30 July 2009

Gates and the Duran case

As mentioned in a previous post, I don't think the key point we should focus on in the Gates fiasco is race. My Left Wing points us to the insightful rule in Duran v. City of Douglas Arizona. The case began when "Plaintiff Ralph Duran directed a series of expletives and an obscene hand gesture at defendant Gilbert Aguilar, a police officer. Officer Aguilar responded by detaining and arresting Duran, who, along with his wife, now brings this lawsuit for injuries he suffered during the incident."

In his ruling, Kozinski (a Reagan appointee) wrote:

Thus, while police, no less than anyone else, may resent having obscene words and gestures directed at them, they may not exercise the awesome power at their disposal to punish individuals for conduct that is not merely lawful, but protected by the First Amendment. . . . Inarticulate and crude as Duran's conduct may have been, it represented an expression of disapproval toward a police officer with whom he had just had a run-in. As such, it fell squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment and any action to punish or deter such speech-such as stopping or hassling the speaker-is categorically prohibited by the Constitution.

This is right on. All of us, in our work, come across people who are extremely annoying, who call names, and by doing so, make our day a bit more miserable than necessary. But we don't have the right to arrest such people (not even to put them under a citizens arrest!) If such actions aren't a crime when they happen to us, it's hard for me to see what makes them a crime when directed toward a police officer. In the end, in the big picture of things, it's all about creating a country where people cower in front of authority, whether that authority carries a gun or rides a limousine.

Pentagon Propaganda Gets a Pass

Amidst government cries that it can't find the money to provide decent healthcare or education, the news that we're essentially paying the government to lie to us is highly disturbing.

July 29, 2009 byDiane Farsetta in CommonDreams.org

Is there a difference between covert propaganda and secretive campaigns to shape public opinion on controversial issues? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) apparently thinks that there is.

The GAO recently ruled that the Pentagon pundit program did not break the law against taxpayer-funded domestic propaganda. The program involved some 75 retired military officers who serve as frequent media commentators. From 2002 to 2008, the Pentagon set up meetings between the pundits and high-level Department of Defense (DOD) officials. The Pentagon's PR staff not only gave the pundits talking points, but helped them draft opinion columns and gave them feedback on their media appearances. The Pentagon also paid for the pundits to travel overseas, following carefully-scripted itineraries designed to highlight successes in Iraq and humane measures at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

"There is no doubt," the GAO ruling states, "that DOD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the Administration's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the [pundits] with conference calls, meetings, travel, and access to senior DOD officials." However, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress concluded that the Pentagon pundit program wasn't covert propaganda, for two reasons: the Pentagon didn't pay the pundits for their favorable commentary, or conceal the program from the public.

However, the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the program, along with the available internal Pentagon documents, reveal major holes in the GAO's reasoning.

All that glitters is not gold

In finding that the pundits "clearly were not paid by DOD," the GAO ignores well-documented evidence -- including statements from some of the pundits themselves -- that the Pentagon access and information they received was as good as gold.

Many of the pundits are lobbyists, executives or consultants for military contractors. In these roles, their ability to attract clients and the rates they're able to charge are directly related to the number of influential Pentagon contacts they have and their ability to learn privileged information. The Pentagon pundit program provided both in spades. "Some Pentagon officials said they were well aware that some analysts viewed their special access as a business advantage," reported the New York Times' David Barstow. Brent Krueger, a former Pentagon aide involved in the pundit program, told Barstow, "Of course we realized that. ... We weren't naive."

The Pentagon program even provided financial benefits to pundits without military industry ties. "Many analysts were being paid by the 'hit,' the number of times they appeared on TV," explained the Times. "The more an analyst could boast of fresh inside information from high-level Pentagon 'sources,' the more hits he could expect."

Further proof of the program's worth to the pundits can be found in their willingness to repeat talking points they questioned or disagreed with, simply to remain on the Pentagon's good side. Pundit and Blackbird Technologies vice president Timur J. Eads admitted that "he had at times held his tongue on television for fear that 'some four-star could call up and say, "Kill that contract."'" Fellow pundit Robert S. Bevelacqua, who works for the military contractor WVC3 Group, Inc., questioned the case for war with Iraq presented at the Pentagon meetings, but kept his concerns to himself. "There's no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart," he told the Times.

To back up its assertion that the Pentagon didn't conceal the existence of its pundit program, the GAO cites a New York Times article from April 2006. At the time, pressure was mounting on then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. To push back, Rumsfeld called an emergency meeting of the Pentagon pundits. Word of Rumsfeld's efforts leaked, and the Times obtained a memo sent to the pundits. Its 2006 article reported that the memo had been sent to "retired generals who appear regularly on television" and who Pentagon officials "consider to be influential in shaping public opinion."

That oblique reference to a massive -- and, at the time, growing -- Pentagon attempt to shape public opinion on many controversial issues falls far short of any realistic standard of meaningful disclosure. Moreover, the GAO fails to acknowledge that the 2006 Times report and others like it were prompted by a leak, which the Pentagon scrambled to cover. "This is very, very sensitive now," a Pentagon official warned others about the pundit program at the time, according to the Times' April 2008 report. That article also reported that program "participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon."
Lastly, if the Pentagon was so forthcoming, why did the New York Times and its lawyers have to engage in a two-year-long legal battle, to have the Pentagon respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for documents about the pundit program?

What happened to the GAO?

The weaknesses in the GAO's Pentagon pundit findings is surprising, given the agency's strong track record of interpreting the "publicity or propaganda" restrictions. In 2004 and 2005, the agency repeatedly ruled that government-funded fake TV news segments, or video news releases (VNRs), were illegal covert propaganda.

"While agencies generally have the right to disseminate information about their policies and activities," the GAO explained, "agencies may not use appropriated funds to produce or distribute [VNRs] intended to be viewed by television audiences that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials." It is not sufficient, the GAO added, "for an agency to identify itself to the broadcasting organization as the source."

In 2005, the GAO ruled that work done for the U.S. Department of Education by the PR firm Ketchum also constituted illegal covert propaganda. The problematic activities included VNRs and commentaries by Ketchum subcontractor Armstrong Williams, a PR executive and conservative pundit, that promoted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). "The Department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship with the Department," the GAO concluded.

There are obvious parallels between undisclosed VNRs, Williams' payola punditry and the Pentagon pundit program. All three employ a standard PR tactic -- the third party technique -- to promote a government agenda via seemingly-independent news or commentary.

In setting up the Pentagon pundit program, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Torie Clarke (a former PR executive) argued that "opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent," according to the New York Times. Internal Pentagon documents that refer to the pundits as "surrogates" and "message force multipliers" further suggest that Defense Department officials were quite deliberately obscuring their role in shaping media commentaries by "key influentials."

It's unclear why the GAO would fail to take the most damning information into consideration, when ruling on the legality of the Pentagon pundit program. I fear that by giving a pass to a nefarious PR tactic that undermines transparency and democratic values, the GAO has helped pave the way for similar deceptive campaigns in the future.An earlier version of this article identified Timur Eads as a "Blackbird Technologies lobbyist," based on his title of "vice president of government relations," as described in the April 2008 New York Times article and other reports at the time. Blackbird's website does not list any of the military contractor's personnel.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.

29 July 2009

It can happen here.

Our trillion-bucks-a-year military (which we've chosen to fund instead of having free healthcare for all using the same $) is spending part of our tax dollars . . . spying on those critical of the war. These are dark times:

Newly declassified documents reveal that an active member of Students for a Democratic Society and Port Militarization Resistance in Washington state was actually an informant for the US military. The man everyone knew as “John Jacob” was in fact John Towery, a member of the Force Protection Service at Fort Lewis. The military’s role in the spying raises questions about possibly illegal activity. The Posse Comitatus law bars the use of the armed forces for law enforcement inside the United States. The Fort Lewis military base denied our request for an interview. But in a statement to Democracy Now, the base’s Public Affairs office publicly acknowledged for the first time that Towery is a military operative. “This could be one of the key revelations of this era,” said Eileen Clancy, who has closely tracked government spying on activist organizations.

26 July 2009

Why healthcare costs have risen

Badtux has an excellent fact-based post on healthcare and an excellent set of recommendations for how to improve the system.

24 July 2009

A disorderly post

For me, the most disturbing aspect of the recent arrest of Henry Gates Jr. is that fact that it involved a disorderly conduct charge. Gates wasn't arrested for breaking into his own house, but for not being sufficiently polite to a policeman. I keep trying to wrap my mind around the idea that someone gets called to investigate a crime that never occurred but then feels they can justify arresting the person, who is innocent, because they're offended. I still don't see what public good is served in arresting someone on their own porch for being "disorderly."

19 July 2009

Sick Around the World

Last night, I watch the PBS Front Line report Sick Around the World on Netflix. I give it five stars! They looked at the systems in England, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, and Switzerland (skipping France for some reason!) and concluded that all of these systems, in spite of some minor problems, were vastly superior and cheaper than that of the U.S. Essentially, every other country's government had, one way or another, bullied the insurance companies and doctors into not overcharging people. The result was that healthcare was much cheaper for patients, much cheaper overall (in terms of total expenditures), and the country's populations were much healthier. Healthcare is one area that makes a real good case study into the problems of the U.S. The influence of corporate lobbies is so strong that any suggestion that we switch to any of these other superior systems is portrayed as extremely radical. We live in a corrupt plutocracy where banks are given trillions but essential services like healthcare mustn't be tampered with lest some billionnaire insurers or hospital owners have to sell off a boat in their fleet of yachts. On the bright side, I guess we have great motivation to keep ourselves healthy!

18 July 2009

If you're keen on getting ACU support, better have a few million...

Politico has a remarkable story (remarkable in the sense that the facts have come to light) about a political group selling its support. The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s support in a bitter legislative dispute, but then the group’s chairman flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay. The ACU's response is hardly convincing:

Mr. David Keene's name was on a letter prepared by another organization. This was a personal decision on his part and he was not representing ACU at the time. No permission was given by ACU, and no logo was provided by ACU, to the organization who issued the letter in question.

Okay. So this was all just a little bit of freelancing on the part of the group chairman, freelancing that would never effect his decisions as chairman. I see . . . Of course, in a conservative world, why shouldn't truth be for sale too? The all-knowing market will, in the end, take care of everything after all. If the consumer doesn't like the truth they're buying in one place, they call always shop somewhere else.

15 July 2009

Bigger, Faster, Stronger

I just finished watching Bigger, Faster, Stronger. It's a good documentary on steroid use. On the one hand, it suggests that steroids aren't nearly as dangerous as they're made out to be. (Something that could be said about most illegal drugs.) At the same time, it suggests that steroids are part of a much larger American problem of wanting to win at all costs. One part of the film that could be a documentary in itself is its short look at the supplement industry which, for the most part, sells the modern version of snake oil.

11 July 2009

First amendment turned upside-down

Police recently forcefully seized someone's flag from their property because it was "a disruption." I wish they'd start seizing some of the billboards and other advertisements that disrupt my view of the forests everytime I drive. They could also seize all the army recruitment posters that disrupt me as I walk down the street. I had no idea that I could call the police over and have them seize people's property whenever I sensed that the property disrupted my emotional equilibrium. I'm personally more disrupted by all the upright flags--they should definitely seize some of them too.

WAUSAU, Wis. – An American flag flown upside down as a protest in a northern Wisconsin village was seized by police before a Fourth of July parade and the businessman who flew it — an Iraq war veteran — claims the officers trespassed and stole his property.

A day after the parade, police returned the flag and the man's protest — over a liquor license — continued.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is considering legal action against the village of Crivitz for violating Vito Congine Jr.'s' First Amendment rights, Executive Director Chris Ahmuty said.

"It is not often that you see something this blatant," Ahmuty said.

In mid-June, Congine, 46, began flying the flag upside down — an accepted way to signal distress — outside the restaurant he wants to open in Crivitz, a village of about 1,000 people some 65 miles north of Green Bay.

He said his distress is likely bankruptcy because the village board refused to grant him a liquor license after he spent nearly $200,000 to buy and remodel a downtown building for an Italian supper club.

Congine's upside-down-flag represents distress to him; to others in town, it represents disrespect of the flag.

Hours before a Fourth of July parade, four police officers went to Congine's property and removed the flag under the advice of Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey.
Neighbor Steven Klein watched in disbelief.

"I said, 'What are you doing?' Klein said. "They said, 'It is none of your business.'"
The next day, police returned the flag.

Brey declined comment Friday.

Marinette County Sheriff Jim Kanikula said it was not illegal to fly the flag upside down but people were upset and it was the Fourth of July.

"It is illegal to cause a disruption," he said.

The parade went on without any problems, Kanikula said.

Village President John Deschane, 60, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said many people in town believe it's disrespectful to fly the flag upside down.

"If he wants to protest, let him protest but find a different way to do it," Deschane said.

Congine, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq in 2004, said he intends to keep flying the flag upside down.

"It is pretty bad when I go and fight a tyrannical government somewhere else," Congine said, "and then I come home to find it right here at my front door."

8 July 2009

Beam me down

Last night, I bought a six-pack of wheat beer and watched Virtual Girl and Outerworld. I've become a convert to low-budget sci-fi. The combination of femmes fatales, fly-overs of alien landscapes and gleaming red space ships taking on powerful intergalactic corporations can't be beat.

7 July 2009

The community of the faithless

William Lobdell, the author of Losing My Religion, recently gave a talk in Portland. The following comment, from a summary of the talk, caught my eye and really resonated with something I've felt for a long time:

Although he was an atheist, Lobdell had a message for the 90% non-theist crowd of 40 that was critical of the atheist establishment. Instead of merely critiquing religion, freethinkers need to find something positive and constructive to put in its place. In other words, there needs to be an atheist alternative to the community and charity that are a foundation of organized religion.

3 July 2009

Around the internets

Mick Arran connects the dots, from Greenspan of yesteryear to the financial debacle of today. Intrepid Liberal Journal muses about living on $2 a day. To help with low-budget menu planning, Tild shares the secret of Red Russian Kale and Red Onion Savory Breakfast Squares. Looking at how the other side lives, Nate Hagens reflects on the psychology of overconsumption. There were also several parting kisses to some lady in Alaska. Down south, Alabama's poised to take the number one spot for fattest state in the nation from Mississippi (increasing the likelihood that the entire Republican Party will die in a simultaneous cardiac arrest within the next decade). The Rambling Taoist considers shephards and sheeple. Dohiyi Mir claims we need more jesters in politics. And Doug Ireland is interviewed (in French) about the significance of the Stone Wall riots.

The Island

I just watched the 2005 sci-fi thriller The Island. It's an engaging thoughtful film that provides a great metaphor for religion as a control mechanism. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson both do an excellent job in the lead roles.