Saturday, November 27, 2004


By William Fisher

To combat the Bush Administration’s penchant for secrecy, Americans interested in transparency in government have been forced to find new sources for information they once read in their daily newspapers. But thanks to a few dedicated individuals and not-for-profit organizations -- and the Internet -- such information is easier to come by than ever before.

Steven Aftergood, who conducts one of the most widely used ‘open government’ programs, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) “Project on Government Secrecy”, says:“The Bush Administration has taken secrecy to a new level. They have greatly increased the numbers and types of classified documents. They have made it far more difficult and time-consuming to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act. And they have imposed ‘gag rules’ on an ever-widening group of government employees.”

As a result, says Aftergood, the “variety of Internet-based sources has increased substantially during the Bush Administration”. And, says Aftergood, “Freedom of Information Act requests are on the rise, passing three million for the first time last year. What is behind all of these phenomena is a growing public appetite for official records. That is a healthy impulse that in a democracy should be respected and cultivated, not scorned.”

“Open Government’ websites provide a wide variety of information.

For example, at the website of George Washington University’s “National Security Archive” (, you can read CIA manuals from the 1960s and the 1980s specifying approved methods of prisoner abuse. Or one of the last major pieces of the puzzle explaining American and British roles in the August 1953 coup against Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq. Or, just posted, the telephone conversations of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which he berates high-level subordinates for their efforts in 1976 to restrain human rights abuses by military dictators in Chile and Argentina.

“” is a new coalition of 33 organizations dedicated to combating unwarranted government secrecy and promoting freedom of information. ( Among recent postings: An evaluation by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on “the likely impact of Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales on Press Freedoms and the Public's Right to Know." The Reporters Committee staff researched Mr. Gonzales' performance as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court from January 1999 to December 2000 and as White House counsel since January 2001.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) “Project on Government Secrecy” ( publishes “Secrecy News”. A recent disclosure: “Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know.” As an example, the website reports the effort of a former conservative member of Congress to board a commercial airplane. “She was pulled aside by airline personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons or unauthorized materials. She requested a copy of the regulation authorizing such pat-downs, and was told that she couldn’t see it.” Why? "Because we don't have to," said an official of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). "That is called 'sensitive security information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he said. "She refused to go through additional screening [without seeing the regulation], and was not allowed to fly.”

“” sponsored by the highly respected “Public Citizen” organization, chronicles and documents the administration's obsession with secrecy, as well as steps being taken to fight it. The website provides a variety of links to up-to-date summaries of each of the administration's major secrecy initiatives, with additional links from those summaries to key documents, such as executive orders, congressional materials, judicial decisions, and legal briefs filed by both sides in the court battles raging over these issues.

A new “Coalition of Journalists for Open Government” has been established "to provide timely information on freedom of information issues and on what journalism organizations are doing to foster greater transparency in government." ( The Coalition’s website reports that “the Department of Homeland Security is requiring all of its 180,000 employees and others outside the federal government to sign binding non-disclosure agreements covering unclassified information. Breaking the agreement could mean loss of job, stiff fines and imprisonment.”

Like many of the ‘open government’ websites, the Coalition sends out a free email newsletter.

Some of the source sites charge for documents. One such is “”, for those interested in defense policy. It provides primary source documents gathered by a team of Pentagon reporters, and issues a free weekly publication, “The Insider”, to alert readers to new documents (

The FAS government secrecy project recently provided a sampling of other sources. A few examples: The “Society of Environmental Journalists” publishes a “Watchdog TipSheet” on First Amendment issues of interest to environmental journalists. “” provides “bottomless resources on all aspects of national security policy, and then some.” “The Resource Shelf” provides news on all aspects of government information policy and links to valuable source documents. “The Memory Hole” collects and publishes elusive records and documents that have been withdrawn from the public domain. “Cryptome” offers a rich collection of new official and unofficial documents on security policy.

“Behind the Homefront” offers "a daily chronicle of news in homeland security and military operations affecting newsgathering, access to information and the public's right to know." The “Project on Government Oversight” performs independent investigations to promote openness and government accountability.

The “Electronic Privacy Information Center” offers declassified documents and insights on cryptography policy and privacy. The “Center for Democracy and Technology” addresses access to government information along with its main focus on civil liberties. “” offers news and resources for freedom of information advocates around the world. “Access Reports” provides news and expert analysis on freedom of information policy. The Nautilus Institute’s “Global Disclosure Project” specializes in nuclear weapons policy and strategy.

Some websites are maintained by individuals, usually associated with universities. For example, the “Guide to Declassified Documents and Archival Materials for U.S. Foreign Policy and World Politics” is the work of David N. Gibbs of the University of Arizona. It provides a road map to declassified foreign policy records. “” provides resources on national and foreign freedom of information law from Prof. Alasdair Roberts of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Has the proliferation of ‘Open Government’ websites had an impact on Bush Administration policies? Says Aftergood: “Almost all of the recent statistical trends are negative, i.e. in the direction of greater secrecy. So it would probably be an exaggeration to say this work on challenging government secrecy has had much of an impact on the government during the current Administration. Between a secretive Administration and a compliant Congress, the environment for open government advocacy is simply not very hospitable. The real value of the work lies in the fact that it represents the creation of alternate channels for public access to government information. These efforts to provide new means of access are not exactly the solution to government secrecy, but they are a constructive response that leaves the public less vulnerable to official secrecy than it otherwise would be.”

Most other observers interested in open government agree that there is likely to be little change in the Bush Administration’s attitude toward fuller disclosure and predict that the number of alternative sources will continue to grow.

But even the continuing proliferation of new sources of information will not correct some of the problems arising from excessive government secrecy. For example, Timothy H. Edgar, Legislative Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, says: "Basic information that is crucial to oversight of the government's new spy powers under the Patriot Act -- such as how it is using new powers to obtain personal records -- has been cloaked in secrecy, making it impossible to judge the effectiveness of these powers or their impact on civil liberties."


By William Fisher

Here we have a website that even Howard Deaniacs would love – complete with candidates’ bios, interactive forums, online polls, message boards, and all the other paraphernalia needed to help voters participate in upcoming municipal elections. There’s only one catch: the site is for men only; women can’t vote or run for office.

Here we have an ophthalmologist named “Arab Woman of the Year” and the first woman pilot to be hired for the private fleet of a billionaire prince, and an innovative new stem cell technology that could potentially benefit millions of patients, thanks to a company founded by a woman doctor and her husband. But the ophthalmologist is forbidden from driving a car to the award ceremony, or the pilot to the airport – because women are barred from driving. And the stem cell research company is located in India.

Here we have a country where women are, however, not sleeping. They pushed hard for voting rights and candidacy – and lost. But at least one woman succeeded: She started an Internet magazine devoted to getting other women to participate in jihad.

Here we have a government promising reform, approving the first independent human rights organization in the country’s history, and organizing one of its own, and at the same time passing a law prohibiting public employees from talking to the news media, going on talk shows or making speeches criticizing government policies or programs.

Here we have a country whose government authorized the creation of a journalists’ association, and then fired a leading journalist who had been critical of the government.

Here we have a country that has imprisoned an American citizen for over a year without charge or access to legal counsel, reportedly at the request of the US, and which routinely rounds up human rights activists and ships them off to jail.

Here we have a country that gave us Osama Bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers, a country whose billionaires have funneled millions to people who want to kill us, a country famous for its fanatical fundamentalist preachers, but now a country the United States hails as one of its staunchest allies in the ‘war on terror’.

No, this is not Neverland. It’s Saudi Arabia, a country caught between the dark ages and the twenty-first century. And ambivalent about which it likes best.
There is a one-word answer to ‘Why should we care?’ Oil. We have to care because without Saudi oil, the economies of the world would rapidly grind to a halt.

Many who claim to be Saudi ‘experts’ claim that ‘reform’ is happening in the Kingdom. They describe it as a ‘quiet revolution’. Perhaps. But the revolution is so quiet that none of the rest of us can hear a peep. And if there is change at all, its pace is beyond glacial.

A year ago, Saudi Arabia launched a new national advertising campaign in most of the top 25 U.S. media markets. Saudi officials said the ads were "designed to help broaden American perceptions of the country and demonstrate the Kingdom's steadfast commitment to fighting the War on Terrorism." The Saudi ambassador to the US was quoted as saying: "Despite all of the attention we have received, few people know what Saudi Arabia looks like or appreciate how far we have come in the last thirty years. Currently, there are big changes going on in Saudi Arabia. And we want Americans to know about them."

But Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading advocacy group, said, “Without basic human rights reforms, Saudi Arabia's new media campaign in the United States will not change public opinion about the kingdom.”

The HRW statement declared, "Continuing restrictions on basic rights in Saudi Arabia are no secret. An expensive advertising and marketing blitz is no substitute for meaningful changes in how the government treats its citizens and its 5.5 million migrant workers.”

During a visit to Saudi Arabia in January 2003, senior Saudi government officials told an HRW delegation that reforms were on the way, including new procedures in the criminal justice system, restraints on 4,500 state-paid religious police, and the formation of an independent human rights organization. However, HRW said “Saudi officials did not indicate any plans to lift severe restrictions on the rights of women, guarantee religious freedom for Muslims and non-Muslims, or end punitive sanctions on perceived government critics, such as confiscation of passports and dismissal from jobs.”

The organization says that “to date, the pledged reforms have largely not materialized”, citing the example of a recent press crackdown on press freedom.

"Reforms on paper do not amount to much if the government's practices remain unchanged," HRW said.

HRW also expressed concern about the pace of legal reforms, including implementation of the kingdom's new criminal procedure code, which became law in May 2002. The code guarantees defendants the right to a lawyer during investigation and trial, and contains provisions to bring greater transparency to the criminal justice system. But HRW says, “It is unclear how the code is being implemented in practice. Of particular concern are thousands of men and women migrant workers who are currently imprisoned throughout the country, have little understanding of their rights in the justice system, and no effective access to legal assistance.”

The organization called on the Saudi government to “end harassment of journalists and writers, and guarantee freedom of expression; afford all residents of the kingdom the right to freedom of association without government control or interference; permit the establishment of independent women's rights organizations; allow domestic and international human rights monitoring of the criminal justice system, particularly cases of individuals who have been sentenced to death or are facing the death penalty or limb amputation; guarantee religious freedom to everyone in the kingdom, and remedy discrimination based on religious belief; afford greater protection to migrant workers by endorsing the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and implementing its provisions.”

When President Bush speaks of America ‘exporting democracy’ to the rest of the world, he surely cannot be thinking of Saudi Arabia. If he is, he is truly delusional. Because no one reading this page will live that long.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Four Times Falluja Equals?

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California Irvine and author of the forthcoming books Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948, He is also the editor with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. He last spent time in Iraq in the early spring of this year.

By Mark LeVine

As American forces penetrate ever deeper and more destructively into the city of Falluja, each of the major players in this violent drama is engaged in a complex, constantly shifting calculus involving ways of turning events to their advantage. Of the many possible outcomes to the battle of Falluja, the four which seem most plausible follow, starting with the one that might be viewed most positively by the Bush administration. In sum, they offer us a grim picture of how the window of success has closed on American strategists in Iraq. Even the "best" outcomes below (from the administration's point of view) have lost the trappings of freedom and democracy that helped justify the invasion nineteen months ago.

The Hama Solution: In 1982, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad put down a potential nationwide revolt of religious activists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood by killing upwards of 20,000 people in the city of Hama, essentially flattening its central districts in the process. In an Iraqi version of the "Hama solution," the Americans and their Iraqi allies would take Falluja relatively quickly -- at whatever cost to its essential infrastructure -- in the process killing the majority of the resistance fighters in the city along with uncounted civilians who were too poor, young, old or infirm to flee before the invasion. Falluja would then act as a terrifying example to other rebellious Iraqi cities. The end, however temporary, of Mutaqa al-Sadr's Shia insurgency in the early fall increased the likelihood of success for such a move, freeing up as it did American troops from Najaf in the south and from the Shi'i slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. At the same time, the many month-long threat of a massive attack on Falluja seems to have created fracture lines in the resistance between indigenous groups seeking political solutions that might avoid mass civilian casualties and smaller groups of foreign jihadists, unbound by local ties and determined to fight to the death.

On the other hand, all those months of saber rattling evidently allowed many local fighters and jihadist leaders to leave the city before the invasion began, a troublesome development for American strategists and the interim government of Iyad Allawi as they seek to pacify the larger Sunni Triangle in time for announced elections in January. In the last week, after all, insurgents reoccupied the city center of Ramadi, attacked fiercely in Samarra, fought it out in Baghdad neighborhoods, and left authority in Mosul tottering, while American troops were occupied with the battle of Falluja -- and these were just a few of the many indications that, no matter what happens in Falluja, the insurgency is anything but defeated.

Yet if enough resistance fighters are killed to reclaim Falluja and sap the force of the insurgency in other cities, American strategists can at least hope to be on their way to a limited pacification of Sunni Iraq. Sunni leaders might next be bought off or co-opted and enough followers, fighters, and civilians, killed elsewhere to quiet the country for the next several months. Iraq would then have its "successful" election, and the Bush Administration would breathe a huge sigh of relief. So would Prime Minister Allawi who, according to a senior Iraqi official with whom I've spoken in recent days, is still livid that the Americans bypassed him to negotiate an end to the siege of Najaf. (According to my source, the bandaged hand Allawi sported during his recent trip to New York came from "banging his hands on the wall" after leaning of a secret meeting between American Ambassador John Negroponte and Shiite rebel leaders.) In one fashion or another, in this scenario, "democracy" would mean an extension of the Allawi government via a limited and managed election.

The ongoing, seemingly ceaseless violence in the Palestinian Occupied Territories under Israeli occupation reminds us that pacifying an occupied population is an endless job. But if, as the Bush administration now hopes, the insurgency can simply be tamped down, when it resurfaces next spring it will be the problem of an elected Iraqi government. American troops, in the meanwhile, would largely be withdrawn to a dozen or more major bases lowering American casualties; yet they could be called back into action any time violence threatened to get out of hand. Iraq would then take its place beside Colombia, Israel, and Sri Lanka, to name only a few of the many countries plagued by ongoing but "manageable" political violence -- while the United States would remain astride the second largest oil reserves in the world. This is today the best option available to the Bush administration.

The Jenin Scenario: If Falluja is largely subdued but low-level fighting continues for weeks or months in its back streets, chaos and anarchy might increase across the country, forcing a curtailment or postponement of the January elections, and yet the overall situation might not spin completely out of American control. The Allawi government would remain more or less in power in Baghdad and American troops could continue to occupy the country indefinitely (under the argument that the United States can't leave Iraq in the midst of chaos). The insurgency would be slowly exhausted over a longer period of time, laying the groundwork for a post-independence system favorable to American interests.

Here, the example of the 2002 Israeli siege of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin might prove the model for the present Falluja campaign. It stirred up incredible anger, violence, and chaos in Palestinian society and outrage internationally, but when the dust settled -- as it usually does --Israel's strategic position was actually stronger than before.

Even if the dust doesn't settle quite as advantageously in Iraq, or settle at all, Bush Administration hawks could turn the ensuing low-level chaos to their immediate advantage by allowing it, or encouraging it to spread to Syria (near whose border the U.S. recently staged a bloody invasion of the Iraqi town of Tal Afar) or Iran (already in the sights of senior Administration officials, regardless of any nuclear deal its leaders may sign with the Europeans). In fact, it is well known that Israeli operatives have been working with Kurds in both border regions to gauge the feasibility of such a scenario. In the meantime, according to Iraqi officials I've spoken with, American oil companies are quietly exploring the 90% of Iraq where oil deposits have yet to be tapped, free of potentially embarrassing scrutiny by a media focused on urban violence rather than desert oil. American casualties would also remain limited; media attention modest; and so a Jenin scenario would be seen, under the circumstances, as a quiet but significant victory by the Bush administration.

The "British" Solution (or 1920 Revisited): If the invasion of Falluja backfires -- if the fighting drags on and, for instance, there is evidence of large-scale civilian casualties, perhaps broadcast to the world by a dreaded al-Jazeera reporter via video phone -- Iraqi public opinion might be inflamed to the point of sparking a more general Sunni or yet more significantly Sunni-Shi'i revolt. This actually happened in 1920 when occupying British troops tried to use massive force to pacify the country and the results were devastating for the occupiers (as well as the occupied); or if the resistance in Falluja proves more resilient or better armed than American military officials assume it to be and is capable of dragging out the fighting until a desperate compromise solution along the lines of the deal to end the Najaf siege becomes inevitable, a revolt might also be encouraged; or if the insurgents, with months to plan, left only a minimal force in Falluja to fight a delaying action against the Americans and their Iraqi allies and are able to conduct a larger, sustained insurgency across Sunni (and parts of Shiite) Iraq, as seems increasingly likely, the result could be the same.

Any one of these developments or any combination of them would destroy what is left of the credibility of the Americans and of the Interim Iraqi Government. If not contained, the present insurgency, facing overwhelming and relatively indiscriminate American power, could spark a more general revolt, joined by significant number of Shi'ites (whose leaders, unlike during the first siege of Falluja in April, have so far remained relatively quiet). It would capitalize on the intense anger felt by a country that has seen as many as 100,000 of its citizens killed in the last eighteen months. With the political costs of retreat almost incalculable, the Bush administration in turn might ratchet up the violence (as it did in Vietnam) before considering real withdrawal strategies, hoping that the prospect of tens of thousands of further deaths in the next year would lead Iraqis to accept some continued American military presence in the country and, most important, a continued hand in the management of the country's petroleum resources.

The "French" Scenario: Any version of the "British" solution might, sooner or later, lead the Bush administration into the thickets of the even more unsettling "French" scenario. In this, a growing awareness of the human toll of the occupation, coupled with levels of political corruption that are already staggering would lend force to a desire to internationalize the next phase of Iraq's transition to full sovereignty. (A former top Allawi aide, who recently escaped the country, summed up Iraqi despair on the issue of corruption in lamenting to me that "the new regime is the same as Saddam's, just with different faces.") The "French" scenario might involve the intercession of France, Germany, and Spain, joined by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan and supported by a resurgent worldwide anti-war movement aroused by the ongoing horrors of Iraq. With the insurgency still under way, pressure would be applied for a cease-fire coupled with an internationalization of the transition to sovereignty based on the complete failure of the United States and the Allawi government to stabilize the country. French President Chirac's stated desire to build a counterweight to U.S. power and Kofi Anan's rising displeasure with U.S. actions could encourage such a development, as could the resignation of the Sunni members of the interim government and a full-scale Sunni boycott of any future American-organized elections. While the United States and the British would likely veto any Security Council resolution to mandate such a move, the groundswell of support for it could lead to major changes in the management of the occupation in the lead-up to elections.

If all four outcomes described above are striking for what they reveal about the narrowing of the Bush Administration's grand vision of a democratic and prosperous Iraq, the last one -- a kind of final humiliation -- would certainly be fiercely resisted by American officials and the Allawi government (nor would some factions of the insurgency be any too pleased by the possibility).

The wild card in the current crisis is the Iraqi people who, since the toppling of the Hussein regime, have more often than not remained horrified spectators while their country's political landscape has been reshaped. This passivity, though understandable given the Iraqi experience over the previous two decades, has proved as disastrous for them and their country as the passivity of Palestinians was during the crucial early years of the Oslo peace process (which in actuality allowed Israel to increase significantly its West Bank and Gaza settlements, while Yasir Arafat cemented his autocratic and corrupt rule virtually cost-free).

Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for a massive nonviolent mobilization to end the siege of Najaf and the success of women's groups in preventing a rollback of their social rights, both demonstrate that the Iraqi people can become active shapers of their own destiny. Were the Shiites to pour into the streets nationwide, as they did in Najaf in response to Sistani, the Iraqi situation would immediately take on a different look and the American occupation might find its days quickly numbered. But can Iraqi society challenge the violent calculus of American military planners and insurgents alike with a vision of a future free of occupation and autocracy, corruption and extremism? More than wishing the Iraqis well, the international community needs to get its hands dirty to ensure that they have a fighting chance.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


By William Fisher

Internet use in the Arab Middle East is growing rapidly, but there is evidence that many countries in the region are increasing their crackdowns on what they consider to be dissident content.

A study of 11 countries carried out by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO) – “The Internet In the Arab World: A New Space of Repression? “ – finds many of the area’s estimated 14 million Internet users facing shutdown of websites and Internet cafes, and prosecution for a variety of crimes.

The study charges that "Arab governments typically use the protection of Islamic values and public morals to justify banning websites of human rights or political opposition groups that censure these governments; even forums are banned in Arab countries." Gamal Eid, HRINFO's executive director and the writer of the study, adds: "Most of these governments oppose freedom of expression in particular, and other political and civil freedoms in general."

The study reveals that while some states arrest Internet users just for surfing websites of the oppositional parties or groups, other countries use the Internet to trap socially rejected segments in violation of regulatory and legal requirements.

The study charges that Arab governments use not only traditional methods of curtailing freedom of expression -- censorship and confiscation – but have also developed technologies such as electronic filtering programs to control access to ‘trouble’ sources.

According to Najla Al Rostamani, head of the Gulf News Research Centre, “The building of a networked society is policy-driven…The policy followed in the Arab world goes against the very concept on which the Internet is based. The Internet thrives on freedom to exchange and debate and not on censorship. So long as the barriers to information accessibility remain in place, the Arab world will never become part of the information revolution.”

The HRINFO study finds the most active censorship in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. These countries use a variety of tools, including criminal prosecutions, to stop Internet use by opposition political groups, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists and religious minorities. In most of these countries, Internet Cafes have been shut down, websites blocked, and numerous users sentenced to prison for ‘improper’ Internet use.

More enlightened, according to the study, are Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, and post-Saddam Iraq.

In Egypt, improper Internet use is being used to justify prosecution of individuals from several opposition political groups, Islamists, journalists, homosexuals, and political activists. Moreover, Egypt has organized a new police unit, known as the "Internet Police".

Prosecutions have included twelve leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a suspect charged with using the Internet to send false information to "foreign bodies" (meaning foreign human rights organizations) about human rights violations in Egypt, an Egyptian journalist who created a website containing articles critical of Egyptian syndicates, and another user convicted of "disseminating abroad false news that could harm the state's national interests."

In Tunisia, the government bans opposition websites as well as several international websites, including such well-known sites as "Hotmail", and many Palestinian, Egyptian, and human rights websites.

In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced a journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the news website, “TUNeZINE”, to two years and four months in prison for "disseminating false news" and "fraudulent use of a means of communication."

According to HRINFO, at least 40 other Tunisians have been “sentenced to long prison terms and tortured, just for logging on to some websites claimed by authorities to be terrorist websites."

The situation in Syria is equally discouraging. The government bans numerous websites and e-mail service providers, and has arrested and convicted many who have attempted to bypass these bans to criticize the government. Syria bans websites with pornographic content and those it considers "hostile” -- pro-Israel, Islamic, web pages with articles about Syrian news and issues, and Kurdish-language news websites based in Germany which provided news, pictures and video clips of demonstrations by the Syrian Kurdish minority. The HRINFO study estimates that, in addition to pornographic web pages, there are 137 blocked websites.

Dozens of Syrians are detained every month for "defamation", or for “disseminating false news abroad” -- criticizing the Syrian government. HRINFO reports they are referred to military courts or detained without trial for periods ranging from three months to three years, or arrested and detained in police stations, where they are more vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment.

In Saudi Arabia, the study finds, 400,000 web pages were banned and filtered to “protect Islamic values and culture” in 2004. The Saudi government has blocked several Shi'a and Islamic websites that offer interpretations differing from the official Wahhabi line, banned international websites like Yahoo, American Online, and the well-known Arab Tawy Forum, and has even banned medical websites that use words like "chest" or "breasts", even though these words are used in explicitly medical contexts.

In Bahrain, the government justifies Internet bans on grounds that the government is the defender of morality and by claiming that certain websites are responsible for creating “domestic turmoil”, the study reports. However, it also bans the websites of political opposition groups.

By mid-2003, the number of Internet users in Libya was estimated to be 850,000, and is rapidly reaching a million. The Libyan Government has invested heavily in the IT sector. But the growth of Internet service has also provided Libyan dissidents scattered around the world with the opportunity to contact Libyan citizens and to strengthen their networks in the country. Most opposition, human rights, forums, news, and even literary websites are based abroad, and the Libyan government attempts to block these sites.

In Yemen, there are some 150,000 Internet users. Both the Yemeni Ministry of Communications and the Yemeni Ministry of Culture have banned and monitored many websites, and these actions have led to a decline in Internet usage. The Yemeni government justifies the banning and blocking for the preservation of "morality." The ban extends to political and cultural websites.

Until the end of 2002, Internet use in Iraq was limited to those who could afford it. In 2002, the number of Internet users among Iraq's total population of 24 million people was only 45,000, and many of these were state officials. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein justified his prohibition of Internet use by claiming the Internet as an "American propaganda tool."

The study says “it is too early to state that the occupation has brought about the freedom of Internet use and the absence of censorship.” It adds: “Though Iraq's state of disorder has opened up a space of freedom, it has also produced serious fears. Living conditions continue to deteriorate. Owners of Internet centers close their stores at night out of fear-fear of both the occupying forces and those of the resistance.”

However, Iraq today has a thriving ‘blogging’ community, with hundreds of sites hosted by Iraqis and US and other Coalition soldiers.

The study finds Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates among the more promising states in the Arab cyber world.

Jordanians were quick to seize the medium’s new opportunities for expression. Users included leftists, Islamists, human rights groups deprived of freedom of expression for political reasons, Shiites and Christians deprived on religious grounds, and homosexuals, deprived for both social and religious reasons. There are many Cyber Cafes, and the admission age has recently been reduced from 16 to 13. In general, there is little censorship, though the country is considering a new law to regulate audio and visual broadcasting.

In the United Arab Emirates, the report estimates the number of Internet users to be 1.25 million, or 31% of the population. This places the UAE among the most advanced nations in Internet use not only among Arab states but internationally as well. In its assessment of national e-government programs, the United Nations ranked the Emirates number one among Arab states and 21st in the world.

But censorship is nonetheless the subject of considerable debate. Some say the “Proxy Filtering System” has contributed to the growth of the net because it allows people access from inside their homes upon condition that there be some sort of censorship to protect their families from ‘morally offensive’ websites. Others have called for absolute freedom and cancellation of the Proxy Filtering System.

Compared with most Arab states, the study finds, Qataris enjoy more Internet freedom of Internet use and less censorship. There has been no news of website bans other than those placed on some pornographic websites.


By William Fisher

With the death of Yasser Arafat, and renewed discussion by President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair of re-starting an Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestinians may be wondering who their allies will be. And they may find one in a most unlikely place: among American Jews.

The reason is that, contrary to widely held beliefs, many American Jews oppose the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon and favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian – Israeli dispute. And there is growing evidence that this moderate constituency is gaining in its ability to influence US policy in the Middle East.

Yet there is much evidence that groups representing alternative views are growing in both numbers and in influence. For example, ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace.

While most of the world – and especially the Arab world – believes that Jews are Jews are Jews, that they are totally homogenous, and that all their views on all Israeli-related issues are the same, the facts do not support this conclusion. In Israel, Left-leaning and Right-leaning political parties and media have been locked in fierce debate for many years. The same deeply felt differences are mirrored in the United States.

What is true in the US is that dissenters from American ‘conventional wisdom’ on Israel do not get anything like the financial support, press coverage or attention from office-seeking politicians afforded to more powerful and well-connected groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As Esther Kaplan wrote in the Nation magazine: “AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents (of Major Jewish Organizations), along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel. In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership.”

But this approach is being seriously challenged by a number of ‘alternative’ Jewish groups. Who are they and what are their views?

One of them is the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), co-founded in 2002 by Marcia Freedman, a former Knesset member. Brit Tzedek is a national grassroots membership organization representing 16,000 members with chapters in twenty-seven cities. It supports a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based roughly on the 1967 borders, sharing Jerusalem, and evacuation of settlements. It asserts that security for Israel can only be achieved through the establishment of an economically and politically viable Palestinian state, an end to Israel's occupation of land acquired during the 1967 war, and to Palestinian terrorism.

Another group is the Berkeley-based Tikkun Community. It calls on the Palestinian people to acknowledge the right of Jews to maintain their own homeland in the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel, with Jewish control over the Jewish section of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. It calls on the Palestinian people to stop acts of terror against Israel and opposes Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, was founded in 1996, when, “despite three years of participating in a ‘peace process’ under the Oslo accords, Palestinians and Israelis seemed increasingly unlikely to achieve the peace they claimed to seek.” JVP members were especially concerned that the Israeli government was continuing to build settlements in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. It organized more than 100 people to protest at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, becoming one of the first US Jewish groups to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

Jews Against the Occupation, an organization in the New York City area, rejects the notion that it is "necessary" to subjugate Palestinians for the sake of keeping Jews safe; claims that that security can only come from mutual respect, and that the occupation of Palestine is only worsening the position of Jews in the Middle East and around the world; opposes the demolition of Palestinian houses and crops in the Occupied Territories; calls for an end to U.S. government aid to Israel; and opposes the Israeli Government’s “attack the Palestinian economy.”

Meretz USA, an affiliate of Israel's left-wing Meretz Party, calls itself “a progressive Zionist organization that educates Americans about issues of civil rights and peace in Israel.” It sees “no alternative to renewing the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, establishing and sustaining a cease-fire, and taking basic measures conducive to the renewal of meaningful negotiations leading to the creation of a sovereign, demilitarized Palestinian state.” The organization has consistently opposed building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

These are but a few of America’s so-called ‘alternative’ organizations. Some of the newer groups are cooperating with older outfits like Americans for Peace Now (APN), which pushes for active White House and State Department engagement in the peace process, especially Administration efforts to broker a new interim understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, facilitate final status arrangements that reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian statehood, and encourage negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.

What are these groups doing to make their views heard?

There is a long menu of initiatives. For example, in March, one of the older peace groups, Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Sharon protesting Israel's house-demolition policy. It was signed by 400 rabbis, including leaders of some of the largest congregations in the country. In April, Brit Tzedek organized 10,000 US Jews to sign another open letter calling on Israel and the US to fund the relocation of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories to Israel.

Though these groups lack support from most of the larger Jewish donors and Jewish foundations, their numbers are growing. APN has some 25,000 supporters; Brit Tzedek, 17,000. Members believe there is substantial room for growth, approaching AIPAC’s 65,000 membership.

While there is significant diversity of opinion even among ‘alternative’ groups, all of them support a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution, and could be potentially valuable Palestinian allies if a re-started peace process becomes a reality.


By Summer Said and William Fisher

One of the byproducts of the incessant discussion of ‘reform’ in the MENA region has been the phenomenon of government-organized human rights bodies. As of this writing, such bodies are have been established in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, these groups have been viewed with skepticism precisely because they have been formed by governments – often by repressive governments that continue to show little regard for individual liberties. Criticism has come from local NGOs as well as from international advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch.

Arguably the most highly publicized of these groups is the Egyptian Government’s Human Rights Council (NCHR), founded by President Hosni Mubarak under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. The NCHR is about to celebrate its first birthday. As it prepares its first annual report, it may be timely to review its life to date.

Like many of the other government-organized human rights in the MENA region the Council was viewed with widespread skepticism by human rights and civil society NGOs –some of which have been the targets of an NGO law that places serious restrictions on their ability to operate freely. Today, the Council still finds most non-governmental organizations – and international human rights groups --unconvinced that the new body is anything more than “window dressing”.

Moreover, some of its most vocal critics are human rights activists who are members of the NCHR Board. The 25-member Board includes prominent representatives of human rights NGOs, universities, and women’s and legal affairs organizations.

Moataz El Fegiery, Program Officer for the Cairo Institute For Human Rights Studies, says: "NGOs consider the establishment of this Council an attempt to decorate the government externally, but no one really believes in the Council. The government can prove its will to reform by taking urgent steps to end the emergency law or combating the epidemic spread of torture or announcing a timetable for political reform, but none of this is happening."

At the heart of their criticism is the Council’s failure to deliver on its promise to recommend to President Mubarak the repeal of the country’s Emergency Law, which has been in force since the October 1981 assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat. The Emergency Law gives authorities extensive powers to restrict freedoms of assembly and expression and to arrest and detain Egyptians without due process.

A few months after President Mubarak announced formation of the NCHR, Chairman Boutros-Ghali told the press the Emergency Law would be repealed “in three weeks”. The NCHR prepared a memorandum to the General Prosecutor, who has jurisdiction over these laws, recommending that the Laws be repealed. The NCHR memorandum argued that the rationale for a state of emergency no longer exists because Egypt has experienced internal calm for several years. It also contended that continuing the state of emergency blocks political reform, discourages foreign investment, and damages Egypt's international standing.

But it then postponed presentation of the memorandum to Mubarak, citing the need for “further study”. Many critics believe the NCHR thus “failed in its first test to prove its commitment to human rights problem and its nothing more than window dressing.”

The General Secretary of the country’s oldest human rights organization, Hafez Abou Saeda of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), an NCHR Board member, says: “The matter does not need further consideration. What is needed is not an amendment of the Emergency Law but the end of the state of emergency. Any decision short of this will damage the legitimacy of the NCHR since it would be accepting a law that is the source of all human rights violations. The commitment to political reform and the continuation of the state of emergency are contradictory and can in no way occur together."

The EOHR is among leading human rights organizations critical of the NCHR. For the EOHR to recognize the NCHR, it says, “the government has first to abolish the Emergency Law, free political prisoners and apologize officially to all those who were tortured in police stations and prisons.”

Egypt’s Information Ministry’s website claims the country “has a long history in the protection of human rights.” But human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the US Department of State, find Egypt’s human rights record among the worst in the Middle East. It is reportedly one of the countries to which the CIA ‘renders’ people in their custody to be subjected to torture in prison.

NCHR vice-chairman Kamal Aboul Magd, a noted legal scholar, believes “the Council’s most important achievement during its first year was the establishment of the Complaints Fund, which to date has received some 4,000 complaints from individual citizens and institutions. “ However, only 50 of the complaints received thus far were related to human rights violations. Aboul Magd says these complaints will be documented in the Council’s annual report expected to be released in January. The Council is currently visiting prisons and detention centers to ensure that prisoners are treated in accordance with local regulations and worldwide norms. Human rights violations are to be included in the annual report.

Critics complain that “almost a year after its formation last January, rights activists “still cannot identify the Council’s achievements” and that “its agenda remains shrouded in secrecy.” They charge the Council looks “more like an answer to international pressure than an answer to domestic political party pressure or public opinion.”

However, chairman Boutros Ghali has tried to reassure the Council’s critics that “everything will happen in time via diplomacy”, but has reminded the press that the government is not obliged to carry out the recommendations of the Council. “Our job is to present studies and resolutions to the government and they later decide what they will do,” he explains. The government-appointed Council is solely an advisory body and has no executive power to implement its decisions.

While some critics acknowledge that the Council’s board members enjoy good reputations and high credibility, some say that they are too busy with their other activities and “do not pay much attention to the Council.” Chairman Boutros-Ghali has seven or eight other engagements.

Amr Al Shoubki, political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, declares that the NCHR’s board members have “failed to present a real reform from the human rights status in the country. This is due to the fact the Council has been affiliated to the government since its establishment,” said Al Shoubki. “Those highly regarded people were not given the freedom to do what they wanted or what was required.”

The scorecard of MENA’s government-sponsored human rights groups was perhaps best summed up by a member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, who asked to remain anonymous. Referring to Egypt’s human rights council, he concludes: “We should not expect a government-sponsored organization to scandalize the government. They were just established to receive complaints and issue useless reports.”

While a few of the government sponsored human rights commissions in the MENA region may be able to report sporadic progress, his conclusion appears to apply to the MENA region as a whole.


By William Fisher

Policies of the Bush Administration have “facilitated” racial profiling, despite the President’s vow to eliminate the practice.

This is the view of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission’s report was posted on its website in September, but the four Bush-appointed Commission members delayed public discussion of its findings until after the election.

The report charges that after the September 11, 2001, attacks, “Arab Americans and Muslims increasingly became targets of law enforcement scrutiny. Law enforcement officials’ underlying prejudices and presumptions of guilt tainted routine security procedures. Profiling criteria came to include ethnicity, national origin, and religion…heightened scrutiny and harassment at airports (and) selective enforcement of visa regulations. Arab Americans and Muslims complained that airline personnel and airport security denied them access to aircraft and subjected them to unwarranted searches and harassment. In some instances, airport security removed individuals from planes because members of the crew or passengers did not ‘feel safe.’ On a larger scale, profiling resulted in detentions, forced registration, and extensive monitoring of persons of Middle Eastern descent.”

The Commission’s Report was critical of a number of Federal agencies, principally the Department of Justice (DOJ), which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS includes the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible safety at airports and for other modes of transportation, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The DOJ is headed by the Attorney General.

The Human Rights Commission is an independent agency of the Federal Government. Four of its eight Commissioners are appointed by the President and four by Congress. No more than four members can belong to the same political party. Currently, the Commission consists of three Democrats, three Republicans, and two Independents. Its principal mission is to collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.
Defining racial profiling as “the act of assuming that individuals of one race or ethnicity are more likely than others to engage in misconduct”, the Commission declares that “The concept belies the fundamental tenets of equality in the Constitution, as the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit selective enforcement of the law based on race.”

Its report states: “After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, securing the nation’s borders became the administration’s most urgent job. Among responses, President Bush authorized federal officials to round up hundreds of Arabs, Muslims, and Arab Americans as material witnesses in its investigation of the attacks and detain them on minor immigration violations. Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors were identified as a ‘dangerous class’, signaling the government’s intention to deny them entry into the country whenever possible. America’s borders thus became more tightly controlled, and certain immigrants bore the burden of the administration’s policies.”

The Commission found that by November 2001, “the DOJ had detained more than 1,100 men of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. DOJ did not reveal who it had detained, the reasons for detention, nor where detainees were held, not even to their families. Many detainees alleged mistreatment by prison guards, including being hosed down with cold water, strip searched, forced to sleep upright in freezing conditions, denied food or legal representation, and kept in their cells for long periods.

Since 9/11, the FBI and the USCIS have arrested and detained some 5,000 people on ‘terror-related’ charges. There have been no convictions. However, many detainees have been deported, most of them for minor visa violations.

The DOJ’s own Inspector General (IG) also issued a report (April 2003) highly critical of the treatment of detainees. "While our review recognized the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances confronting the Department in responding to the terrorist attacks”, the IG’s report said, “we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled." It claimed that from December 2001 to June 2002, 34 complaints of civil rights violations, including accusations that employees at federal detention centers had beaten Muslim and Arab immigrants, were filed. In all, DOJ received 1,073 complaints during the six-month period following the implementation of the Patriot Act.”

In a press statement issued November 9, Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lays much of the responsibility for racial profiling and other civil rights abuses at the feet of just-retired Attorney General John Ashcroft. Romero says “Ashcroft's legacy has been an open hostility to protecting civil liberties and an outright disdain for those who dare to question his policies. (He) has insisted that the U.S. government could unilaterally detain American citizens without charge and access to counsel.” The ACLU is a Washington-based human rights advocacy group.

President Bush has nominated White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace Ashcroft, who resigned last week. Gonzales is the author of a controversial memorandum to President Bush suggesting ways the United States could legally deprive detainees designated as ‘enemy combatants’ the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Gonzales described international conventions governing prisoners of war, including the Geneva Conventions, as ''obsolete.''

The administration’s policies also affected immigrants and visitors already in the United States, the report says. “When the USA Patriot Act was signed into law on October 27, 2001, the attorney general was given the authority to detain foreign citizens if believing that they pose a national security threat.”

The Commission’s Report claims that, while, “detentions were reserved for those believed to be a national security threat, other Arab and Muslim immigrants were also viewed with suspicion.” In November 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the “voluntary” interviews of approximately 5,000 men, ages 18 to 33, “who had entered the United States with nonimmigrant visas from countries suspected of giving refuge to terrorists These men were not suspects in the attacks, but interviewers were told to ask about their religious practices, feelings towards the U.S. government, and immigration status.”

Moreover, the Report adds, “Because the men interviewed were all of Middle Eastern and South Asian ancestry, critics of the policy accused the government of participating in racial and ethnic profiling. Interviewees were disturbed by the government’s unabashed willingness to use ancestry as a proxy for terrorism. Despite their feelings, many acquiesced to the request believing the government would monitor them if they did not.”

The detention and subsequent deportation of many Arab and Muslim visitors has created a firestorm in the civil rights community. Nonetheless, provisions for ‘expedited deportation” remain in the House of Representatives’ version of intelligence reform legislation. The House and Senate are currently attempting to reconcile their different versions of this proposed legislation.

The report concludes that “changes to the nation’s policies under the Bush administration have left immigrants unprotected and unfairly treated. New immigration policies have created a dual system of rights and protections based largely on national origin, race, and ethnicity.” It urges: “The circumstances the United States now faces must not close the once open doors of a nation founded by immigrants.”

Saturday, November 06, 2004


By William Fisher

Transparency in government is one of the ‘values’ nobody talked about in the recent election. Yet it is among America’s more important attributes; it distinguishes the United States from most other governments. But, sad to say, transparency has never been one of George W. Bush’s long suits. On the contrary, excessive secrecy has been a hallmark of the Bush Administration since Day One. And unfortunately, it is a characteristic that seems unlikely to change in Mr. Bush’s second term.

The President’s contempt for the media was evident as early as his press conference the day after the election. He made it clear he would not respond to what he termed “multiple questions”. There would be no opportunity for follow-up questions either. In other words, the press will simply have to play by the president’s rules.

Journalists complain that this obsession with secrecy has greatly increased the difficulty of accurately reporting the Bush White House. According to US News and World Report, the Administration has “quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government --cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters. The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government…”

Nor are the media the only victims in the president’s secret world. Congress, too, has been short-changed. A report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), says: “On over 100 separate occasions, the Administration has refused to answer the inquiries of, or provide the information requested” by Congressman Waxman in his role as the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform. The Administration has also refused to provide documents requested by the ranking members of eight House Committees relating to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and documents requested by the 9/11 Commission, the Report says.

Bill Moyers, one of America’s most respected broadcast journalists, who was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, notes, “It's always a fight, to find out what the government doesn't want us to know. It's a fight we're once again losing…(President Bush) has clamped a lid on public access... It's not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it's Congress... and it's you, the public and your representatives…We're told it's all about national security, but that's not so”, he says.

Access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act has been particularly adversely affected by Administration policies. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration increased public access to government information by restricting the ability of officials to classify information and establishing an improved system for the declassification of information. The Bush Administration has gone the other way, giving more officials more authority to classify more documents. This has “expanded the capacity of the government to operate in secret”, says the Waxman Report.

"Tightly controlling information, from the White House on down, has been the hallmark of this administration", says Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs for the conservative Cato Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank.

It’s not as though open government was a new idea in the US. Back in 1915, William Jennings Bryan observed: “The government being the people’s business, it necessarily follows that its operations should be at all times open to the public view. Publicity is therefore as essential to honest administration as freedom of speech is to representative government.” And in 1933, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Restricting access to information inevitably leads to an appearance of impropriety – the government must be doing something it doesn’t want the people to know about. It doesn’t matter whether the appearance is true or not; the perception becomes the reality.

With all the chatter about ‘values’ in the recent election, the President needs to remember that transparency and accountability are among the most cherished ones we have. They help to give us the moral authority we need to lead.

President Bush would do well to keep that in mind as he begins to think seriously about how history will remember him.

Friday, November 05, 2004


By William Fisher

“It's always a fight, to find out what the government doesn't want us to know. It's a fight we're once again losing…(President Bush) has clamped a lid on public access... It's not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it's Congress... and it's you, the public and your representatives.”

These are the words of Bill Moyers, one of America’s most respected broadcast journalists. Moyers was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. The Freedom of Information Act established the principle that the public should have broad access to government records.

In his “NOW’ program on US public television, Moyers condemns the Bush Administration’s penchant for secrecy. “We're told it's all about national security, but that's not so”, he says.

Now a comprehensive report issued by Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, supports Moyers’ view. It charges that “there has been a systematic effort by the Bush Administration to limit the application of the laws that promote open government and accountability…the Bush Administration has sought to curtail public access to information while expanding the powers of government to operate in secret.”

The Report alleges that both the American people and the US Congress are being denied access to millions of pages of documents to which they are entitled under law. It says, “The actions of the Bush Administration have resulted in an extraordinary expansion of government secrecy. External watchdogs, including Congress, the media, and nongovernmental organizations, have consistently been hindered in their ability to monitor government activities.”

The Report finds that “there has been a consistent pattern in the Administration’s actions: laws that are designed to promote public access to information have been undermined, while laws that authorize the government to withhold information or to operate in secret have repeatedly been expanded. The cumulative result is an unprecedented assault on the principle of open government.”

The Report claims that Administration secrecy has affected the work of the “9/11” Commission. It says that throughout its investigation the Bush Administration “resisted or delayed providing the Commission with important information. For example, the Administration’s refusal to turn over documents forced the Commission to issue subpoenas to the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration. The Administration also refused for months to allow Commissioners to review key presidential intelligence briefing documents.”

The Report also alleges that the Administration has systematically withheld “a vast array“ of records from Congress. Subjects have ranged “from simple census data and routine agency correspondence to presidential and vice presidential records.” The documents that the Administration has refused to release to the public and members of Congress include ”the contacts between energy companies and the Vice President’s energy task force, communications between the Defense Department and the Vice President’s office regarding contracts awarded to Halliburton (a major defense contractor), documents describing the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, memoranda revealing what the White House knew about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation withheld from Congress.”

Designating documents as ‘classified’ has frequently provided the executive branch of the US Government with a rationale for concealment. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration increased public access to government information by restricting the ability of officials to classify information and establishing an improved system for the declassification of information. The Waxman Report says, “These steps have been reversed under the Bush Administration, which has expanded the capacity of the government to classify documents and to operate in secret.”

The Report also alleges that the Administration “has supported amendments to ‘open government‘ laws to create new categories of protected information that can be withheld from the public…The Administration has expanded the authority to classify documents and dramatically increased the number of documents classified. It has used the USA Patriot Act and novel legal theories to justify secret investigations, detentions, and trials.”

The Report charges that the Bush Administration “has issued guidance instructing agencies to withhold a broad and undefined category of ‘sensitive’ information….”

Congress is among the victims, the Report says. “On over 100 separate occasions, the Administration has refused to answer the inquiries of, or provide the information requested” by Congressman Waxman in his role as the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform.

The information the Administration has refused to provide includes “documents requested by the ranking members of eight House Committees relating to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere”, the Report says.

The passage of the Patriot Act after the September 11, 2001, attacks gave the Bush Administration new authority to conduct government investigations in secret, the Report notes. One provision of the Act expands the authority of the Justice Department to conduct secret electronic wiretaps. Another authorizes the Justice Department to obtain secret orders requiring the production of ‘books, records, papers, documents, and other items,’ and prohibits the recipient of these orders (such as a telephone company or library) from disclosing their existence. A third provision expands the use of ‘sneak and peak’ search warrants, which allow the Justice Department to search homes and other premises secretly without giving notice to the occupants. A Federal Court has recently overturned some of these provisions.

In addition to expanding secrecy in government by executive order and statute, the Report says the Bush Administration has used “novel legal interpretations” to expand its authority to detain, try, and deport individuals in secret. The Administration asserted the authority to “hold persons designated as ‘enemy combatants’ in secret without a hearing, access to a lawyer, or judicial review; conduct secret military trials of persons held as enemy combatants when deemed necessary by the government; and conduct secret deportation proceedings of aliens deemed ‘special interest cases’ without any notice to the public, the press, or even family members.” The Supreme Court has ruled recently that ‘enemy combatants’ are entitled to hearings and to legal counsel.

The reporting of one of America’s leading news magazines, US News and World Report, supports the Waxman findings. The magazine wrote, “For the past three years, the Bush administration has quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government--cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters. The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government…”

Another Administration critic, Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs for the Cato Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank, says, "Tightly controlling information, from the White House on down, has been the hallmark of this administration."

And Jane Kirtley, Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, says: “Government does make mistakes. And I don't think the public demands infallibility from its government…Accountability is what we demand. And we should have the tools that make it possible for us to compel the government to tell us what it's up to, how it's carrying out our business and to instruct the government to take corrective steps when mistakes are made.”

Thursday, November 04, 2004


By William Fisher

In his acceptance speech the day after the election, President Bush tried to send a message to the 48 per cent of Americans who voted for Senator Kerry. It was: “To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation.”

At his press conference the next day, he said: “Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results. I will reach out to every one who shares our goals.''

But these are different messages. The president may well be sincere about wanting to unite the nation. The problem is that few among that 48 percent share the president’s goals. Gary Wills, author of " St. Augustine's Conversion”, points out that “even if he wanted to be more conciliatory now, the constituency to which he owes his victory is not a yielding one. He must give them what they want…His helpers are also his keepers.”

Can the 48 per cent expect the President to back off his proposal for a Constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage?

Can they expect him to abandon his faith-based initiative or, for that matter, his faith-based foreign policy?

Can they expect him to nominate wise and moderate souls to the Supreme Court?

Can they expect him to disown the “my God is bigger than your God” rhetoric of a senior Army officer still under the president’s command?

Can they expect him to change his positions on school prayer, embryonic stem cell research, the definition of life, a woman’s right to choose, protection of the flag, and the dozens of other so-called ‘cultural issues’ that lit the huge fire under the president’s evangelical cohorts?

Can they expect him to choose transparency over conspiracy, magically transforming the most secretive government in American history?

Can they expect him to reign in a Justice Department whose infringements on civil liberties have already reached historic proportions?

Can they expect him to admit even a few mistakes?

Well, the 48 per cent can expect it, but they won’t get it.

When the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency in 2000, President Bush promised he would lead a humble country, unite us all, and show us the face of ‘compassionate conservatism’. He has been neither compassionate nor conservative. He has been arrogant, not humble. He has managed to divide us to a degree not seen since the Civil War. And he has turned most of the world against us.

Now he believes he has a ‘mandate’ to justify four more years of the same. It now seems clear that our country has more Creationists than Darwinists, and it is to these very people that the president owes his second term.

As he goes forward, however, he would be well advised to remember that those who voted for his opponent aren’t simply a mathematical construct called ‘the 48 per cent’. They are tens of millions of people every bit as American as Mr. Bush.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


By William Fisher

Political scientists, operatives and junkies will be debating the 2004 US Presidential campaign for decades. But it is unlikely that many will be talking about a set of critical issues virtually ignored by the candidates and their parties: the erosion of civil liberties and human rights.

Surely the candidates knew these issues, albeit they would probably have had widely differing views. And if their polls and focus groups told them the voters were interested in these issues, or cared about them, we can be certain they would have crept into stump speeches, debates, and campaign ads.

They didn’t. They were ignored.

We heard endless rants, though little substance, about how to win ‘the war on terror’. And no sane human would argue that it is a war that must be won, not just for us, but for everyone in the civilized world.

But who can remember hearing anything about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or other venues for prisoner abuse? Or about US citizens being held incommunicado, without charge and without access to legal counsel? Or about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s wholesale round-up of 5,000 “suspected terrorists”, held for long periods in immigration prisons without charges or lawyers – and of whom not a single one was ever charged with or convicted of a terror-related crime? Or about the Justice Department’s arrant defiance of the Supreme Court’s finding that ‘the president does not have a blank check’ to arrest and detain anyone and be accountable to no one? Or about the failure of the Congress to demand an independent investigation of prisoner abuses? Or about the failure of the Central Intelligence Agency to produce its promised report on its ‘ghost detainees’, or its despicable practice of ‘rendering’ detainees to countries whose prisons are famous for practicing torture?

In 18 months of largely superficial frothing – much of it about phantom issues – the state of our civil liberties and our respect for human rights took on an eerie silence. Knowing that a candidate’s every move is triggered by a poll or a focus group, one can only conclude that it is the voters who don’t understand why these issues are important -- or don’t care.

As I pondered this thundering silence, two quotations kept popping into my head. The first, author unremembered, says, “Be careful who you choose as your enemies, for you will become like them.” Our enemies couldn’t care less about anyone’s civil liberties. If we take the same view, or allow our leaders to take it, we risk becoming like our enemies. In which case, they will have won.

The second quotation, from Churchill I think, says, “There can be no leadership without moral authority”. We happen to live in the world’s last remaining super-power. That places on us a heavy responsibility for leadership. The only credible way we have to exercise that leadership is by example – by what we do. What we do reflects what we believe, and that is the source of our moral authority.

The voters’ apparent disinterest in what is happening to their civil liberties, and what we are doing to other people’s human rights, have the awful potential to change precisely those attributes that make us different from our enemies. If we allow that to happen, we will sadly get what we deserve.

We deserve better.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Why I Am Scared to Death of George Bush--And Why You Should Be, Too

Elaine Cassel is an attorney practicing in Virginia and Washington, DC. She teaches law and psychology, and is the author of "The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights" (Lawrence Hill, 2004,) and "Criminal Behavior," a textbook in criminal psychology. She is a frequent contributor to such journals as FindLaw and Counterpunch. This article is reproduced with the author’s permission.

By Elaine Cassel

In the past almost four years, I have come to fear almost everything the Bush administration does. In one way or the other, it has harmed, perhaps irreparably, virtually every aspect of American life. From raising the acceptable arsenic levels in water (a little arsenic is good for us all) to logging and snowmobiling in America’s formerly treasured parks, to ripping apart the bill of rights and trampling it underfoot, to using the threat of “terrorist” attacks for political gain, to going to war on a lie and not just spending our money outrageously but being responsible for—and proud of—the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers, the maiming of thousands more (a deep and dirty secret) and the slaying of thousands (but who’s counting?) Iraqi civilians. All of this and much, much more literally keeps me awake at night, sick with fear and worry.

But nothing disturbs me more than the case of Ahmed Abu Ali. Abu Ali is an American citizen, born in Texas in 1981. He is a resident of Falls Church, Virginia, where he lives with his parents. He was valedictorian of his 1999 graduating class in a northern Virginia high school. He attends a Saudi university where he is studying for a degree.

Last June, Ahmed was taking an exam at the International University of Medina. In stormed Saudi police who took him away to a Saudi prison where he has been since that day. It has taken a year for the story to make any sense, and during this time his family and lawyer have kept me informed about the case. However, they asked me not to write about it, for fear that it may jeopardize his potential for release.

Now that it appears their son may never come home, at least not if the Bush administration can help it, they have filed a law suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking that their son be given the same rights as the Supreme Court recently gave Guantanamo prisoners and American citizen Yaser Hamdi—the right to, at a minimum, challenge his detention. They have also given me permission, through their attorney, to write about their son’s case.

Here is the abbreviated version of the undisputed facts, according to court records and discussions with the family and attorney: Ahmed was acquainted with some of the men charged in the notorious case of the Alexandria 11, men who pled guilty or were convicted (all but one of them, and that is important, as you will see) of conspiring to fight for the Muslim cause in the constant battle between India and Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir. The interest in fighting for Kashmir is one that is promoted by many Muslims. The men were friends, and in the course of their friendship play paintball and shoot at targets with guns, all perfectly legal in Northern Virginia. In fact, gun use is so legal in Virginia that the legislature recently passed a law affirmatively making it acceptable (indeed promoting) the carrying of weapons into bars and restaurants.

Initially charged under the seldom-used Neutrality Act, which forbids an American from taking sides with an “enemy” of the United States, those who pled to conspiring to aid Muslims were given sentences of four to ten years in exchange for testifying against the others; the men who did not pled guilty were indicted with aiding and abetting terrorism, upping the ante to life prison terms.

Of the four men who did not plead guilty to the new charges, three were convicted by Judge Leonie Brinkema and sentenced to 85 to 115 years in prison. These were men who were not a threat to the U.S., who were not anti-American, who never took up arms against any one, but who, it is true, were sympathetic to the Muslim cause. They would have fought for the Muslim cause in Kashmir, if the occasion presented itself (India and Pakistan declared a cease fire early in 2004).

One of the men who pled not guilty had been in Saudi Arabia at the same time that Abu Ali was “detained.” He was extradited to the United States, and Judge Brinkema found him not guilty. Though he is free at the moment, he expects to be harassed by prosecutors. Surely, he will be arrested and charged with something—anything to avenge his acquittal by Judge Brinkema.

Abu Ali has been visited in Saudi Arabia by the FBI and perhaps by Alexandria prosecutors. From what little we know (he has been denied an attorney, and the State Department and the Saudi government have conspired to insure that he receives no mail or visits), he was urged to confess to being part of the Alexandria 11, he refused, likely being tortured and mentally and physically abused. He was urged to renounce his U.S. citizenship, in exchange for the promise of being taken to Sweden. (He was smart not to do that; last week it was reported in the Washington Post that the U.S. government aided Swedish officials in “rendering” Saudi citizens back to Saudi Arabia where they were “tried” for “terrorism” crimes and are serving lengthy prison terms. Both maintain their innocence. )

If prosecutors had any case at all against Abu Ali, they would surely have had him extradited at the same time as Sabri Benkhala, who was acquitted by Judge Brinkema. Abu Ali has been threatened with being named an enemy combatant, but that would also mean that he would be brought to the U.S., held like Americans Padilla and Hamdi and, now, entitled to an attorney and the right to file a habeas corpus petition challenging his relief.

But that is not going to happen. The day Abu Ali’s parents filed a petition for habeas corpus and other relief, the U.S. State Department informed them that the Saudis were going to charge Abu Ali with unspecified crimes of “terror.” Days before the case was filed, the Saudis told the family that they were ready to release Abu Ali, but had to have approval from the U.S. to do so. The Saudis said they had no interest in him. The State Department, at that time, it was up to the Saudis.

Clearly, no one is telling the truth. The State Department now says it cannot comment on anything, because Abu Ali never signed “privacy” forms, forms that the Saudis refused to give him (no doubt told to refuse to deliver them by the same State Department that claims they can’t obtain them from their detainee).

Here is why I am scared to death of this administration: Abu Ali will surely never come home. There is no way the U.S. government is going to let a man live to tell the tale of his capture by Saudis at the request of the U.S., his incarceration without a charge, without a lawyer, without access to his family, and, no doubt, his being subject to torture during long periods of interrogation. Maybe Kromberg wanted him at some time, found there was nothing to get him on, then told the Saudis to torture him into confession of anything that would make him extraditable. For the present time, it still takes an actual criminal charge to indict someone.

But it takes nothing but the whims of the government, to “render” an American citizen to another country and demand that that country imprison the American until it says to release him or her. But then the U.S. cannot tolerate the word getting out about the whole story, so it will have to silence Abu Ali by keeping him locked up forever (or worse) in a Saudi jail.

Let’s be clear about this—the Saudis insist that they are holding him only because the U.S. demands it.

Remember Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded shortly after his release by the U.S. government in Iraq? Remember how the U.S. insisted that it never had him in custody but that that “Iraqi police” held him? Forget for a time that the Iraqi police did nothing without the permission of and payment by the U.S. government—the police said that they had seized Berg at the demand of the U.S. and they released Berg to its custody. Finally, after Berg died, the State Department admitted the U.S. had detained him. When Berg refused the request of the U.S. government that it take him out of Iraq, when Berg insisted that he was going to leave Iraq on his own, he was murdered.

You connect the dots. Or not. But don’t turn away from the frightening truth of what your government is up to—successfully, without accountability, violating every right and privilege Americans have under U.S. and international law.

Even if the federal court orders that Abu Ali be brought to the U.S. to have a hearing, don’t expect it to happen. Accidents happen in prison, don’t they? Especially in foreign prisons. The Pentagon is even now making it near impossible for attorneys for the Guantanamo prisoners to meet their clients and file the petitions the Supreme Court gave them the right to file.

Face it. Our government is imprisoning its citizens without cause and without process. Welcome to George Bush’s America.