Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What Country am I in, Again?

Somewhat overlooked in the hubbub about the six (now seven) missiles launched by North Korea on July4 (and 5) was a New York Times website story concerning pending legislation that could limit the freedom of the press to report certain types of events or classes of information.

That the story attracted so little notice may be due to the fact that the story appeared on July 4th when many in the U.S. were busy commemorating the nation’s birth. Or – more ominous for the health of the republic – it may be that the public has become inured to invasions of freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution that there is developing a “so what else is new” attitude.

Dangerous though this attitude would be, it would be understandable given the revelations over the last six months: last December’s revelation by the New York Times of the National Security Agency’s routine use of warrantless wiretapping of telephone conversations originating and terminating in the U.S.; the New York Times –Wall Street Journal-Los Angeles Times articles describing the U.S. Treasury Department’s intrusion into (some label it governmental blackmail) portions of bank transaction records maintained by the Belgian-based SWIFT financial consortium; and allegations that surfaced today that the Bush administration approached some U.S. telephone companies seven months before September 11 seeking access to records.

Government spokespersons emphasized that the legislation is not directed primarily at the media but at government officials who mismanage and misreport emergencies. But the language seems to leave open the possibility of official action against anyone involved in “unauthorized” publication of stories that would adversely affect national morale. This could include detailing sudden threats to physical or mental health among large segments of the population or reporting on significant social disturbances in addition to existing “cooperative” understandings on not re-broadcasting in full any interviews of or audio or video tapes by terrorists, showing videos of the aftermath of extreme violence or bloodshed, or even printing still photos of flag-draped caskets.

A very senior administration official pointedly observed that national security was THE most important factor for the media to consider when deciding whether or not to run a story. But the first spokesperson also acknowledged that the government relied on the ability of the media to accurately report instances of corruption in high places and official cover-ups.

In the end, a non-binding, majority-party sponsored resolution was affirmed. It called for “the cooperation of all news media organizations in protecting …lives…and the capability of the government to identify, disrupt and capture terrorists by not disclosing classified intelligence programs.”

Is this the United States of the Founding Fathers or the United States of the Re-Founding 21st century “Fathers”?

It is neither, albeit unfortunately tending more toward the latter until last week’s Hamdan ruling by the Supreme Court. The above is a compilation of three separate stories from the BBC (June 20), the New York Times (June 30), and the Times online. The scary part of this fabrication is the realization that these stories have enough factual convergence that it takes little reworking to “transfer” the non-U.S. elements into a plausible U.S. storyline.

The “government spokesperson” comes from Beijing to Washington and the “pending” legislation is before the Communist Party conference, not the U.S. Congress. But the U.S. House of Representatives actually did “debate” and vote out a non-binding resolution on press cooperation on June 29.

And to complete the disclosure, the “very senior government official” was not Vice-President Cheney or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or any other U.S. person. It was President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

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