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The Bush Administration's Manipulation of Information
"Spoon Feeding The Press"
Camille Taiara
San Francisco Bay Guardian

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 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.

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."

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.

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