Friday, September 23, 2005

Peek-a-Boo President

Faking it for the photogs
Project Censored has released its annual survey of “The News That Didn’t Make the News.” Atop their list is an under-reported story about under-reporting: Karen Lightfoot’s investigation of the Bush administration’s quiet efforts to cloak the government in secrecy and disembowel the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that once provided citizens with a measure of access to government secrets.

FOIA, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, enshrined the public's right to review federal documents. It has since become the victim of a government that would rather veil its operations from the people it's meant to serve.

Lightfoot writes: “the Bush Administration simply fails to respond to FOIA requests at all. Whether this is simply an inordinate delay or an unstated final refusal to respond to the request, the requesting party is never told. But the effect is the same: the public is denied access to the information.”

This issue came to my attention soon after the Armstrong Williams scandal broke at the beginning of the year. Williams was the center of a media controversy when USA Today discovered that his frequent TV appearances -- posing as an objective journalist touting Bush policies -- were, in fact, paid for by the White House. Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) fired off FOIA requests to 22 federal agencies, seeking official evidence of similar "payola pundit" arrangements between the executive branch and PR firms. She faces an uphill challenge, though, as the Bush administration has thrown up a bureaucratic maze.

A Sept 2005 report by found that the government continues to expand secrecy across a broad array of government action. Perhaps most alarming, the report describes at least 50 types of designations the government now uses to restrict unclassified information deemed “sensitive but unclassified.”

"Many of these numerous terms are duplicative, vague, and endanger the protection of necessary secrets by allowing excessive secrecy to prevail in our open society," according to the report

In their 2004 annual survey, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) provide a rundown of actions taken by public officials to turn basic government information into state secrets. RCFP executive director Lucy Dalglish says that many Bush administration actions were designed to undermine the Act.

Since September 11, 2001, rollbacks to access have included striking the release of names of terrorism-suspect detainees to library information on bodies of water.

For government eyes only
The change in attitude can be traced straight to the top, as seen in the policy statement released by Attorney General John Ashcroft in October 2001 that has come to be known as "The Ashcroft Memorandum." Dalglish writes: "A month and a day after the events of September 11, [Ashcroft] revoked what had been a seemingly permissive Clinton-era Freedom of Information Act instruction to federal agencies. He issued his own: a hard-nosed missive that promised agencies that if there were any 'sound legal basis' for withholding information from FOIA requesters, the Justice Department would support the withholding."

"The memorandum emboldened federal agencies in using exemptions more often and to use other tactics to prevent FOIA requests from being fulfilled," Says James Benton, Legislative Representative for public advocacy group Common Cause. Now some FOIA requests can take up to ten years to be fulfilled, Benton says.

Dalglish and her journalist members hoped that the government's post-September 11 move toward non-disclosure would be viewed as temporary or emergency measures: "Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Led by secrecy-loving officials in the executive branch, secrecy in the United States government is now the norm."

Since President Bush entered office, there has been a more than 75% increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year. Based upon information collected by the Information Security Oversight Office, the total number of classification decisions increased from 9 million in FY 2001 to 11 million in FY 2002, 14 million in FY 2003 and 16 million in FY 2004."

"Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone un-enumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases," writes Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Recently, there have been some encouraging signs that FOIA might get back some teeth. On Feb. 16, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the OPEN Government Act to force agencies to pay legal costs in more cases when faced with a lawsuit over improperly withheld records.

The bill, S. 394, would also make the federal Freedom of Information Act easier to use when the public seeks documents from government. It would make several changes in the way the government handles FOIA requests, including creating an ombudsperson to review agency responses to FOIA requests, and establishing a tracking system for the public to check the status of requests. The House version is H.R. 867.

"[The Act] is one way to undo some of the damage caused by the 'Ashcroft Memorandum,'" Benton says. More public support of the legislation could push it through.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Broadband: Coming to a Town Near You

Free Press today unveiled extensive new online resources designed to educate the public and foster development of “Community Internet” projects around the country.

Get your own WiFi
In recent years, dozens of local communities have started providing high-speed broadband service to their citizens through a variety of wired and wireless technologies. Hundreds more cities and towns have municipal broadband systems on the drawing board.

Despite aggressive lobbying efforts by big telephone and cable companies to derail these projects, Community Internet is thriving.

Efforts to restore communications in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have brought greater attention to these systems from public officials. Wireless networks were the only means available for communications among New Orleans city officials after their satellite phones failed. In addition, wireless networks were quickly established at shelters after the storm and are being used to help evacuees locate and communicate with loved ones at distant locations.

Free Press' interactive map links to short profiles of more than 270 Community Internet projects across the country. The map is the most comprehensive list of Community Internet and municipal broadband projects available. It shows projects operated by local governments, public-private partnerships, schools, non-profits and community groups. It includes wireless mesh networks, fiber to the home systems, and those using broadband over power lines.

“Community Internet is the future of all communications,” said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. “In the near future, all media -- TV, telephone and the Web -- will be delivered to our homes via a broadband connection. These innovative projects are closing the digital divide and bringing much-needed competition to the broadband market.”

Big telecom and cable companies have responded by furiously working to slam the door on Community Internet. The telephone and cable giants are trying to use their lobbying clout in state capitals to pre-empt localities from offering the service, keep prices high and preclude competition. Fourteen states now have laws on the books restricting municipal broadband. Five states approved anti-municipal broadband measures in 2005. But in nine other states, attempts to restrict Community Internet were either defeated or delayed indefinitely.

The fight over Community Internet is now moving to Capitol Hill. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) recently introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2005 (S. 1294), which would “preserve and protect the ability of local governments to provide broadband capability and services.”

Free Press is mobilizing support of the bill, urging our members to contact their senators and ask them to co-sponsor the legislation. “The Community Broadband Act would ensure that local communities everywhere can decide for themselves how to best serve the technology needs of their citizens,” Scott said.

Google Wi-Fi may be coming to a neighborhood near you. According to a recent press reports the world's leading search engine may change its game to offer broadband access nationwide. One catch, they would have to build a broadband network massive enough to rival even the country's biggest Internet service providers.

They plan to map the elusive final mile, however, using municipal WiFi systems, a move that could leapfrog lumbering cable and DSL providers into American homes.

Google's plans could tie into municipal efforts to expand Wi-Fi. Dozens of municipalities of all sizes are looking to install citywide Wi-Fi access as a way to get broadband to more people. To learn more about a municipal broadband service near you visit Free Press.

Business 2.0 reports that Google is already building the fiber backbone for such a system: "For the past year, it has quietly been shopping for miles and miles of 'dark,' or unused, fiber-optic cable across the country from wholesalers such as New York’s AboveNet. It's also acquiring superfast connections from Cogent Communications and WilTel, among others, between East Coast cities including Atlanta, Miami, and New York."

That's a lot of fiber, especially for an Internet company that has no experience or means to maintain hardware stretched over thousands of miles.

Essentially, Google is several smart engineers and marketing people sitting on massive warehouse of web servers. Transitioning from that to an ISP with nationally distributed hardware and customer service infrastructure will require billions of dollars in startup -- and a complete overhaul of corporate culture.

Google has made bold moves in the past, but none has so significantly changed their way of doing business -- with an emphasis shift from clicks to mortar.

They can save some related costs, however, with WiFi into homes and businesses. And according to a report yesterday in Investor's Business Daily, that's exactly what they're doing: "Its latest project: security software for accessing the Internet wirelessly via the popular Wi-Fi standard. The new software works with Google's limited free Wi-Fi service."

A source inside Google says they're looking more intently at, first, building localized networks in major metropolitan areas. They have already created a hot spot service that is limited to parts of the San Francisco Bay Area but have proposed a free service for the whole city.

"All you would need would be a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop and, boom, you're on the Internet for free," Greg Sterling, an analyst with the research firm Kelsey Group, told the Investor's Daily. "Think about the brand Microsoft has built being on every desktop, and Google doing the same by providing free Internet access. It could become a next-generation service provider."

With Google in the market, the broadband dynamic could change once more. The cable/telecom duopoly would become more vulnerable with each passing week.

Either way, high-speed Internet service is gearing up to become corporate battle royale. Get off the sidelines and stake your claim to affordable and ubiquitous broadband.

SEPT 19 REPORT: Google Plans National Optical Fiber Network

Google is reviewing bids from tech vendors to build a nationwide optical DWDM network, which means that the cash-flush web giant could soon have a communications network that few can rival. The vendors who have seen Google’s fiber network RFP say that the nature of the network can really only mean that Google ultimately hopes to push massive amounts of voice, video and data close to the end user. The perennial problem is that close is not enough — to reach the end user, Google has to have access to the last mile. WiFi would be the answer.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Timothy Karr responds -- Oct 19, 05

Thanks for writing Gregg. I will take you up on that beer. Seriously.

I am disturbed by the number of people who have misread my post as an attack on the troops. I'm more concerned, however, that the Pentagon and the White House are using you and your fellow soldiers as bit players in a deceptive political scheme.

The Thursday event came across very poorly in mainstream media -- as though it were a desperate White House bid to reverse the president's decline in public opinion polls. I have watched the raw feed several times and wasn't the least bit convinced.

It's clear that the intent of the White House was to have troops spin the war for political gain. I base my assumptions upon a preponderance of evidence (laid out in this and other posts on MediaCitizen) and on considerable expertise in government propaganda techniques (related to my work at and collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy).

This White House is fearful of dissenting views. Their control extends well beyond "frank" conversations with the troops to "town hall" meetings and press events in the US, where Bush’s handlers pre-screen all participants based upon their loyalty to the president.

While your words may have been heartfelt, it's clear that you were selected to deliver them because of your previous comments in media -- particularly those reported by Chattanooga Times-Free Press correspondent Edward Lee Pitts.

I'm not questioning your sincerity as much as I question the ways the White House uses soldiers as fodder to accomplish a partisan end.

If you believe in Bush's cause, then you might not have a problem playing a part in this deception. But what occurred on Thursday, was in no way an honest and balanced assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. They orchestrated this event to pull the wool over the eyes of the media – and by extension the American public.

It was a staged event. The White House needed only to present it for what it was. I can excuse them for dopey PR. I can't excuse them for trying, once again, to fool Americans about this war.

There are many who don't share your optimism about our prospects for a peaceful handover and exit from Iraq. Some are soldiers who, like you, are stationed in country. I have read their letters, blogs and listened to some of their speeches.

If Bush wanted to have a frank and honest discussion with the troops, why not include more diverse perspectives. Instead, the White House gave us an event that further highlighted this president's inability to consider any other view than his own.

I applaud the work that you are doing to ensure a peaceful future for that country.



P.S. -- fixed the 2003 reference. My Bad.

-- Read Lt Murphy's comments
-- Return to original post

First Lt Gregg Murphy -- Oct 19, 2005

Soldier Propagandist

I noticed a few inconsistencies with your page. I wonder how I was quoted praising Bush in 2003, when I didn't arrive in country (Iraq) or make any comments prior to December 2004.

Some other interesting factoids that your blog missed: I am a registered Democrat. I have voted that way for the past 12 years. Not until my recent deployment have my views started moving over to the right.

The reason I support Bush, is because Bush supports all of us over here. We are using the latest and greatest equipment, our families are better protected by a higher death benefits and health insurances, our pay is higher than ever, and the President fixes shortcomings that we tell him about – up armored tactical vehicles.

If you really look at my record you will find that I am a recent Bush convert. I've learned that hindsight is 20-20, at least in my political views. A wise man once said that "if you're not a liberal at age 20 you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by age 30 you have no brains.

I'm sorry that the improvements of the Iraqi Army and other Iraqi Security Forces is not as evident to you as they are to me. My unit has logged over 15,000 man hours this year training the Iraqi Army. Our police teams have logged over 6,000. They are getting better at their jobs, we've invested a lot to make that happen.

I'm sorry that I cannot agree with your assessment of the interview we had with Mr. Bush. Your view assumes too much. You have not given enough evidence to support your claims.

There were 10 American soldiers present to know better. More importantly, there are millions of Americans who hear your opinions yet remain steadfast in their support of the President.

I'm really disapointed that assumptions have been made by you and others, which you have no possible way of verifying without speaking to any one of us.

Poor journalism works the same way, it doesn't seek the truth by knowing all sides of a situation. You have your opinion, and I have mine. That's one of the things that kes America great. If you're ever in Chattanooga, look me up. I'll buy you a beer at Big River and tell you my side of the story.

Respectfully, G.M.

-- Read Tim Karr's response

-- Return to original post