It’s News To Me — The Stories You Didn’t See, 2007

Blackwater trainee Gregory Collier screams for team members to evacuate during a drill.

I have edited the introductory part of this lengthy article. The link for the complete article is at the end. It was first posted on September 26, 2007.

Richard Kendrick / The Rag Blog

Censored !!!
The scariest news may be the stuff you haven’t seen yet.
By Eric Griffey / Fort Worth Weekly

David Phinney thought he’d struck journalistic gold. The veteran reporter, who has done freelance work for PBS, ABC, The New York Times, and other news companies, learned from a disgusted American contractor that the Kuwaiti company hired to build the U.S. embassy in Iraq was using forced laborers trafficked in from Asia.

He pitched the story to several news organizations and then waited months to hear back from them. Only NBC responded, but the network was only interested in his sources — so they could produce their own version of the story.

“I tried to sell it to every major news organization that I could think of,” said Phinney. “They all thought that it was fascinating, but they didn’t want to pay for my story, they just wanted to rip off my sources.” Al Jazeera, the preeminent television news company in the Middle East, based in Qatar, was the only major news outlet to take an interest in Phinney’s work.

The story eventually ran on CorpWatch, a politically neutral internet watchdog site. The story triggered a congressional hearing and a labor trafficking investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, but despite that, Phinney believes the public is still largely unaware of the issue. “I was sitting with an old [Associated Press] reporter who said, ‘This is old news.’ I said, ‘I never saw you report it.’ He said ‘Well, it’s all over the web.’ ”

So Phinney was not surprised when he found his story on the 2007 Project Censored list — in company with a score of other stories that, despite their potential major impact, received minimal coverage by major news organizations in the past year. For the past 31 years, Project Censored, based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., has selected what the research group believes to be the most important news stories that flew under the national radar each year — either under-reported or completely ignored by the mainstream media.

The group is composed of more than 200 Sonoma State faculty members, students, and experts, who refer hundreds of stories to a panel of judges, which then ranks them in order of importance.

The 2007 report, released earlier this month, revealed what may be the scariest list in recent memory. Phinney’s article about the use of slave labor to build an American embassy, shocking as it may be, ranked fifth on the list of 25. The No. 1 story: hidden language in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that does away with habeas corpus rights, one of the most elemental principles of our legal system, for anyone labeled an “enemy of the state,” — including, potentially, U.S. citizens.

The same day that bill was signed, President Bush also set into motion the basis for the No. 2 censored story: He signed the John Warner Defense Authorization Act, which gives the president the power to station troops anywhere in this country and take control of state-based National Guard units, without the consent of local authorities. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, was quoted as predicting that the act will actually encourage the president to declare federal martial law. . . .

The 2007 report is particularly worrisome for those who’ve watched the inroads being made by the Bush administration into basic constitutional protections. “The civil liberties aspect of this year’s list is personally troubling for many people,” Project Censored director Peter Phillips told Fort Worth Weekly.

In some cases, the news media have actually worked to help conceal key aspects of major stories. SourceWatch, a generally respected online news organization, published articles on Operation FALCON, a national dragnet that led to the arrest of more than 30,000 of what the U.S. Department of Justice called “the worst of the worst” fugitives in this country, with an emphasis on sex offenders.

The mainstream media, including the Times and Washington Post, reported the action, the brainchild of then-Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, but never bothered to ask what the criminals had done to deserve a part in such a dramatic and unprecedented roundup. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of those arrested were sex offenders. According to research by Project Censored, no major daily newspaper or network news program has done any follow-up coverage to determine who the 30,000 people arrested were or what has happened to them. . . .

But Phillips, a sociology professor who has directed Project Censored for 11 years, said that consolidation in the mainstream media is actually reducing the variety of stories that most people see — so much so, he said, that most major sources run pretty much the same stories, with much of their content provided by the same wire services. “Eighty-five percent of the public gets their news from the corporate media,” he said.

He and other observers are also alarmed at how public relations firms have affected the way people get news. Groups such as Omnicom, WPP, and the Interpublic Group package news stories for the media, making it easier for the local news media to choose stories, and further reducing the variety of articles most people see. Meanwhile, the White House and the Pentagon spent $1.6 billion on public relations and advertising in an 18-month period in 2004-2005.

The result of the PR surge is that the corporate media are running more prepackaged news with less news analysis. Stories critical of rich and powerful businessmen and politicians, Phillips said, get ignored by the PR machines.Parry charged that the mainstream press has been reluctant to take on the Bush administration, for fear of the “L word.” During the Clinton years, Parry said, the press tried to shake its liberal reputation by meticulously scrutinizing the White House. The opposite effect happened when Bush came into the office, he said — the press buried its collective head in the sand, and after 9/11 it got worse.

Many of the pieces on the Project Censored list address policy change made after the World Trade Center attacks, when personal freedoms got trampled under the banner of national security. Parry and Phillips agree that the current administration is enacting laws that will make martial law a possibility if another attack on the scale of 9/11 occurs — and that the press is letting the administration get away with it by failing to cover the issue.

Project Censored’s 2007 list:

1. No Habeas Corpus for “Any Person”
The Military Commissions Act of 2006 ushered in military commission law for U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. It allows for the institution of a military alternative to the civilian justice system for “any person” arbitrarily deemed to be an enemy of the state.

One section of the act is specifically directed at American citizens: “Any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States, or one of the co-belligerents of the enemy, shall be punished as a military commissioner under this chapter may direct.” As Parry pointed out, American citizens are the ones most likely to have an allegiance or duty to the United States.
— Robert Parry, Consortium, Oct. 19, 2006.

2. Bush Moves Toward Martial Law
The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 allows the president to deploy military troops anywhere in the United States and take control of state-based National Guard units without the consent of the governor or local authorities in order to “suppress public disorder … as a result of a natural disaster, epidemic, … terrorist attack or incident.”

This law essentially nullifies the Posse Comitatus Act, signed into law in 1878, which restricts military involvement in domestic enforcement. The new law also grants the military the right to round up protesters, illegal aliens, and “potential” terrorists and grants the Pentagon $532.8 billion to implement it.
— Frank Morales, Oct. 26, 2006, in Toward Freedom, a self-described progressive internet site that features news stories and editorials.

3. AFRICOM: U.S. Military Control of Africa’s Resources
In February 2007 the White House announced the formation of the US African Command (AFRICOM), a unified Pentagon command center in Africa. Presented as a humanitarian guard in the global war on terror, the real objective, according to Sen. Leahy and other critics, is procurement and control of Africa’s oil and its global delivery systems. Activists in the Niger Delta region have been clamoring for self-determination and an equitable share of oil profits for decades, and their tactics have shifted from petition drives to attacks on pipelines. AFRICOM’s ostensible goal is to “stabilize” the region, thereby ending local resistance.
— Bryan Hunt, Feb. 21, 2007, in http://www.moonofalabama.org/, a political, economic, and philosophical discussion site that features news articles and blogs.

4. Increasingly Destructive Trade Agreements
The U.S. and European Union are vigorously pursuing trade and investment agreements outside the auspices of the World Trade Organization, agreements that Oxfam officials believe are increasingly exploitative toward developing countries and will result in unprecedented loss of livelihood, displacement of population, and degradation of human rights and environments. The U.S. and E.U. are demanding unprecedented tariff reductions in these agreements, to allow them to dump subsidized agricultural goods from their economies on underdeveloped countries, plunging local farmers into poverty.
—Sanjay Suri, March 2, 2007, for the Inter Press Service News Agency, an independent news agency primarily focused on global issues.

5. Enslaved Workers Building U.S. Embassy in Iraq
The enduring monument to U.S. liberation and democracy in Iraq is being built by forced labor, according to interviews and documents obtained by reporter David Phinney. Contractors working for the U.S. State Department are using bait-and-switch recruiting practices to smuggle Asian workers into brutal and inhumane labor camps in the middle of Beirut’s U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

First Kuwait Trading and Contracting is one of many contractors that have benefited from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The company had employed about 7,500 foreign laborers, 3,000 of whom are from South Asia. One of that company’s practices is to force foreign laborers to surrender their passports to company officials until the work is completed.
— Phinney, CorpWatch, Oct. 17, 2006.

6. Operation FALCON Raids
Under Operation FALCON — for “Federal and Local Cops Organized Nationally” — more than 30,000 “fugitives” were arrested in one of the largest dragnets in the nation’s history, between April 2005 and October 2006. More than 960 state, local and federal agencies were directly involved in the effort to round up the “worst of the worst” fugitives, with an emphasis on sex offenders. There was plenty of local news coverage on the raids themselves, but few if any reports on who the fugitives were and what became of them.
— Brenda J. Elliot, Sourcewatch, Nov. 18, 2006.

7. Behind Blackwater Inc.
Blackwater, the most powerful mercenary firm in the world, embodies the privatization of the military-industrial complex. Bush’s contracts with Blackwater have allowed the creation of a private army of more than 20,000 soldiers, operating with almost no oversight or effective legal constraints, to deploy in nine countries, mostly on behalf of the U.S. government, and to aggressively expand its presence inside U.S. borders.

More recently, Blackwater has been back in the news after one of its convoys was accused of killing Iraqi civilians, and the Iraqi government requested that the company be tossed out of the country. So far, the U.S. government hasn’t agreed to that, but did significantly reduce the firm’s security role.
— Jeremy Scahill, Jan. 26, 2007, in Democracy Now!, an award-winning independent radio news program airing on more than 450 stations in North America and with a strong online presence.

8. KIA: The U.S. Economic Invasion of India
The Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, quietly signed by Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, trades local control of India’s agricultural sector for U.S. nuclear technology. The United States agreed to send nuclear fuel shipments for civilian use, allowing India’s existing nuclear fuel to be used for military purposes. In return, the Indian government has resurrected an old colonial law to allow it to grab privately owned land and give it to U.S companies, which are fast putting Indian companies and farmers out of business.

The KIA is allowing St. Louis-based Monsanto to move in on India’s agricultural sector, while opening the door for India’s trade sector to be dominated by agribusiness giants ADM and Cargill and opening its retail sector to takeover by Wal-Mart. According to Democracy Now!, as many as 28,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the last decade as a result of debt incurred from failed genetically mutated crops and over-competition with the subsidized crops of American corporations.
— Vandana Shiva with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, Dec, 13, 2006.

9. Privatization of America’s Infrastructure
More than 20 states have enacted legislation allowing public-private partnerships to build and run highways. Americans will soon be paying Wall Street investors, Australian bankers, and Spanish contractors for the privilege of driving on American roads.

Despite a relative lack of attention to this issue nationally, in Texas it has received extensive coverage, in large part because of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a project pushed by Gov. Rick Perry that would create a network of huge toll road corridors at a price of $184 billion, including $1.2 billion paid to Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish building company that stands to collect on the toll roads.
— Daniel Schulman with James Ridgeway. Mother Jones, Feb. 2, 2007

10. Vulture Funds Threaten Debt Relief for Poor Nations
“Vulture funds” is the term used for companies that buy up the debt of poor nations cheaply, when they are about to be written off, and then sue for the full value of the debt plus interest, which might be ten times what the countries received originally. Otherwise known as “distressed-debt investors,” these companies profit from plunging impoverished nations into crippling debt.

In 1999, Romania had agreed to reduce the debt owed to them by Zambia, a poor African country, from $40 million to $3 million. The deal was killed when the English company Donegal International convinced the Romanian government to sell the debt for $4 million. Donegal then sued Zambia for the full $40 million. English courts ruled that Zambia — where the average wage is $1 a day — has to pay at least $15 million.
— Greg Palast with Meirion Jones for BBC Newsnight, Feb. 14, 2007.

For all 25 censored stories, go here.

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