March 12 2003

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Spoon-feeding the press
The Bush administration's unprecedented war on public information – and how the major news media are going along.

By Camille T. Taiara

ON MARCH 2, the London Observer broke a stunning story about the U.S. government – a story with serious international implications: U.S. agents were bugging the homes and offices of United Nations Security Council members who had not yet vowed support for the war on Iraq. The news made headlines all over Europe. The story was more timely and possibly more important than the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked that secret history of the Vietnam War, told columnist Norman Solomon. Yet it did not appear in the San Francisco Chronicle until five days later, buried on page A16 in the form of a reprint from the Baltimore Sun. The New York Times, the nation's paper of record, blacked out the story entirely.

The next day, the Chronicle provided scant space to report evidence that the United States may have falsified documents it gave U.N. inspectors indicating the existence of certain weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – on page A11, under the caption "U.S. Information Wanting." On the front cover: a prominently displayed photo of two Bay Area soldiers tossing a football in a desert camp.

Neither story of U.S. government misdeeds was covered adequately, if at all, in the source the vast majority of Americans rely on for their daily news: the nation's major television networks.

That's been a pattern since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and as the United State marches ever closer to a bloody war in Iraq, the utter complacency of the mainstream press in this country has experienced observers shaking their heads.

"The purpose of journalism is to monitor the centers of power – to challenge officialdom," Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent for the U.K.'s Independent newspaper, told us by phone from Beirut. "By and large, the media in the United States has totally failed in its obligation to do that. Instead of challenging officialdom, it's become a conduit, a funnel down which officialdom can talk to us."

Part of the problem is the apparent news media's fear of seeming unpatriotic in a time of war. That's nothing new. But in the post-Sept. 11 environment, the Bush administration is conducting an unprecedented expansion of government secrecy. Under the ruse of national security, the feds have been drastically decreasing access to even basic information about the workings of government – and for the most part, the media are allowing it to happen.

Secrets in high places

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush and his inner circle began formulating plans to exercise greater command over information and decision-making processes. It has since become the most secretive administration in decades.

"From the time they came into office in January 2001, it has been the position of the Bush administration to restrict information to the public and to Congress and the media in order to enhance what they believe is the diminished power of the executive branch," said freedom of information specialist Will Ferroggiaro of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute, library of declassified U.S. documents, and public interest law firm. As an example, Ferroggiaro cites President Bush's executive order, signed Nov. 1, 2001, blocking the release of 68,000 presidential documents from the Reagan era. Then there's Vice President Dick Cheney's insistence on conducting energy task force hearings behind closed doors – even hearings between energy company executives charged in the Enron scandal and government officials who were supposed to be investigating the case.

To this day, the White House has refused to release information on those hearings to Congress.

It's hard to make any logical connection between protecting Enron and preserving national security. But no mater: the Bush administration has capitalized on the Sept. 11 attacks to constrain the dissemination of information and decision-making power on every level.

One year after al-Qaeda operatives flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued its second edition of a report titled "Homefront Confidential: How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right to Know" that includes a chilling chronology of the crackdown. Here are a few highlights:

Sept. 21, 2001: Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy orders the closure of immigration and deportation proceedings when directed by the Justice Department. Even family members are not allowed to attend.

Oct. 5, 2001: The White House narrows the list of congressional leaders entitled to briefings on classified law-enforcement information from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice Departments.

Oct. 10, 2001: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice tells network executives Osama bin Laden could be using his videotaped messages to communicate with al-Qaeda members in the United States.

Oct. 12, 2001: Attorney General John Ashcroft issues a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act – drafted by his office the previous summer – reversing Clinton-era FOIA policy that allowed government officials to release documents so long as doing so would not cause any "foreseeable harm." Instead, agencies that opt to withhold records "can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend [their] decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis," Ashcroft wrote, in effect discouraging the release of any information unless clearly required by law. The Bush administration has since retaliated against government agents who have released nonclassified information it deemed "sensitive."

Nov. 13, 2001: President Bush decrees that suspected terrorists can be tried by secret military tribunals.

Dec. 10, 2001: President Bush grants the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to classify information.

Dec. 27, 2001: The Bush administration announces it will imprison suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It refuses to release the names of the detainees.

Dec. 28, 2001: The White House issues a statement asserting the president's right to withhold any information from Congress he deems necessary for reasons of "foreign relations, the national security, the deliberative processes of the executive, or performance of the executive's constitutional duties."

Feb. 19, 2002: The New York Times reports Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's intentions to disseminate false information to the media through its new Office of Strategic Influence. Rumsfeld eventually closes the office as a result of public outcry but makes a cryptic statement to the press in November indicating he intends to go forward with its misinformation plans.

March 19, 2002: White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card issues a memorandum to all federal departments and agencies ordering them to review and safeguard all data on weapons of mass destruction as well as any other information "that could be misused to harm the security of our nation." More than a dozen agencies remove information from their Web sites as a result. The memo also rewards private corporations for submitting "sensitive" information to the government by exempting such information from FOIA disclosure.

April 18, 2002: The Immigration and Naturalization Service orders the names of all INS detainees be kept secret.

Three months after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued its report, Congress granted Bush the green light to create the Department of Homeland Security. Bush signed the act Nov. 25 establishing the department, which consolidates 22 agencies – including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and what used to be the INS – into a single, cabinet-level entity. As it stands, the act creating the department includes a special exemption to FOIA that allows private companies to provide information to the DHS without that information ever being disclosed. It also allows for criminal charges to be levied against any federal employee who discloses "critical infrastructure information" to the public without proper legal authorization – thereby undermining whistleblower-protection laws.

"Information has become consistently more difficult to obtain, through every channel," Steven Aftergood, editor of Secrecy News for the Federation of American Scientists, told us. He conceded that some information previously available to the public should not have been: "There were reports available for sale from the government on the production of biological and chemical weapons that we're better off without," he noted. But he added, "It's clear to me that the Bush administration has gone overboard. It has removed all kinds of things that ought to remain in the public domain.... The result is a much more one-dimensional picture of government activity."

Indeed, actions to classify documents jumped by 44 percent during fiscal year 2001, according to the federation's Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees classification programs in government and industry. The public can no longer access such basic information as the risks associated with chemical toxins used in local plants or maintenance violations by commercial airlines. Members of Congress can't even find out details of how the Pentagon intends to implement the USA PATRIOT Act. In the meantime, fewer high-ranking officials are available to the news media – inquiries and interview requests are being routed through public affairs offices – and the Bush administration has been exceptionally aggressive in cracking down on officials who have leaked even the most innocuous details to the press.

In effect, the Bush administration has hamstrung the public's – and with it, the media's – ability to scrutinize governmental and corporate misdeeds.

But the onslaught doesn't stop there. On Feb. 7, an anonymous Justice Department staffer sent a draft of a new bill titled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. The bill, commonly referred to as Patriot Act II, expands on the government's authority to curb civil liberties in the name of national security. If implemented, it would codify into law many of the steps taken by the Bush administration limiting the public's right to know – including the withholding of information on suspected terrorists in government custody, restrictions on the information the EPA must make available associated with the Clean Air Act, and immunity from civil lawsuits for corporations that provide sensitive information to the government, to name but a few.

The Bush crackdown is working: the administration, many agree, has succeeded in making it harder to report the news. Already suffering from downsized newsrooms, reporters spend more time trying to fight for basic information and pin down simple details and have less time to analyze the data and its impact. As a result, they become more susceptible to official spin.

Journalists have also been coming under fire from sources they rely on to do their jobs. "Reporters demand access to elected officials and to government officials in order to do their business," explained Peter Hart, media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and cohost of Counterspin. "If they offend [those officials] or cross them somehow, they run the risk of loosing that source. There have been reports that this administration has been much more open about scolding reporters and keeping reporters at a certain distance if they perceive them as overly hostile or aggressive. So you have this sense among reporters in Washington that this administration really doesn't tolerate much in the way of critical reporting."

But it gets worse. "American journalists face an increasing likelihood that courts will treat them as government agents with no constitutional right to keep sources confidential or to withhold unpublished materials from prosecutors," write the authors of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press report. On July 12, 2002, a U.S. district judge ordered CNN freelance reporter Robert Young Pelton, who had interviewed "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh on videotape in Afghanistan, to testify in Lindh's terrorism trial. The order became moot when, three days later, Lindh pled guilty to the charges against him; but the judge's published ruling can be used as a precedent in future cases. "It may only be a matter of time before government agents descend on newsrooms with subpoenas for confidential sources, unpublished notes, and video outtakes," the report ominously predicts. The report also warns that journalists could easily become entrapped in antiterrorism investigations through the expanded surveillance powers granted to the FBI by the PATRIOT Act.

"The real danger," Hart said, "is the fact that it's very difficult to reverse these trends. Once you've set this in motion, it would be hard to imagine a future administration deciding to loosen the rules and allow increased access to government business and to government documents."

Not fighting back

In the face of this secrecy blitzkrieg, you might expect the major news media to be up in arms, fighting back in the courts and on the front pages.

For the most part, it hasn't happened.

"The number-one effect on the media since Sept. 11 has been to create this atmosphere of overwhelming timidity on the part of journalists," Hart told us. "They've understood, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, that patriotism and unity in the nation was to override journalistic values of skepticism and inquiry. I think that sensibility took hold in the journalistic culture in the mainstream right away. It still has a huge impact on how they're processing information now."

Most recently, Hart said, the media have paid scant attention to the potential ramifications of Patriot Act II and have failed to question whether Colin Powell was accurate in his recent statements to the United Nations calling for war on Iraq. "These stories haven't been pursued with the kind of vigor one might expect in a society with a free press," he said.

The attitude starts at the top. In a Feb. 25 article in the U.K. Independent, Robert Fisk reports that CNN has instituted procedures under which all news script originating outside Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, or New York must be approved by a team of editors at the network's headquarters in Atlanta.

Implemented Jan. 27, this requirement has already led to censorship from above: Fisk reports that a CNN executive recently killed a story by reporter Michael Holmes on how Israeli troops regularly shoot at Palestinian ambulances in the occupied territories as they attempt to transport the injured.

"The reason was we did not have an Israeli army response, even though we stated in our story that Israel believes that Palestinians are smuggling weapons and wanted people in the ambulances," Holmes told Fisk. But the army had refused to grant CNN an interview. "Only when, after three days, the Israeli army gave CNN an interview did Holmes' story run – but then with the dishonest inclusion of a line that said the ambulances were shot in 'crossfire'," Fisk wrote. "The relevance is all too obvious in the next Gulf War. We are going to have to see a U.S. army officer denying everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on the air."

There are glimmers of hope. Media activists such as Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, see some indications of a turnaround. "The Detroit newspapers and the newspapers in northern New Jersey and New Jersey Law Journal challenged the INS policy preventing any member of the public from attending an immigration detention hearing," Dalglish said. Now the Supreme Court must decide whether to hear those cases. "Organizations like mine [are] co-plaintiffs in a FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department trying to find out the identities of the detained. We have participated with a number of news organizations along the way that have been trying to make sure we get as much access as possible to what's going on in the [alleged Sept. 11 coconspirator Zacarias] Moussaui case. And Washington bureau chiefs have been working very hard in trying to make sure we get better access to military units than we did during Gulf War I."

As a result of mass, worldwide protests against the drive to war on Iraq – and public criticism of the media's downplaying of such actions – more media outlets are also doing a better job of covering dissent than they were a couple of months ago.

But the question remains: How will the media perform in times of war? Based on current patterns, the outlook isn't encouraging.

On the ground

There was a time – and it wasn't so long ago – that aggressive media coverage helped turn around public opinion on a war. It took a while for the press to get beyond the promilitary reporting from Vietnam, but when the critical stories came in, most historians agree, the words and pictures showing the reality on the ground shook up the nation.

But the government learned from that experience, too.

"When I first went to Vietnam, I just wandered around by myself. I didn't ask anybody's permission," said syndicated columnist Robert Scheer, who covered the Vietnam War for Ramparts magazine in the mid '60s and then worked for the Los Angeles Times for 27 years. "A lot of journalists, they just checked into a hotel in Saigon and they went off to look for their own stories.... They gave you a sense of the madness of it, of the contradictions." Since then, he said, "they learned how to make these wars appear antiseptic. War has been turned into a video game.... They've managed to make war palatable. They've cleaned it up."

Sydney Schanberg, a veteran war correspondent whose coverage of the war in Cambodia formed the basis of the Oscar-winning movie The Killing Fields, explained how the change happened. "After Vietnam," he told us, "there were two rehearsals on how to deal with the press: Grenada and Panama." It was during those military campaigns, Schanberg said, that the Pentagon began creating elaborate rules of engagement for reporters, limiting access in the field.

Those rules were toughened during the first Gulf War and in the Afghanistan conflict. On Oct. 7, 2001 – the day the United States began dropping bombs on that faraway nation – the U.S. military prevented the media from obtaining footage of the campaign by purchasing exclusive rights to private satellite imagery of Afghanistan, although its own satellites provided better resolution. At one point, "Marines quarantined reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from viewing American troops killed or injured by a stray bomb near Kandahar," according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's "Homefront Confidential" report. Not until March 4, 2003, did the Pentagon allow reporters to accompany U.S. soldiers into the field.

Distressed by the lack of access during Gulf War I and, more recently, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, major media outlets began lobbying for more openness. As a result, the Pentagon recently issued a set of rules for war coverage in the looming campaign against Iraq that call for the "embedding" of approximately 500 reporters with U.S. troops. Immediately, the new regulations were hailed as a victory by mainstream media. But when you look at what the rules really say, the picture isn't so pretty.

"On paper it looks like a considerable improvement," Schanberg said. "For example, there's no auto review of copy by the military." On closer inspection, however, Schanberg found reasons for concern. All reporters "embedded" with U.S. troops must sign a contract agreeing to the Pentagon's rules governing coverage. Included in the document is a clause dictating what kinds of information reporters can and cannot detail. Journalists can be precluded from reporting certain "sensitive" information according to the military commander's discretion.

What's more, "all conversations [with the troops] must be on the record," Schanberg said. That's a big problem: In the Vietnam era, much of the most damning information came from military sources who would talk to reporters if their names were not used.

The Pentagon can revoke a reporter's credentials at any time, for any reason.

Schanberg, who now writes for the Village Voice, argues that ultimately there should be as many reporters – if not more – working on the ground in Iraq independently of the U.S. military as there are stationed with the troops. Also, some worry that placing reporters with U.S. troops – indeed, having them undergo similar training and wear similar gear – creates a heightened identification with the soldiers that could slant coverage of the war.

"Embedding is bullshit," Scheer insisted. "You're just getting swept up into a big, mass machinery. They're just giving you photo ops. It's when you get away from the crowds, stick around and talk to people that you get the real stories. Otherwise, you're just being led around by the nose."

So far, most of the coverage of the buildup to war has centered on troop movements and possible war scenarios interspersed with flag-wrapped fluff pieces such as ABC's ongoing Profiles from the Frontlines series. Ultimately, the critics interviewed for this story would like to see reporters ask tougher questions.

"The real story will be, where's the threat?" Scheer said. "Is it manufactured? Will reporters go after that?"

Schanberg's big question is, what happens afterward? Like Fisk, he'd like to see more contextualization of the issue: how did we get here, and what lessons might we learn from the past?

"Why didn't journalists say, hang on here, I thought bin Laden was the guy we were after," Fisk asked. "What's Saddam got to do with Sept. 11? But the media in the United States just went along with the new version: 'OK, today it's Saddam Hussein week,' and that's how it went.... We need to use some kind of morality instead of presenting everything blandly and accepting what American officials and intelligence analysts say."

Hart and Dalglish agree there's no good reason reporters shouldn't do more to take the Bush administration to task. "I'd like to see more newsrooms, when they're told they can't have access, to write about it ... and let the public know what the impact of that action is," Dalglish said.

Ultimately, it's up to the media and the public as to how much secrecy and control we'll accept – and, in general, to what degree we'll consent to toeing the Bush administration's official line.

For more information go to www.sfbg.com/37/24/x_mediabeat.html, www.observer.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,905936,00.html, www.observer.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,905954,00.html.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.