Thursday, March 24, 2005


By William Fisher

Despite a rising chorus of criticism from journalists and media critics, the Bush Administration shows no sign of abandoning its distribution of taxpayer-funded ‘news’ to U.S. newspapers, radio and television stations.

Free press advocates are up in arms about what they see as the covert dissemination of propaganda by government agencies. For example:

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit, Armstrong Williams, $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and through his newspaper column and to urge other black journalists to do the same. Two other journalists, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, have also been accused of receiving money to endorse Bush administration programs.

Since 2001, the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service has fielded 40 reporters, producers and public affairs specialists to create ‘good military news’ to be beamed to home audiences via local news stations. The service's "good news" segments have reportedly reached 41 million Americans via local newscasts, in most cases, without the station acknowledging their source.

More than 20 different federal agencies used taxpayer funds to produce television news segments promoting Bush administration policies. These "video news releases," or VNRs, were broadcast on hundreds of local news programs without disclosing their source.

And the Pentagon will soon have its own TV outlet. The Pentagon Channel will be available to Americans via every satellite and cable operator. The Free Press organization says “This is just one piece in the array of Pentagon propaganda designed to infiltrate the U.S. news system.”

Regarding the VNRs, President Bush said the government's practice of sending ‘packaged news stories’ to local television stations was legal and he has no plans to cease it.

His defense of the packages, which are designed to look like television news segments, came after the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog agency, called them a form of covert propaganda.

But the Bush Administration said, “Executive Branch agencies are not bound by GAO's legal advice” but should be guided by the views of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), part of the Executive Branch.

The GAO said that publications that are "misleading as to their origin and reasonably constitute 'propaganda' within the common understanding of that term" qualify as forbidden "covert propaganda." GAO’s definition of propaganda included “Covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties."

Last week, two influential media advocacy groups, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging Chairman Kevin J. Martin to investigate broadcasters who distribute government-sponsored news reports without identifying their source.

Nearly 40,000 concerned citizens have already signed a petition circulated by the two groups last week calling on the FCC, Congress and local broadcasters to "stop fake news", the organizations reported.

Free Press is a nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in media policy and promote more public-interest-oriented media. The Center for Media and Democracy publishes PR Watch, a newsletter that investigates the public relations industry and other professional propagandists.

According to Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, the petition calls on the FCC to “take quick action to investigate and eradicate news fraud and enforce the existing laws against payola. Congress must enact new laws that will stop government-funded fake news from airing without a disclaimer."

Other media critics were equally vocal.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the American Federation of Scientists, said, “The Administration practice of clandestine support for commentators and video press releases reinforces the nagging suspicion that much of what passes for news nowadays is actually bought and paid for in order to advance a particular agenda. Paying journalists to write positive stories is part of a pattern of secrecy and manipulating the public that undermines our safety and our democracy.”

Rick Blum of, another pro-transparency advocacy group, charged that “The public expects journalists are credible and independent, free of government money and conflicts of interest.” He cautioned, “Government actions should stand the scrutiny of an enterprising, independent press. Using tax dollars to literally write the news about government programs, new drug approvals, consumer protection programs, and security efforts robs taxpayers of an effective watch on how their tax dollars are spent.”

Norman Soloman, a syndicated columnist on media and politics and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, said, “The ‘video news releases’ put out by the U.S. government are pernicious because the TV broadcasts often do not tell the viewers that the government is funding and controlling those supposed ‘news’ reports.”

And Martin Kaplan, head of the Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, scolded, “It's bad enough that the Bush Administration is disseminating domestic propaganda. But the consequence of their injecting fake news into the media mainstream may be even worse than poisoning public debate on specific issues. It undermines the legitimacy of all news. It corrodes the ability of real journalism to do its job”.

The federal government's practice of sending "packaged news" to media outlets began under the Clinton Administration. President Bush has not only continued the practice, he has doubled the amount of federal tax dollars that are used for this purpose, spending $254 million in his first term.

Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy are also working with local groups to establish "citizen agreements" with local stations, under which broadcasters pledge to clearly identify or label pre-packaged reports produced the government.

Soon after the Armstrong Williams scandal broke, Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to 22 federal agencies. She is seeking evidence of similar arrangements between the executive branch, PR firms and pundits.

FOIA was signed into law by President Johnson in 1966 to increase public access to federal government records.

Since President Bush entered office, the report says, there has been a more than 75% increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year. There has been a corresponding explosion in the number of requests for information under FOIA.

"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," says Steven Aftergood.


By William Fisher

America’s acute shortage of Arabic speakers is in danger of crippling the nation’s efforts to counter terrorist threats, communicate with prisoners, and build bridges to the Muslim world.

The numbers of Arabic language students in U.S. universities has skyrocketed since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. But it still ranks behind classical Greek, Latin and even American Sign Language.

The shortage has spurred an aggressive campaign of recruiting – including generous sign-on bonuses -- by all U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the State Department (DOS), the Defense Department (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The CIA has taken out ads in local newspapers that feature a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the words: "For over 100 years, Arab Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever." The agency is offering bonuses of up to $25,000 for new hires who are fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages.

And last year’s intelligence reorganization law authorized the agency to study so-called ‘heritage communities’ such as metropolitan Detroit’s Arab populations with foreign language abilities. It also earmarked money for a pilot program to recruit foreign-language speakers into a civilian linguist reserve corps.

All U.S intelligence services report substantial increases in employment applications. But the ratio of applications to job offers remains low. One reason is the high standards set by these agencies. Another is the unwillingness of many Arab and Muslim-Americans to apply to agencies they see as having contributed to creating an ‘Islamophobic’ environment. Still another is the security clearance process, which can take up to a year or longer.

One result of the shortage is that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) are awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence in Arabic. Nor are there enough interpreters to handle detainees in Iraq.

The FBI says that since Sept. 11, the agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic, Farsi, and other tongues. But it points out that "out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two." The FBI now has more than 1,200 linguists, an increase of 50 percent since September 11th.

The shortage is having no less an effect on U.S. efforts in public diplomacy.

A Pentagon advisory panel known as the Defense Science Board reported recently, "The United States today is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam."

And the bipartisan U. S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy appointed by President Bush concluded late last year that the American campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was “uncoordinated and underfunded, and risks sending contradictory messages about U.S. intentions.” It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between U.S. and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant" security measures and ''excessive" visa fees.

Adam Clayton Powell III, Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, told IPS, “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.”

The language situation appears to be improving, but for a number of reasons it can only improve slowly. One of them is that, for Americans, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world.

For example, Arabic has its own alphabet and is written from right to left. Written Arabic differs from the many dialects spoken on the streets of Arab countries, and people from different Arab countries often have a hard time understanding one another. To master Arabic takes significantly more time than Romance languages such as Spanish or French, which are more closely related to English.

The U.S. State Department rates Arabic, along with Chinese and Korean, as a "superhard" language, a designation formalized late last year.

Colleges in the United States report rising demand from Americans to study Arabic, and are attempting to beef up their curricula to accommodate the surge. More schools are adding programs and hunting for teachers, but that is a challenge because many of the U.S. professors who specialize in Arabic and fields related to the Arab world are at or nearing retirement age.

Nonetheless, "Today we have more teachers of Arabic than we had students 10 years ago," says Michael Lemmon, dean of the U.S. State Department's School of Language Studies.

But the 10,584 students who were studying Arabic in 2002 are still a tiny group compared with those studying Spanish, Italian, French and other languages.

Another problem with recruiting Arabic speakers is that many of the students who graduate with proficiency in the language choose not to teach it. And working for the U.S. government is by no means the sole motivation for many students of Arabic.

Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a fluent Arabic speaker, told IPS, “Not everyone studying Arabic is thrilled with U.S. policies in the Middle East. Many students are critical of certain U.S. policies toward the Middle East, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added. “If the Feds want more Americans to study Arabic, they should give money for undergraduate scholarships. “

Cole says government funding for the study of Arabic by graduate students “has fallen dramatically since 1980. The Reagan administration zero-budgeted the program every year in the 1980s, but Congress put the money back. But the program has not kept up with inflation. In 1984 the University of Michigan was giving out nearly 20 awards to grads every year. I don't think they can support more than three or four graduate students with the current Federal grant. It is pitiful.”

The acute shortage of Arabic speakers needs to be viewed not only as a critical piece of the counter-terrorism agenda, but also as an absolutely indispensable component of America’s public diplomacy effort. President Bush has nominated one of his closest advisors, Karen Hughes, to lead those efforts at the State Department. But, to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark, “You go to war with the army you’ve got, not necessarily the army you want.”

How Karen Hughes – or any of the U.S. intelligence and security agencies – can successfully fight their wars with ‘the army they’ve got’ remains a mystery. And remains to be seen.


By William Fisher

President Bush has taken a baby step toward fulfilling his pledge to spread democracy in the Middle East by giving grants totaling $1 million to six civil society organizations in Egypt, including perhaps the most controversial in the country – the organization whose leader spent a year behind bars on trumped-up charges.

The grants, which went totally unnoticed in the U.S. mainstream press, were announced in Cairo by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). While the agency has provided grants and training to other non-governmental organizations over the past five years, most of the recipients were trade-related or community support groups.

This is the first time USAID funding has gone directly to Egyptian organizations dedicated to political and electoral reform. The influential Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, called the grants “a bombshell”.

An international development expert familiar with USAID’s programs in Egypt siad,“This is the first time that USAID has directly supported Egyptian organizations with an explicit democracy focus. Not only has USAID Egypt not supported Egyptian democracy organizations -- it's never supported the main American ones either.” He spoke on condition of anonymity,

The grants come on the heels of the announcement by Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, that he would alter the nation’s constitution to permit multiple candidates to run in the forthcoming presidential election. The 76-year-old Mubarak has been reelected by plebiscite for the past 24 years as the only candidate on the ballot.

They also appear to be in sharp contrast to recent statements from the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament. Speaker Fathi Sorour, who is among key legislators working on the constitutional amendment, said that the People's Assembly plans to criminalize political parties and NGOs receiving foreign funding to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections or fund election campaigns.

The founder of one of the recipient organizations, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, spent more than a year in prison before being exonerated in 2003 on charges related to election monitoring activities. The incident sparked a crisis in Egyptian-U.S. relations, with Washington withholding $350 million in assistance. Dr. Ibrahim was accused of accepting a grant from the European Union without permission and misusing the funds. He was acquitted after two high profile trials.

The grants were announced at a press conference by U.S. Ambassador David Welch, who has been nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State. He said they were offered in response to Egyptian ideas for democracy-building activities, which the six civil society NGOs had submitted to the US Embassy. He added that the Egyptian government had agreed to the grants.

In addition to the Ibn Khaldun Center, other NGOs receiving grants include the United Group, the Egyptian Association for Developing and Disseminating Legal Awareness, the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy, the New Horizons Association for Social Development, and the Alliance for Arab Women.

Projects awarded USAID funding are "Promoting Transparent Elections in 2005 and Beyond;" (The United Group); "Promoting Democracy within Egyptian Political Parties;" (The Egyptian Association for Developing and Disseminating Legal Awareness); "Future Leaders Workshops and Community Meetings;" (The Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy); "Empowering Youth in Old Cairo;" (The New Horizon Association for Social Development); "Political and Electoral Rights Program;" (The Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies); and "Combating Terrorism through Community Participation" (The Alliance for Arab Women).

Welch said the new grants were geared towards achieving what President George W. Bush said about Egypt being "the great and proud nation... which showed the way towards peace in the Middle East... now show[ing] the way towards democracy," according to Al Ahram.

The project planned by the Ibn Khaldun Centre is similar to the activity that led to Ibrahim's jailing in 2000. Last December, Ibrahim announced that his Centre planned to monitor parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, whatever the legal cost. He has also said he plans to run against President Mubarak.

Welch reportedly told Al-Ahram the U.S. decision to provide grants to Egyptian NGOs had “absolutely no link” to the arrest of Ayman Nour, head of the political party, “Tomorrow”. However, Welch said the U.S. has strong concerns about the opposition leader's arrest, which "we have expressed to the government.”

Nour, a member of the People’s Assembly, was jailed by Security Service police in late January on suspicion of forging signatures on the petitions he presented to the government in order to register his political party. He was released on bail on March 14 and then led a parade through downtown Cairo.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice cancelled a scheduled visit to Egypt after Nour’s arrest, but U.S. authorities have dismissed the idea that the cancellation of Rice’s visit to Cairo was a protest against Nour's arrest.

Twenty human rights NGOs told Reuters earlier this month that they would be monitoring Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

The NGO grants are part of a systematic American effort to implement the U.S. president's Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). "The events of 11 September led to more active US involvement in Egypt and the region," according to the USAID/Egypt Strategic Plan Update for Fiscal Years 2000/2009, which required adjusting the focus of USAID/Egypt on “vital sectors such as education, NGOs, democracy and governance”.

USAID funds will be directed to providing citizens with more avenues to participate in political life via improving the legal environment governing political activities, and that electoral system assistance would go towards improving voter registration, training of candidates, and other interventions deemed necessary for this purpose. USAID programs will also target reform-minded leaders, promote knowledge of democratic practices such as model parliaments, and facilitate joint democracy programs between American and Egyptian universities.

Since early 2000, USAID/Egypt has funded an NGO Service Center to strengthen the capacities of Egyptian NGOs. Most of the organizations signing up for training are community development and business support groups.

The impact of the constitutional amendment permitting multiple candidates to run for president remains unclear, as the People’s Assembly works to craft its language. Political parties require permission from the Assembly in order to enter candidates, and the Assembly is heavily dominated by Mubarak’s own political party. Mubarak has not yet announced whether he will stand for another term as president. He took office in 1981 after Anwar Sadat's assassination and is Egypt’s longest-serving head of state.