marcy Wheeler, The Guardian (U.K.), December 26, 2007.
9. Soldiers speak out
Hearing soldiers recount their war experiences is the closest many people come to understanding the real horror, pain and confusion of combat. One would think that might make compelling copy or powerful footage for a news outlet, but in March, when more than 300 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan convened for four days of public testimony on the war, they were largely ignored by the media.
Winter Soldier was designed to give soldiers a public forum to air some of the atrocities they witnessed. Originally convened by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in January 1971, more than 100 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians described their war experiences, including rapes, torture, brutalities and killing of noncombatants. The testimony was entered into the Congressional Record, and filmed and shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Iraq Veterans Against the War hosted the 2008 reprise of the 1971 hearings.
An investigation by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian in The Nation that included interviews with 50 Iraq war veterans also revealed an overwhelming lack of training and resources and a general lawlessness with regard to the traditional rules of war.
Though most major news outlets managed to send staff to cover New York’s Fashion Week, few made it down to Silver Spring, Md., for the Winter Soldier hearings. Testimonies can still be heard at www.ivaw.org.
Sources: “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan eyewitness accounts of the occupation,” Iraq Veterans Against the War, March 13-16, 2008; “War comes home,” Aaron Glantz, Aimee Allison and Esther Manilla, Pacifica Radio, March 14-16, 2008; “U.S. soldiers ‘testify’ about war crimes,” Aaron Glantz, One World, March 19, 2008; “The Other War,” Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, The Nation, July 30, 2007.
10. Teaching torture
Psychologists have been assisting the CIA and the U.S. military with interrogation and torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees—which the American Psychological Association has said is fine, in spite of objections from many in its 148,000 members.
A 10-member APA task force convened on the divisive issue in July 2005 and found that assistance from psychologists was making the interrogations safe, and they deferred to U.S. standards on torture over international human-rights definitions.
The group was criticized by APA members for deliberating in secret, and later it was revealed that six of the 10 had ties to the armed services. Not only that, but as Katherine Eban reported in Vanity Fair, “Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the CIA.”
In particular, certain psychologists honed a classified military training program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which teaches soldiers how to tough out torture if captured by enemies. “Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror,” wrote Eban.
And, as Mark Benjamin noted in a Salon article, employing SERE training—which is designed to replicate torture tactics that don’t abide by Geneva Conventions standards—refutes past administration assertions that current CIA torture techniques are safe and legal. “Soldiers undergoing SERE training are subject to forced nudity, stress positions, lengthy isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, exhaustion from exercise, and the use of water to create a sensation of suffocation,” Benjamin wrote.
Ongoing uproar within APA resulted in a petition to make an official policy limiting psychologists’ involvement in interrogations.
Sources: “The CIA’s torture teachers,” Mark Benjamin, Salon, June 21, 2007; “Rorschach and awe,” Katherine Eban, Vanity Fair, July 17, 2007.