Monday, March 14, 2005


By William Fisher

An organization of September 11 families is lobbying U.S. senators to defeat the REAL ID bill.

“September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows” charges that the proposed legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last week, “will make our highways more dangerous, undermine our security, impose guilt by association, and prevent some people fleeing persecution from obtaining refuge”.

Colleen Kelly, a spokesperson for the group, told IPS, “As an organization composed of family members of those killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks, we are vigilant in promoting measures that enhance our security. We also have a special responsibility to point out measures that use our concern about this nation’s safety and security to promote an entirely different agenda. Sadly, that is the case” with the REAL ID Act.”

The proposed legislation, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, lists factors relevant to credibility determinations in asylum cases; authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to waive environmental laws to construct barriers and roads at the U.S.-Mexican border; expands grounds of inadmissibility and deportability due to terrorist or terrorist-related activity; modifies the provision defining "engage in terrorist activity" to eliminate the possibility of discretionary waivers of inadmissibility for material support of organizations or individuals that have engaged in terrorist activity; expands the definition of a "terrorist organization"; prohibits Federal agencies from accepting State issued driver's licenses or identification cards unless such documents are determined by the DHS Secretary to meet minimum security requirements; requires States, as a condition of receiving financial assistance, to participate in the interstate compact regarding the sharing of driver's license data; and authorizes the Secretary to make grants to States to assist them in conforming to the document standards of the act.

Ms. Kelly asserts that the bill “will not make us safer” and will “prevent people fleeing persecution from obtaining relief: Some asylum seekers are actually fleeing from the very countries the U. S. government has labeled as supportive of terrorist activity. Asylum applicants already undergo more extensive security checks than any other foreign nationals who come to this country. Terrorists and others who pose a danger to our security are already ineligible for asylum.”

The group also claims that the legislation would “Make our highways more dangerous and undermine our security”. The intelligence reform bill that Congress passed last year already addresses the concerns raised by the 9/11 Commission regarding driver's licenses and identity documents. However, Mr. Sensenbrenner's proposal to set federal eligibility requirements for driver's licenses, including restrictions on immigrants' access to licenses, would undermine, not enhance, national security by pushing people deeper into the shadows and forcing many more to drive without a license in order to earn a living. Such a result would severely undermine the law enforcement utility of Department of Motor Vehicles databases by limiting, rather than expanding, government data about individuals in this country.”

The bill would also” impose guilt by association by permitting deportation of non-citizens who are members of or support any political organization that has used violence, even if the organization has not been designated as a "foreign terrorist organization," is misguided. This proposal to impose guilt by association leaves out what we believe to be a basic component of wrongdoing – intent. With its retroactive application, it could be used to deport long-term, lawful residents, even if the association rendering them deportable occurred decades earlier and was legal at the time.”

The group says Congress should be “working on comprehensively reforming our immigration system so that immigration is legal, safe, orderly, and reflective of the needs of American families, businesses, and national security.”

Douglas G. Rivlin, Director of Communication for the National Immigration Forum (NIF), an advocacy group, told IPS, “While many think you can’t have comprehensive immigration reform until you have border security, that is precisely backwards. You can’t have border security until our immigration laws are reformed so that they we make legality the prevailing norm and can concentrate scarce enforcement resources on real threats like terrorism and criminals. Unilateral, heavy-handed, enforcement-only, border-centric strategies are demonstrably ineffective. What we need is reform that puts the emphasis on legal immigration channels and reflects the reality of our economic and security needs.”

Founded in 2002, Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization of “family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism”.

As the REAL ID bill makes its way to the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it will conduct an audit of a number of the detention facilities used to house suspected illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. The facilities became the subject of controversy when, following 9/11, large numbers of immigrants and visitors to the U.S. were rounded up and arrested. Most were Arabs and other Muslims. Many complained of being held for long periods of time in inhumane conditions without charges or access to legal counsel. Hundreds were deported.

A DHS flyer announces that its Inspector General (OIG) “is conducting a review of the treatment of aliens held on immigration charges at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities.” It urges detainees who feel they “have been physically or sexually abused or...conditions of confinement have been abusive” to contact them. “All contacts will be kept confidential, ” the OIG said.

The OIG is “assessing the treatment of detainees and conditions of confinement” at ten of the detention facilities. These facilities were formerly operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and incorporated into the DHS.

Mark Dow, author of “American Gulag: Inside America’s Secret Prisons”, and an authority on the INS/ICE detention facilities told IPS he had “mixed feelings” about the OIG investigation because he believes the government should not be operating any prison system for immigrants. However, he urged "NGO's to be sure to take control of this rather than become OIG messengers and then have to start the same old fight again to make sure complaints are handled seriously.” He said he hoped the OIG investigation would be “a springboard for establishing monitoring systems outside DHS altogether."


By William Fisher

The expected nomination of one of President Bush’s closest advisors to lead America’s public diplomacy efforts has been met with cautiously hopeful skepticism by some leaders in the U.S. foreign policy community.

Among them is Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an authority on the Middle East. Prof. Cole told IPS, ““You need someone who knows something serious about the Middle East publics and is willing to engage them on their terms. Ms. Hughes could be effective, but she needs to get good advice from non-toady Arabs and others. There is also the question of how much you can dress up the US support for Israeli occupation and annexation of Muslim lands or the US heavy-handedness in Iraq. PR without policy changes is most often not very effective.”

Another commentator, Adam Clayton Powell III, Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, told IPS, “Regardless of the merits of U.S. policies or the lack thereof, there is almost universal agreement that the U.S. has been woefully lacking in effectively stating its case. This is not a brief for propaganda, marketing or public relations: it is a simple recognition that the U.S. has not stated its policy or policy objectives clearly or in ways that audiences in most of the world can understand.”

He added, “There are only a half dozen or so U.S. spokesmen who have a sufficient grasp of the Arabic language to appear on radio or television in that part of the world. That means the U.S. is not even part of the dialogue there.
Anything Karen Hughes does to improve that can only advance U.S. national interests.”

Ms. Hughes, a close personal friend of the President who is credited with helping craft and deliver the messages that won him a second term, will be nominated next week to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She will also lead the President’s campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East.

Ms. Hughes, the former counselor to the president, left the White House in 2002 to move her family back to Texas. She is a former Texas television reporter with little experience in foreign affairs.

Ms. Hughes will need to be confirmed by the U.S Senate. Her new boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said during her confirmation hearings before the Senate that she regarded public diplomacy as a top priority. At a subsequent hearing, she requested $120 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative for reform, $40 million for the National Endowment for Democracy to support the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, $180 million for Muslim outreach through educational and cultural exchanges, and increases for a wide range of other public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives geared toward Muslim publics, particularly young people.

Ms. Hughes will be the third occupant of the position at the State Department, which has been vacant since last summer. Three years ago, the president recruited advertising executive Charlotte Beers to publicize US interests. She resigned eighteen months later, replaced by Margaret Tutwiler, a State Department veteran who handled public relations for former Secretary of State James Baker during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Ms.Tutwiler also resigned.

In writing about Ms. Hughes’s appointment, The New York Times quoted unnamed State Department officials as saying, “the problem is American policy, not inadequate public relations, and that no amount of marketing will change minds in the Muslim world about the war in Iraq or American support of Israel.”

The effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, especially in the Middle East, has also been seriously questioned by a number of commissions, foundations and individual experts.

Late last year, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush concluded that the American campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was “uncoordinated and underfunded, and risk sending contradictory messages about US intentions.”

The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was critical of the administration and Congress for not adequately funding the communications aspects of the war on terrorism. It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between US and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant" security measures and ''excessive" visa fees. The report also offered a mixed critique of public relations efforts to promote the United States abroad.

Another group, headed by Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and now director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, reported, "Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels. What is required is not merely tactical adaptation but strategic and radical transformation."

The Brookings Institution, a highly respected Washington-based think-tank, also found U.S. communications efforts “not only under-resourced, but also lacking an effective strategic direction, particularly towards the Islamic world.”

The Commission established to investigate the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks also found the U.S. unaware of the need to conduct a ‘war of ideas’ alongside the ‘war on terror’.

The Commission said that, beyond defeating al-Qaida, the U.S. ”must defeat a radical strain of Islamist ideology that celebrates death and destruction.” The chairman of the Commission, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, testified to Congress that U.S. public diplomacy required a complete overhaul.

He said, “As much as we worry about [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaida, and we do worry about them, we should worry far more about the attitudes of tens of millions of young Arabs and hundreds of millions of young Muslims."

Mr. Kean noted that popular opinion of the United States has fallen sharply in the Muslim world, even in nations with governments that maintain close relations with Washington.

But the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, said that no amount of U.S. public diplomacy can succeed if America's actions around the world are unpopular.

"Our public diplomacy fails because it is derived from a failed foreign policy," he said. "Recent polls show that Arab respondents do understand and do respect American values. But they do not see American policy reflecting those values. They saw the horrible pictures of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. They read about the treatment of detained prisoners at Guantanamo Bay [Cuba]. So why are we surprised that there are harsh feeling towards the United States?"

U.S. Public Diplomacy currently has a number of components. Broadcasting activities include radio and television broadcasts to Cuba, through Radio Marti and TV Marti, radio broadcasts to the Middle East via Radio Sawa, television broadcasts to the Middle East through its Arabic satellite channel, Al Hurra, and broadcasts to Iran in Persian. Student and cultural exchanges are also important parts of the effort, though the numbers of foreign students attending U.S. universities has declined sharply because of security concerns that have resulted in visa delays and denials. Prospective students from the Middle East and South Asia have said they are also concerned about American discrimination against Arabs and other Muslims.

Al Hurra, the Department’s Arabic-language TV voice in the Middle East, has attracted a relatively small audience when compared with the more popular satellite channels, Al Jezeera and Al Arabia. Radio Sawa is widely listened to by young people in the Middle East, reportedly because of its pop music content.

The State Department’s broadcasting activities are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), established when the Voice of America was discontinued.

In a separate development, a bipartisan bill designed to boost U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad has been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill, which proclaims that the promotion of democracy, freedom, and fundamental rights is an essential element of U.S. foreign policy, seeks to strengthen the U.S. ability to promote democracy in a number of ways. It would establish a new office of Democracy Movements and Transitions at the U.S. Department of State and separate regional democracy hubs at several embassies abroad.

The bill would also create a democracy promotion advisory board to provide outside expertise to the government, authorize $250 million in increased funding for democracy promotion over two years, require an annual report on democracy to include action plans to promote democracy in nondemocratic countries, and provide training and incentives for State Department personnel in the promotion of democracy.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. In the House, it was introduced by Reps. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.


By William Fisher

In democracies throughout the world, ‘blogging’ – setting up personal websites, known as weblogs, able to receive comments from readers – has grown exponentially over the past few years.

In the United States, there are literally millions of ‘blogs’. Their growth has been accelerated by five main factors. First, the number of home computers has grown enormously. Some 61% of adults in the U.S. have Internet access at home and 71% have computers. Second, access to the online technology for creating a blog has become easier and simpler. Third, the U.S. has a relatively high literacy rate. Fourth, for the past decade – but particularly after the historic and controversial presidential election of 2000 –Americans have become increasingly cynical about reporting by newspapers, radio, and broadcast, cable and satellite television controlled by giant corporations. Finally, America has become a deeply divided nation politically and socially. Citizens with widely divergent points of view have found blogging a way to express their ideas and join or create communities of like-minded bloggers.

When satellite television arrived, it was hailed by journalism watchers as the ‘the new media’. But, predictably, its novelty was short-lived. Now, there are indications that, over the next decade, the Internet generally, and blogging in particular, may become the ‘new new media’ – America’s primary source of news.

However, it’s not there yet – a recent survey Gallup for CNN showed that only one in four Americans are either very familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs. So the jury is still out on whether virtual reality will replace Gutenberg. However, trends point in that direction.

Not yet in the Greater Middle East, though there are many parallels. For example, blogging technology is available to anyone with access to the Internet, and content can easily be created in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. While home computer ownership is still embryonic, there is pretty solid anecdotal evidence of deep suspicion of government-owned ‘mainstream media’ that spurred growth in the ‘blogosphere’ elsewhere.

But there is at least one critical difference. In most of the countries in the Greater Middle East, using a personal weblog to express political dissent can land you in jail as easily as taking part in an unauthorized political protest in the public square.

Iran is one of the worst offenders. Recently, an Iranian weblogger was jailed for 14 years for ‘spying and aiding foreign counter-revolutionaries’ after using his blog to criticize the arrest of other online journalists.

Despite the risks, an estimated 75,000 Iranians among its five million Internet users maintain online ‘blogs’. Especially among middle class youth, they have become an important way for Iranians to express dissatisfaction.

As in Iran, most countries of the region impose varying degrees of restriction on weblogs.

Saudi Arabia, where authorities block some 400,000 websites, is among the most restrictive. It is unclear how many blogsites there are in the Kingdom, but those that are accessible focus largely on political dissent.

Typical is a site called “The Religious Policeman”. One recent posting said,
“What Reforms? There aren't any Reforms! The government promised to set up a higher commission on women’s affairs, guaranteed women participation in the recent National Dialogue Forum….and in the National Human Rights Commission…the National Dialogue Forum… agreed to change nothing, the ‘team photo’ had no women in it, anyone with any sense left in tears.”

In Iraq today, there are hundreds of blogsites, most run by Iraqis, some by American and other coalition soldiers. They are communist, monarchist, Kurdish, Assyrian, Islamist, Shiite, Sunni, nationalist and secularist. Their political positions range from full support for the U.S. invasion and occupation to rabid calls for jihad against the Americans.

For example, on the one-year commemoration of the start of the Iraq war, a 24-year-old woman computer programmer wrote in her "Baghdad Burning" blog, "Occupation Day, April 9, 2003: The day we sensed that the struggle in Baghdad was over and the fear of war was nothing compared to the new fear we were currently facing. It was the day I saw my first American tank roll grotesquely down the streets of Baghdad - through a residential neighborhood. And that was April 9 for me and millions of others...and the current Governing Council want us to remember April 9 fondly and hail it our 'National Day' ... a day of victory ... but whose victory?"

Mona El Tahawy, a columnist at the daily Asharq Al Awsat, writes that bloggers in Iran and Iraq “have inspired others in the Arab world…Despite working in an elite medium, requiring a computer and literacy”, she said, “bloggers are the voice of the true Arab street, especially the young.”

But free expression comes at a price.

In Egypt, authorities have tightened their control of the country’s 600,000 web users. The webmaster of the English-language Al Ahram Weekly was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a sexually-explicit poem, and a 19-year-old student was sentenced to a month in jail for "putting out false information" after reporting a serial killer on the loose in Cairo.

In Syria, one blogger asked others to sign an online petition addressed to “The White House” and “The Elysées” (palace). “With the killing of Hariri in Lebanon” it said, “Syrian Ba'athists are out of control. Who's next? Syria is inciting civil war in Lebanon.”

Another Syrian, calling himself “Kafka”, wrote that President Assad’s speech “made the Syrian people forget that (he) “never cared to give a damn about us since he came to power….”

In Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali has been determined to stamp out all cyber-dissidence. Among many others, a prominent lawyer was arrested for posting an article online. In Bahrain, two online forum moderators were arrested. Nonetheless, a Bahraini blogsite, called “Sabbah's Blog” was busy organizing a “Middle East Bloggers Meetup”. Dozens of enthusiastic comments were posted by readers.

Even in Afghanistan, poorest of the poor, blogging is beginning to catch on. One Afghan blog reports, “During the Taliban we didn’t have the Internet, but now there are about 25 net cafes in Kabul, and also some in Herat, Kandahar, and Balkh provinces. People are really interested to use the Internet but it’s too expensive…only rich people can afford it.”

If political dissent via blogging has not yet risen to the level of “new, new media” in the western democracies, it is at least not yet constrained by government regulation (though Congress and the Justice Department have floated various proposals to do just that). In fact, there may be a bizarre inverse relationship between the suppression of free expression and the proliferation of blogs. In the U.S., the number of blogs has increased significantly during the Bush Administration, when millions of Americans feel passionately that their civil liberties are being eroded by the ‘war on terror’. That outcry has generated equally passionate response from bloggers on the right. Maybe the lesson for heads of state in the Middle East is: Increase freedom of speech and reduce the challenge and expense of having to deal with this cyber uproar.