Saturday, March 26, 2005


By William Fisher

For the first time in the twenty-five year history of American aid to Egypt, the U.S. Government is providing funds directly to organizations advocating for human rights, democracy and fair elections.

The $1 million in grants announced this month is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions the U.S. has contributed to Egypt – second only to Israel as a recipient of American help. It is a baby step.

But its significance should not be under estimated.

The six recipients, all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will conduct programs with such titles as “Promoting Transparent Elections in 2005 and Beyond”, “Promoting Democracy within Egyptian Political Parties”, “Empowering Youth in Old Cairo”, and “Political and Electoral Rights”. These organizations deserve to be rewarded: They have struggled for years against an authoritarian regime and an absurdly repressive NGO law.

The grant-winning programs were chosen by the NGOs themselves and submitted competitively to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Cairo. The American Ambassador said the Egyptian Government had been consulted and was on board.

But if there is a government more disliked than their own or Mr. Sharon’s, it’s ours. Which might help to explain why some of Egypt’s better known human rights groups declined to participate for fear of being seen to be too closely associated with the U.S.

Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to ask, “What’s going on? Why now?”
As is always the case in the Middle East, a number of complex and sometimes contradictory forces are at play.

Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, said he would alter the nation’s constitution to permit multiple candidates to run in the forthcoming presidential election. The 76-year-old Mubarak, the country’s longest-serving leader, has been reelected by plebiscite for the past 24 years as the only candidate on the ballot.

Inexplicably, soon thereafter, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament, who is among key legislators working on the constitutional amendment, said the Assembly plans to criminalize political parties and NGOs receiving foreign funding to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections or fund election campaigns.

Earlier, there was President Bush’s pledge to ‘bring freedom’ to the neighborhood through his Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). MEPI is supposed to focus on supporting “vital sectors such as education, NGOs, democracy and governance”. But the idea was received with scorn by governments in the region as “democracy imposed from outside”, and little has yet been accomplished.

Then came the Wilsonian rhetoric of the president’s second Inaugural Address – freedom was mentioned too many times to count – followed soon afterward by Condoleeza Rice’s confirmation to be the new Secretary of State.

Then, as if to leave no doubt about who has the power, Mr. Mubarak, the ‘new democrat’, jailed Ayman Nour, the leader of the “Tomorrow” opposition political party. At which point Secretary Rice abruptly cancelled her trip to Egypt. The diplomats in the State Department insisted it had nothing to do with Mr. Nour, but policy watchers saw Dr. Rice’s action as the proverbial ‘stick in the eye’ of Mr. Mubarak.

It would be too easy – and not at all Middle Eastern – to see all these factors coming together logically in some kind of ‘perfect storm’. But, knowing how things work in this part of the world – and knowing the glacial pace of the USAID grant-making process -- the NGO competition would have to have been in the pipeline for some time.

So perhaps there is a more plausible assessment of how these mini-grants emerged from the delicate donor minuet the U.S. has always done with Egypt. It is that the Americans, buoyed by the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, finally summoned up the confidence to use the leverage that comes from having shelled out billions in aid. Whether it took a war to build such confidence is arguable; giving billions gives you leverage without wars. What was missing was the will to use that leverage.

The democracy-oriented grants, however welcome, are not without irony. One of them goes to the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, whose founder, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibhrahim, was jailed by Mubarak on patently trumped-up charges in 2001 and spent a year behind bars before he was exonerated in his second high profile trial in 2003. More irony: The program for which the Khaldun Center won its USAID grant is eerily similar to the one for which its founder was jailed.

Another stick in the eye?

Perhaps, but that’s not really important. What’s important is that that these grants have happened. And in the Middle East, sometimes it’s best not to try to figure out why things happen, or why they happen when they happen. Maybe we need to be satisfied with ‘Inshallah’ – if God wills it.

Since these grants are a ‘first’, they can hardly been called a trend. But who knows? Six little NGOs have been empowered to do important and potentially seminal work. Americans, unlike Egyptians, know the power of NGOs. These grants might just be the first steps toward teaching the Egyptian people the same lesson.


Friday, March 25, 2005


The following article is by Jason Miller. He is a 38 year old father of three boys, who works as an account representative for a finance company. He has a degree in liberal arts, and is active in the ACLU as a member and volunteer. In his free time, he engages in activism through writing, and through maintaining his blog, "Thomas Paine's Corner".

I remember a time when I felt exasperation when a New Yorker would ask me how Dorothy, Toto, and the tornadoes were. Not anymore. Somebody please razz me about being from the Land of Oz. I need to hear that so I can forget that Kansas has become a hotbed of bigotry, homophobia, and Christian fundamentalism.

To peer into the depth of Kansas' hatred, look to the example of Kansas City, Kansas. Recently, it looked inviting enough that it came very close to becoming the new world headquarters of the Aryan Nation, one of the most vile and potentially dangerous hate groups in America. Topeka is the home to the "Reverend" Fred Phelps, whose website is, which speaks volumes about his repulsive way of being. Sam Brownback, one of our US Senators, is a social fundamentalist of the first order who is spearheading the conservative agenda to turn back the clock on many of the progressive gains we have made over the last century.

His "glorious"efforts include his strong support of the "Constitution Restoration Act", which would grant judges the leeway to mete out biblical punishments, and would legally define god as the ultimate source of US law in lieu of our Constitution. Social fundamentalists will not rest until they have manipulated the Judicial system to reflect their view of how things "should be" in America. Fortunately, the Restoration Act did not pass in 2004, but our "Good Sam" will make another run at it in '05. Count on it!

Last night, my wife and I attended a forum on Kansas' most recent display of bigotry and ignorance. On April 5, we will go to the polls to vote on an amendment to the Kansas constitution to ban gay marriage. It is not enough that Kansas state statutes define marriage as a right reserved for heterosexuals. Now the fundamentalist hate-mongers need to take it to the next legal level, where the law will be virtually impossible to modify or strike down without the intervention of a federal court. On April 5, the "good people" of Kanas will probably vote to amend our constitution to ban gay marriage, and while voting on that same ballot, will probably stock public school-boards with folks whose "good Christian values" include book-banning and teaching Intelligent Design as a "rival theory" to Evolution. I am not a defeatist, but this is Kansas after all.

Reverend John Tamilio III from the Colonial Church inn Prairie Village spoke as the voice of reason and moderation as the forum evolved into more of a debate than a discussion. His assertions that homosexuality is neither a sin nor a choice were welcome to my ears. It was the first time I had heard such a statement from the clergy. Tamilio reminded us that Christ spent much of his time with the pariahs of society, and that one of his commandments was to "love thy neighbor". Kansans' push to deny gays their civil rights certainly does not qualify as a loving act.

Tamilio was highly critical of a literal interpretation of the Bible because the Bible was written by men (making it subject to errors), was passed down through oral tradition before it had been written, and it has been translated so many times into several different languages. Being bilingual, I recognize how much can be lost or altered in simply translating a Spanish text into an English text (or vice versa) due to cultural and idiomatic differences. Tamilio took exception to the Christian fundamentalists' assertion that they are biblical literalists. In reality, they only interpret the Bible literally when it suits or furthers their agenda. When it comes to biblical passages that endorse selling daughters, wives being property, stoning non-virgin brides, compelling rape victims to marry their rapists, and woment being the spoils of war, the Christian Right loses its zeal for literal interpretation.

My blood boiled as I listened to the sophistry of Reverend J.K. Warren of the College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe. Bigotry and homophobia were incarnate on that stage and were cleverly veiled under a cloak of "Christianity". Soft-spoken, calm, and polished in his speech, Warren "schooled" the audience with his piercing insight into the "scriptural proof" that homosexuality is a sin. He advised us that one must interpret the Bible literally, and that numerous scriptures throughout the Bible reference homosexual behavior and decry it as a sin. According to Warren, since science has not found a gene responsible for homosexuality, homosexuality is a lifestyle and a choice. He argued that gays and lesbians are capable of choosing to convert to heterosexuality, and that if they embraced God, He would lead them there because that was where He wanted them to be. The line of questioning from the audience, and the level of applause for each pastor at the end, strongly indicated that this particular group of people (at the local community college in a large Kansas suburb of Kansas City) heartily disapproved of Warren and his message. Unfortunatley, I believe that many Kansans would have given him a standing ovation.

Warren represented a growing movement of Americans who yearn to inflict their Christian morals on our secular public school system and society. Evolution is under siege in the schools by an "opposing theory" called Intelligent Design, which is supported by few serious scientists, and little or no evidence. Legislators want to bring God into the Judicial system through the Constitution Restoration Act.

Bush's faith based initiatives violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution by breaking the wall between the separation of church and state. Ironically, the good Reverand Warren tried to convince the audience at the forum that the Establishment clause was written into the Constitution solely to protect the church from state domination. If one believes that, one has not studied their American history very well. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of the other key founding fathers were quite concerned with the potential tyranny of religion over our government and the people. Our Evangelical citizens might feel "warm and fuzzy inside" living in a theocracy, but our founding fathers shed their blood and risked their lives to avoid it.

One of the key strategies of this movement has been to use gays as a scapegoat and a way to motivate their "faithful" to vote and donate money. Christian fundamentalist and social fundamentalist leaders are sacrificing homosexuals at the holy alter of the dollar, and they are pocketing the dollars. They mobilize their minions with Gideon's trumpet call to stamp out the evil hordes of gays in our midst.

Dutifully, Kansans respond with money and votes. Those homosexuals must be stopped before they destroy the fabric of our society!

Not surprisingly, the Christian conservatives' twisted arguments lack scientific merit. In the forum, Reverand Warren suggested that homosexuality is a choice and that gays can change their sexual orientation by "coming to God" and changing their behavior. The American Psychological Association has determined that sexual orientation results from a variety of factors, including environmental, cognitive, genetic and hormonal, and that its exact causes vary from person to person. Their position is that sexual orientation manifests itself in early adolescence (prior to sexual experience) and is not a choice. Acting on one's sexual orientation, or not, is a choice, but then again some heterosexuals choose to remain asexual or even experiment with homosexuality. The American Psychological Association takes a very skeptical view of alleged "conversion" therapies touted by the vile group called Focus on Family and James Dobson, its demagogue.

As a critical thinker, I find it very difficult to imagine people accepting the beliefs of Christian fundamentalist and social conservatives, whose "evidence" consists of a literal interpretation of a book that was written thousands of years ago in a different language, over that of an organization representing professionals who have devoted their lives and careers to the study of human behavior.

What I find almost amusing about the gay marriage debate, and I emphasize the word almost, is that the Christian conservatives make virtually all of their arguments based on the assumption that "everyone" is a Christian who believes that the Bible is the source of absolute truth and law, and that somehow their religion and morals trump all others. I am a deist. I believe in a Higher Power of my understanding. While I deeply respect Christ as a historical figure, and regard him as one of the ultimate liberals, I do not embrace him as my god. I see much wisdom contained in the Bible, but I do not look to it as my sole guidance for moral conduct. Contrary to Bush's belief, and that of many of the Christian right, we are not a Christian nation. The Constitution does not mention God, and was crafted over a period of years by a diverse group of people, including deists and freemasons (whose principles strongly embrace religious diversity). Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom were instrumental in shaping our nascent country, shared a signficant skepticism of religion and its potential for tyranny. Our government was intended to be secular. Many of our citizens embrace religions other than Christianity, or are atheist. While a majority of Americans happen to embrace the Christian faith, there are many non-Christian Americans, and one of our key Constitutional principals is that our government will not establish a national religion.

The Christian Right needs to study history, demographics, sociology, psychology, and Constitutional law to a much greater depth if they hope to ground their arguments in reality. However, if they studied too deeply, they would find that their position is absurd, and would ceast to exist as an ideology. Ignorance can be bliss!

On April 5 Kansans will vote. This is one Kansan who is predicting that the "faithful" will come out in droves to vote to "preserve the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman". Hopefully, my prediction will ring hollow, and sanity will prevail, but in the land of Oz, almost anything can happen.....

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.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


William Fisher

Civil libertarians and opposition political leaders last week stepped up their efforts to pull back the “veil of secrecy” they claim has characterized the Bush Administration.

In separate developments, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought to obtain the records used by the government to deny U.S. entry to prominent foreign scholars, and four key senators introduced legislation to roll back the “potentially damaging limitations placed on access to government information” in the last few years.

The ACLU, the largest advocacy group of its kind in the U.S., filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records concerning the government’s practice of excluding scholars and other prominent individuals from the U.S. because of their political views.

Citing a serious and growing threat to academic freedom, the organization said, "The government should not be barring scholars from the country simply because it disagrees with what they have to say. Nor should immigration and State Department officials be in the business of determining which ideas Americans may hear and which they may not."

ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer said the FOIA request focuses on a section of the Patriot Act that permits the government to exclude foreign scholars from the country if in the government’s view they have "used [their] position of prominence to endorse or espouse terrorist activity or to persuade others to support terrorist activity."

Jaffer said, “While the provision ostensibly focuses on those who sanction terrorism, news reports suggest that the government is using the provision more broadly to deny admission to those whose political views it disfavors”

The ACLU’s request seeks records concerning the use of Section 411 as well as the names, nationalities and professions of those who have been excluded under the law. The request is directed at the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency.

"Unfortunately, the public has very little information about how the Patriot Act is being used," said Jaffer. "At a time when Congress is being ask to further expand the Patriot Act, the government should be more forthcoming about how it is using the powers it already has."

The USA Patriot Act was hurriedly enacted into law shortly after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. It gave Federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new surveillance and detention powers. Parts of the law are due to expire at the end of this year and President Bush has called on Congress to renew the law in its entirety.

In its FOIA request, the ACLU cited several recent cases in which scholars were barred from entering the U.S. Among them:

Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar who was named a "spiritual leader" in Time Magazine’s Top 100 Innovators of the 21st Century series. Ramadan was forced to resign his position at the University of Notre Dame after the government revoked his visa.

Dora Maria Tellez, a leader in the 1979 movement to overthrow Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (and later a democratically elected official). She was forced to abandon a teaching position at Harvard University after the government refused to grant her a visa.

A group of 61 Cuban scholars that was refused permission to enter the United States to participate in the Latin American Studies Association’s international congress in Las Vegas last October. The Bush administration deemed the scholars’ entry "detrimental to the interests of the United States."

In a related development, four Democratic senators led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced the “Restore FOIA Act,” to “strike the appropriate balance between protecting Americans’ right to know and restrictions on public access to corporate filings about infrastructure with the federal government.”

Leahy, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was joined by co-sponsors Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

He said the 2002 Homeland Security Act (HSA), “granted an extraordinarily broad exemption to FOIA in exchange for the cooperation of private companies in sharing information with the government regarding vulnerabilities in the nation’s critical infrastructure”. He added, “The law that was enacted undermines Federal and State sunshine laws permitting the American people to know what their government is doing. Rather than increasing security by encouraging private sector disclosure to the government, it guts FOIA at the expense of our national security and the safety and health of the American people. “

The HSA created a new FOIA exemption for “critical infrastructure information’. such as privately operated power plants, bridges, dams, ports, or chemical plants — that might be targeted for a terrorist attack. The Administration promoted language they said would encourage owners of such facilities to identify vulnerabilities in their operations and share that information with DHS. But Sen. Leahy says these provisions “shield from FOIA almost any voluntarily submitted document stamped by the facility owner as “critical infrastructure.”

The senator, long a champion of open-government legislation, said the HSA exemption also “shields the companies from lawsuits to compel disclosure, criminalizes otherwise legitimate whistleblower activity by DHS employees, and preempts any state or local disclosure laws.”

The proposed legislation, he added, “protects Americans’ right to know while simultaneously providing security to those in the private sector who voluntarily submit critical infrastructure records to the DHS.”

In an effort to obtain data on the treatment of ‘critical infrastructure information’ at the DHS, two advocacy organizations filed an FOIA request in 2004, seeking release of the number of (critical infrastructure) submissions and rejections, and of any communications between DHS and submitters. When DHS did not provide answers, the groups filed a complaint, and the D.C. District Court ordered DHS to respond. “We learned that as of February 2005, the critical infrastructure program received 29 submissions and rejected seven of those. We know nothing of the substance of the accepted submissions, what vulnerabilities they may describe, or what is being done to address them”, Sen. Leahy said.

The FOIA “was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. It enables citizens to obtain government documents to learn how their government spending tax dollars and implementing laws officeholders enact.

Since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of documents categorized as “classified” and a corresponding spike in the number of requests for documents under the FOIA.Journalists and public interest groups have complained that the Bush Administration has drawn a ‘veil of secrecy’ over the principle of open government.

Monday, March 14, 2005


By William Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By William Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By William Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But free expression comes at a price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


By William Fisher

My nomination for the three most outrageous statements of the ‘war on terror’:

President Bush: "Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture" (January 2005).

Former CIA official Michael Scheuer, the ‘anonymous’ author of “Imperial Hubris” who was the head of the agency’s “Bin Laden Unit”: About the practice of ‘extreme rendition, “The idea that we're gonna suddenly throw our hands up like Claude Raines in 'Casablanca' and say, 'I'm shocked that justice in Egypt isn't like it is in Milwaukee,' there's a certain disingenuousness to that…(rendition is) “convenient in the sense that it allows American policy makers and American politicians to avoid making hard decisions…Yes. It's very convenient. It's finding someone else to do your dirty work" (CBS News, 60 Minutes, March 6, 2005).

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: U.S. policy is not to send detainees "to countries where we believe or we know that they're going to be tortured." If a country has a history of torture, Washington seeks additional assurances that it will not be used against the transferred detainee. But the government "can't fully control" what other nations do. He does not know whether countries have always complied with their promises (Washington Post, March 8, 2005).

The ‘dirty work’ Scheuer refers to is the practice of ‘extreme rendition’, or ‘outsourcing torture’, in which U.S. counter-terrorism agencies kidnap terror suspects and take them to jails in countries that torture prisoners.

We know they torture prisoners because there is a growing body of first-hand testimony from detainees who were tortured. And because our own State Department identifies those countries in its annual Human Rights Report. They include Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and others – all are destinations for the ‘AIR CIA’ service that transports them.

The rendition program started during the Clinton Administration and Michael Scheuer was one of its founders. For years, it was known by Washington reporters who never wrote about it. It was ultra-top-secret.

But if was so secret, how come there has been an avalanche of newspaper, magazine and television reporting about it lately? There are three reasons: First, Abu Ghraib focused the world’s attention on prisoner torture. Second, CIA operatives began to worry that they might be personally prosecuted for breaking U.S. law, and have been scared enough to leak the rendition story to the media so they could hide behind the ‘I was just following orders’ defense. Third, a small but growing number of journalists have persisted in digging deeper, resulting in chilling accounts of things our government doesn’t want us to know.

But how about the President? Is it possible that everyone forgot to tell him? Wow! Isn’t he the commander-in-chief? Doesn’t he give the orders?

Think about it. You’d have to be living in cloud cuckooland to buy the ‘I didn’t know’ story.

Monday, March 07, 2005


By William Fisher

Civil libertarians say America’s ‘war on terror’ is eroding the constitutional freedoms of ordinary citizens. For example, the USA Patriot Act, hurriedly passed by Congress without debate in the weeks after the attacks of 9/11, gave the government sweeping new police and surveillance powers they say are necessary to ‘keep the homeland safe’.

But there is an ongoing and equally insidious challenge to civil liberties that has nothing to do with the war on terror.

The current case of a Michigan artist illustrates the rules of engagement in America’s ‘other war’.

In the Macomb County, Michigan suburb of Roseville, North of Detroit, artist Edward Stross was convicted by a six-person jury last month and sentenced to prison for his mural depicting a bare-breasted figure on a building. The artist was ordered to serve 30 days in jail, do two years of probation and pay a fine of $500 for his variation of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man,” illustrating a half-naked Eve. Stross was also mandated to alter the fresco, which he painted on the outside of his art gallery in 1997. The mural depicted a woman's breast and the word "LOVE," as does the original Michelangelo work.

Stross says he was acting on the basis of a zoning variance granted Stross by city officials some six years ago. But a district court jury decided in January that Stross' version violated that variance.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan successfully filed an emergency motion to keep him out of jail pending an appeal of the sentence.

But officials in this town of about 50,000 seem determined to see Stross jailed. Roseville city attorney John Dolan said, “We don’t believe there is a basis for a stay. He was convicted by a jury of his peers.” Continued Dolan: “There also aren’t any constitutional claims that we think have any likelihood of prevailing in this case.” Dolan added, "Six of his fellow citizens hear the facts ... and return a guilty verdict."

Stross' attorneys had filed a motion to keep the artist free on bond pending the outcome of an appeal of his conviction. Macomb County Circuit Judge Peter Maceroni stopped short of granting the motion, but took the request "under advisement," which keeps Stross free for the moment. Maceroni, the judge who will decide the appeal, could issue a ruling on the bond motion at any time.

After his conviction, Stross covered the breast with black cloth. He explained to reporters that he was in mourning for artists everywhere. “Removing the work is the ultimate punishment. The jail time is nothing compared to removing what I painted. ... They’re trying to paint me out as a criminal.”

Stross, 43, told the Detroit Free Press newspaper: “This is one of the world’s most famous paintings. This is not my work. It is Michelangelo’s, and all I am trying to do is brighten up our community. ... They’re trying to turn my message into something it’s not.”

In a press release, national ACLU Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg commented, “It is disturbing that an artist can be imprisoned for replicating a masterpiece from the Sistine Chapel on the side of his art studio.”

Stross is not alone in attracting the wrath of law enforcement and religious groups. In Pontiac, Michigan, Jef Bourgeau, faced obscenity charges in 2000 for displaying classical art such as Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.

He is among a number of Michigan artists have spoken out in Stross’ support. “It’s an absurd case...Stross’ is a folk version of Michelangelo. There is more nudity in your average church. Sex has become one of the main focuses since the Christian right has gained influence. There has been an increasing preoccupation by the right wing with what is quite normal in art.”

Michigan voted for democratic contender John Kerry in the 2004 election, but Macomb County, where Roseboro is located, voted for George W. Bush, and approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

In Texas, the ACLU filed suit in January against the city of Pilot Point, north of Dallas, and its police department when they demanded that art gallery owner Dwight Miller remove a version of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on an exterior wall of his gallery.

The Pilot Point police repeatedly threatened to prosecute Miller under a criminal statute that targets those who abuse children by selling or displaying hard-core pornography. In response, Miller covered Eve’s breasts with a banner that read “Crime Scene.”

“It is unconstitutional for government officials to censor a work of art because it might offend a small group of people,” said Texas ACLU Director Will Harrell. “It is also a misuse of resources to have our law enforcement officials act as art critics.”

These cases would be troublesome enough if they were aberrations. Unfortunately, they are part of a growing and seemingly ever-more powerful movement by ultra-conservatives to chip away at the freedom of expression guaranteed to all citizens in the U.S. constitution. Many in this camp are religious groups on the extreme right. They seem unable or unwilling to distinguish between Janet Jackson and Michaelangelo. Or between art and ‘Desperate Housewives’.

How does the right wing feel about this part of the ‘culture wars’? Here are a few comments posted on the “Free Republic” website, which claims to be “the premiere online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism”.

“Regardless of the inspiration, sounds pretty clear that this was just another desire to display sexual appetite in public ("love" = "lust"). We don't need to sexualize our children.”

“Breasts don't belong on public walls. I do think they are fine (tastefully) in a museum.”

“Nakedness leads to questions about what all that is from children, and what's it all about, etc. Which leads to children who don't have very strong parents possibly dabbling in the whole free-sex, anything-goes culture and propagating same. Which tends to propagate a very dysfunctional society as we have become. “

There has always been an ultra-right wing in American politics and culture. And certain fundamentalist and evangelical religious groups have always formed part of its support. What is different now is that, with the help and support of the White House and its allies, these groups are well represented among local office-holders such as city and county commissions, school boards and law enforcement agencies. Their ability to get elected to these offices -- the result of a strategy created a decade ago by Rev. Pat Roberts, then head of the Christian Coalition – is proof that they are also far better organized at the grassroots than the Democrats.

It remains to be seen whether the Democrats can successfully take on the Christian Right, or whether they will have to be co-opted by them in order to win.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


By William Fisher

When Al Qaida’s Human Resources department brings new folks on board, we can assume 99.9% of them will be radical Islamists. Fine, we expect it.

When the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is out recruiting, Henry Kissinger or Joe Lieberman or Barbra Streisand are not his most promising targets. He’s looking for W.A.S.P.s. No surprise here.

And when Bob Jones University goes scouting for new blood, they’re not looking for Denzel Washington or Whoopi Goldberg. The Supreme Court ruled twenty years ago that the federal government could deny a religiously-run university tax benefits because the university imposed a racially discriminatory anti-miscegenation policy.

Frankly, I don’t really care who gets hired by these discredited and disgraceful outfits. At least, not until I’m asked to help pay their salaries.

And that’s what the U.S. House of Representatives is asking me – and you --to do.

Yesterday, 224 of our courageous representatives passed the first rollback of religious liberty since President Reagan signed the Job Training Partnership Act into law back in 1982.

In that year, Congress passed the original Job Training Partnership Act. It was sponsored by then Republican Senator (later vice-president) Dan Quayle, reported out of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee by then-chairman Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, and signed into law by Republican President Reagan.

Yesterday a different bunch of Republicans – joined by a lone Southern Democrat – decided in their infinite wisdom to scrap the civil rights protections contained in the Reagan version of the Act.

What they okayed was use of tax dollars to fund religious discrimination in hiring for government-funded jobs. So the House made it OK to demand that taxpayers help finance hiring policies that say Protestants-only or Muslims-only, or Catholics-only, or Jews-only, or, for that matter, whites or blacks or Asians-only.

Despite the aggressive opposition of a huge coalition of religious, civil rights, labor, educational, and other advocacy groups, President Bush pushed hard for passage as part of his Faith Based Initiative.

Reminds me of my childhood when signs at companies and newspaper want-ads blatently announced “Jews and Negroes need not apply”.

Not to misunderstand, most of the religious groups who favored this sea-change do outstanding work. In fact, almost all of them have been doing it for years without tax dollars. Just like the religious and other groups who opposed it.

I’m with President Bush in thinking they could do even more. But whatever happened to the volunteer donors whose generosity has traditionally helped fund these organizations? Do all these champions of ‘smaller government’ jump ship as soon as federal grants are on offer?

Although religious employers enjoy an exemption allowing them to apply religious tests when hiring for positions funded with their own money (italics mine), the Constitution requires that direct receipt and administration of federal funds removes that exemption.

More than 60 years ago, one of the first successes of the modern civil rights movement was a decision by President Franklin Roosevelt to bar federal contractors from discriminating based on race, religion, or national origin. And, as of today, that’s still the law of the land.

As for tomorrow, I’m not so sure. The bill passed by the House now goes to the Senate. Let us hope that the Constitutional separation of church and state is not dead there too.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


By William Fisher

This has been a week when the U.S. press was barely able to keep up with new developments in the ‘war on terror’, bewilderment coupled with hubris about changes in the Middle East, one court proceeding denying bail to an American citizen held without charge in Saudi Arabia for nearly three years and a second telling the Department of Justice to either charge another citizen or let him go, a civil liberties lawsuit accusing the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, of being responsible for prisoner abuse, and the release of the State Department’s annual report on civil rights around the world.

So it is not surprising that the recruiting problems facing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sneaked by virtually under the radar.

Two former CIA case officers weighed in on the recruiting problem. Melissa Boyle Mahle, who spent five years as a CIA recruiter, talked about her new book, "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11".

As reported in The Washington Post, Ms. Mahle says “part of the trouble in the CIA's trenches arises from the agency's hermetically sealed office culture, where secrecy and security can become excuses for avoiding risk. She cites the agency's continuing struggles to recruit Arab Americans, Asian Americans and other second-generation immigrants with native speaking ability who might blend more successfully into Third World societies than someone who looks like her.”

As a CIA recruiter, Mahle says she “sent many well-qualified, diverse candidates on for security review, only to see large numbers wash out. While some were rejected for straightforward reasons, such as lying about past drug use, others were turned away because their "psychological profile" did not match the CIA's abstract ideal or because their family and social contacts overseas made their backgrounds hard to scrub.”

"Security has no incentive to take risks," Mahle said.

The result "was best illustrated by a panoramic view of the swearing-in of the first class to enter on duty . . . after September 11; it was a sea of white faces."

And the Council on Foreign Relations magazine, Foreign Policy, the premier publication of its kind, carried an article by Robert Baer, cautioning that “The CIA must cultivate foreign sources, reward service overseas, and tap America’s top students to once again get good information on enemies of the United States.”

Baer, who was a CIA case officer from 1976 to 1997, had some advice for CIA chief Porter Goss -- “recruit on college campuses.” Baer noted an earlier time when the CIA “recruited actively and effectively on college campuses. If a student excelled in an obscure language such as Uzbek and expressed a desire to serve his country, a friendly professor might direct him or her toward Langley. It was a vetting system that helped the CIA attract the best and the brightest. The Vietnam War helped put an end to this system and left in its wake a hostile professoriate. Today, the agency relies too heavily on volunteers who come knocking on the door. Having a booth at college job fairs is no substitute for guidance from university professors and administrators.

“Reviving even an informal feeder system would surely meet resistance. But if
you’re able to reconnect with the country’s top universities and their students,
the rewards will be great down the line. Today, the directorate needs six years
to vet new employees: a year of working at headquarters, a year of training, a
year of language study, and a three-year journeyman tour overseas. For those who prove inadequate along the way, the only recourse is to shunt them off to jobs where they can’t do any harm. Imagine how much better the system would work if the CIA identified the prime talent at the front end,” he said.

He suggested changing the security clearance system. “If you are, say, an American born in Islamabad who happens to have a second cousin working in the Pakistani intelligence service, the chances of getting security clearance to join the agency are close to nil. Third-generation Americans with no known foreign relatives but who have spent much of their lives overseas have a better chance, but the odds are still slim, especially if those overseas years were spent
studying in a place like Cairo.”

Of course, he wrote, “there is always a risk that someone who has studied in Cairo—and picked up an Egyptian girlfriend or boyfriend, and a lot of other Egyptian friends—will have gone over to the dark side. But the CIA and the DO desperately need people who speak foreign languages and who know parts of the world crucial to the United States. To reject such people solely because they aren’t provincial is yet another way the agency cuts off its nose to spite its face.”

“Why give such people any clearance?” he asks. “Because we get a window on the world. Let’s say the CIA hires a young U.S. citizen educated at the American University of Beirut who marries a Saudi girl, and who maybe even converts to Islam and moves to Saudi Arabia to take a job. After five or six years living in the kingdom, he’s sure to speak fluent Arabic and move in circles regular CIA employees can’t even glimpse. He might even get close enough to the fundamentalists to recruit one as a source. This reform would radically alter protocols that have been in place since the CIA was founded in 1947. It will be tough to force through the system, but it is crucial if the CIA hopes to adapt.”

But one of the CIA’s juiciest recruiting targets is proving to be elusive. The Arab-American and Muslim-American communities are, by and large, terrified by even the idea of talking with any U.S. law enforcement or intelligence agencies. While some have come forward – and many of those have been unable to get security clearances – the Islamophobia that has gripped America since 9/11 has created widespread suspicion and fear in these communities.

Leaders of organizations representing Arab- and Muslim-Americans insisted on speaking with this column on condition of anonymity. But their message was unified and clear: “When the FBI or the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security come knocking at your door, you’re more likely to be rounded up and put in jail than offered a job.”