In the airport, Americans are now faced with the choice of allowing the Transportation Security Administration to molest them and their families or view their naked bodies if they want to travel. On the internet, the private sector is happily carrying out state censorship with PayPal, Mastercard, Amazon, and other companies doing everything in their power to shut down the whistle blowers’ website Wikileaks. Now, in the latest of a string of policies purportedly helping to keep the American people safe, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced a new partnership with the retail giant Wal-Mart as part of its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign.
Over 230 Wal-Mart stores across the nation began airing DHS video messages at select checkout stations on Monday, with a total of 588 Wal-Mart stores in 27 states planning to roll out the program in the coming weeks. The message thanks Wal-Mart for its participation in the program and implores shoppers to report any suspicious activity to a Wal-Mart manager or the proper authorities immediately.
“Homeland security starts with hometown security, and each of us plays a critical role in keeping our country and communities safe,” said Secretary Napolitano, “I applaud Wal-Mart for joining the ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ campaign. This partnership will help millions of shoppers across the nation identify and report indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats to law enforcement authorities.”
Wal-Mart is not the only company the DHS is partnering with. The DHS’ partners already include the Mall of America, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, sports and general aviation industries, and this could only be the beginning.
According to the DHS website, “the Department will continue to expand the “‘If You See Something, Say Something” campaign nationally with public education materials and outreach tools designed to help America’s businesses, communities and citizens remain vigilant and play an active role in keeping the country safe.”
Some applaud the new program as an easy and relatively unobtrusive way for the government to encourage Americans to stay alert while others find that it sends a cold chill running down their spine. In fact, it is difficult for some to think about these sort of ambiguous “security” messages being broadcast so widely without being reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. To them, the irrational culture of fear and submission these sorts of messages perpetuate is more dangerous than terrorism itself.
After all, the TSA has never stopped a single attempted terrorist attack, but it has greatly infringed on the liberties of regular Americans. The information leaked by Wikileaks has never resulted in the known death of even a single person, but it has prompted a governmental backlash and sent senators scrambling to draft new legislation to restrict freedom of information on the web. So, what are the DHS’ video messages actually going to accomplish? Are they really going to save any American lives?
Or, are they simply going to further inundate the American public with the irrational fear behind the idea that safety must come at the price of freedom?
By Nora Eisenberg
Reposted from www.alternet.org
Veterans Day, which Americans celebrate on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in the Great War of 1914-1918. In the United States, the idea that this was “the war to end all wars,” (a phrase coined by H.G. Wells in a pamphlet of that name and echoed by Woodrow Wilson with equal earnestness) was challenged by an outspoken and persecuted peace movement, including poor farmers and black Americans conscripted at disproportionate rates.
Most Americans may have accepted the justification at the war’s start, but by the war’s end, with a U.S. body count of 117,000 and double that in serious injuries (and 37 million casualties overall on both sides, 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded), the signing of the Armistice by Allies and Germans at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was met with celebration that it might mean a true “end of war.” In 1919, a year later, Armistice Day was established to celebrate “the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”
After World War II and the Korean War, and the start of a heated Cold War, it was clear to the government that an armistice and peace were not in sync with the times. In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11 holiday to Veterans Day, exchanging peace for celebrating patriotic valor, and the ultimate sacrifice of life, limb and health in battling for one’s country.
Today’s veterans are survivors of more than a half century of American wars—World War II, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, the 1991 Gulf War (which has never been officially declared over), and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we celebrate our veterans this week, we would do well to remember the following realities that the public is barely aware of, but veterans know only too well:
1. It took almost 50 years for the government to acknowledge the suffering of more than 200,000 U.S. veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used for a decade to defoliate forests and destroy food sources in Vietnam. Despite higher incidences of cancer, neurological, digestive, skin, lung and heart disorders along with miscarriages and birth defects, the DoD denied any linkage of exposure and disease, and disability claims, which veterans initiated in 1977 were mostly denied. By 1993 only 400 veterans exposed to Agent Orange had been granted some compensation.
Class action suits against companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical settled out of court for small amounts. After much advocacy by veterans and their supporters, the 1991 Agent Orange Act was passed, allowing the VA to declare specific conditions “presumptive” to Agent Orange. This summer the list was expanded to include B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease. Still, after five decades, compensation is small with the vast majority of awards at 20 percent or $243 montly.
2. Almost a third of the 700,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffer from a profound physiological disorder called Gulf War Illness (formerly Gulf War Syndrome). For almost 20 years, the DoD and VA insisted that psychological stress alone was the cause of the fatigue, mood disorders, cognition and memory problems, and disorders of every physical system as well as birth defects of veterans’ children. To date, some 11,000 veterans have died from the illness, and most survivors continue to suffer chronic symptoms. In 2008, the Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) reported what veterans have known too well—that wartime toxins, not stress, caused profound physical illness in almost 300,000 veterans of Desert Storm.
RAC identified in particular a class of neurotoxins found in experimental anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take upon threat of court martial, pesticides and sarin gas, which plumed for hundreds of miles when Iraq munition storage facilities known to contain nerve gas were exploded. RAC did not rule out vaccines or depleted uranium, pioneered during the Gulf War for its ability to penetrate most anything. Yet the RAC report’s recommendations for immediate interventions and programs have not been followed, but rather remain the subject of further study by the Institute of Medicine.
3. Veterans of ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a variety of physical traumas beyond the widespread maiming and loss of limbs. Last year, the DoD warned that as many as 20 percent of veterans (360,000) may have suffered traumatic brain injury from IED blasts. Blast injuries generally do not result in skull fractures or loss of consciousness, yet the Institute of Medicine has reported that these traumatic brain injuries may cause diffuse brain bleeding and result in PTSD and problems with mood, concentration, memory, pain, balance, hearing and vision.
In addition, veterans have suffered multiple toxic exposures, including contaminated water, and dioxin and other carcinogenic compounds from the widespread use of burn pits instead of incinerators in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything from refrigerators to trucks to body parts has been reported burning in the vast pits, which spew black smoke for miles and cause the black phlegm known as “Iraq crud.” Several class action suits have been filed against contractors like KBR on behalf of veterans sickened by toxic exposure.
4. On any given night, more than 200,000 veterans are homeless, and 1.5 million veterans are considered at risk for homelessness. Because of lack of work, support networks and substandard housing, veterans without homes have served in every war with surviving populations–World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Vietnam veterans have long comprised the largest portion of the homeless veteran population, but veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become homeless much sooner than veterans of the Vietnam War did. PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) can cause severe psychiatric symptoms from mood disorders to depression, aggressive and dangerous behaviors, substance abuse and alcoholism. In addition to psychiatric, neurological and physical injury, multiple deployments, the high cost of housing, reduced job opportunities, and low wages endanger family stability, employability and maintaining a steady residence.
5. The population of homeless women has skyrocketed from 5 to 20 percent over the last decade as more women are deployed into battle. Women veterans are two to four times more likely than non-veteran women to be homeless. Approximately 40 percent of homeless female veterans of today’s wars report being sexually assaulted by male soldiers while in service, with sexual abuse being a major risk factor for homeless according to the VA Homeless Programs director. Fifty-six percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite being only 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the population, respectively.
6. Over a half million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are patients in the VA system. Thousands more wait as much as a year for VA treatment for serious ailments including traumatic brain injury. Forty-eight percent (243,685) are mental health patients and 28 percent (143,530) are being treated for PTSD. A recent internal VA memo revealed systematic gaming of the VA application process, whereby bureaucrats at facilities seek to improve access data by denying treatment.
7. Every day, five U.S. soldiers attempt suicide, a 500 percent increase since 2001. Every day 18 U.S. veterans attempt suicide, more than four times the national average. Of the 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S., 20 percent are committed by veterans, though veterans make up only 7.6 percent of the population. Female veteran suicide is rising at a rate higher than male veteran suicides.
8. The number of U.S. service men and women killed in Afghanistan has doubled in the first quarter of 2010, compared to the same quarter last year. In the first two months of 2010, injuries tripled.
9. Estimates of civilian deaths from violence in Iraq alone range from a conservative 105,000 (Iraq Body Count project) to over 1.2 million (UK pollster Opinion Research Business), with estimates by Johns Hopkins at 655,000. More than 125,000 civilians have been injured in Iraq and 4 million displaced, with civilian death and injury in 2010 rising each month. By most estimates, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the 2001 invasion; over 200,00 have been internally displaced; and over two million have become refugees, with civilian deaths and injuries rising dramatically in 2010.
10. U.S. veterans live with these horrific realities daily. Many are acutely aware as they suffer, of the suffering they have inflicted on others.
Arizona seized the international spotlight last April when Governor Jan Brewer signed immigration Bill 1070 into law. The new law requires police officers to arrest any person they stop who cannot immediately prove that they entered the country legally.
Immigrant communities, their sympathizers, and civil liberties advocates have violently condemned the bill as a blatant endorsement of racial profiling that does nothing to address the root causes of illegal immigration.
Anti-immigration advocates, meanwhile, have lauded the bill as being a positive step towards halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States and securing the nation’s border.
The full implementation of the law has been temporarily halted by court order as U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton waits to hear further arguments regarding the bill. In all of the considerable controversy surrounding this bill, however, one question seems to have fallen by the wayside: just whose idea was this bill anyways?
Like anything else in politics, all you have to do is follow the money. Ever since Governor Brewer signed the bill into law much of the country has been left holding their breath as they wait to see what will come of it- but perhaps no one is more blue in the face than those who stand to make additional millions from the law.
As it turns out, the bill was written in December of 2010 by representatives of the private prison industry at a meeting of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington, DC.
ALEC is composed of several representatives of powerful business interests including ExxonMobil, tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., the NRA, and most importantly in this case, the Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the United States.
The private prison industry has been successfully trying to keep people locked up for profit for years. The industry has done everything from lobbying for stricter drug laws too arguing for the expanded privatization of state and federal penitentiaries. In fact, thanks in large part to their success, the United States now boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies have long known that locking up illegal immigrants is one of the most promising sectors for continued growth in the private prison industry. The implementation of the new Arizona law will likely send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison- generating hundred of millions of dollars worth of additional profits for the private prison industry- and possibly pave the way for other states to pass similar measures.
Arizona State Senator and ALEC member Russell Pearce maintains that the bill was his own idea, but we now know that the bill was written almost word for word with the help of the Corrections Corporation of America in Washington, DC’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. In the privacy of a hotel conference room, members of ALEC designed the bill, debated the language, and finally voted unanimously to approve the model piece of legislation.
Of the unusual 36 State senators who rushed to co-sponsor the bill back in Arizona, at least 2/3 of them are reported to have attended the ALEC meeting in December, and thirty of them received donations over the following six months from prison lobbyists or prison companies.
Once the bill got onto governor Jan Brewer’s desk it was a sure thing- she is a strong supporter of private prisons and both her spokesman Paul Senseman and her campaign manager Chuck Coughlin are former lobbyists for private prison companies.
It is important to realize that none of this is illegal or even especially unusual. Legislation is regularly drafted with the help of organizations like ALEC and then passed into law by representatives who are receiving money from the same business interests who wrote the bill.
It is well-known that keeping black and brown people in chains has been big business in the United States for hundreds of years. It appears that Arizona’s new immigration law is simply the latest niche for the exorbitantly wealthy few who benefit the most from keeping minorities in cages.
A US federal Judge dismissed a complaint Wednesday (9/29) brought by the families of two Guantanamo prisoners that alleged that the circumstances surrounding the men’s deaths had been covered up when they were declared suicides by the Pentagon in June of 2006.
The families of Saudi prisoner Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami of Yemen were asking US District Judge Ellen Huvelle to reexamine the case in light of new testimony from military personnel working at Guantánamo at the time of the “suicides” that directly contradicts official accounts.
A third prisoner, Mani al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia also died the same night, but his family has not filed a complaint.
At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani, 22, and Al-Salami, 33, had been held at Guantánamo without charges for four years at the US naval base. According to the Pentagon, on the night of June 9th, 2006, Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and Utaybi were found at approximately the same time hanging from makeshift nooses in their cells. They were then rushed to the camp’s infirmary where they were shortly pronounced dead.
The following day the commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, put the base on lockdown. He ordered almost all reporters on the base to leave and told those already en route to turn back. He officially declared that the deaths were “suicides,” and he went on to say, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”
But new first-hand accounts from soldiers on duty at the base on the night of June 9th suggest that Admiral Harris’ and the Pentagon’s version of events is false and that the men may have actually died as the result of torture at a site off base known as “Camp No.” According to the petition, this site was called Camp No because if soldiers were asked if it existed the were supposed to say no.
Army officer Joe Hickman says that he was supposed to log every vehicle that exited or entered the base. Even when Senator John McCain came to visit the base Hickman ensured that he was properly logged in and out. However, there was one windowless paddy wagon that was sometimes used to transport prisoners that he was not supposed to keep any log of. He and other soldiers say that they saw this van pick up three prisoners and drive them to Camp No on the evening of June 9th.
When the van returned to base later it did not return the prisoners to their cells, instead it backed up to the infirmary. A medical officer told Hickman they had been sent to the infirmary, “because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised,” the petition said.
When Hickman heard the official cause of death was suicide by hanging the next day he talked with the other guards who would have had to of seen if any bodies had been transported from the cells to the infirmary, but no one had seen any bodies being moved.
The families of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami demanded an independent autopsy, but when the bodies arrived they had already had all of their vital organs surrounding their throats removed making it impossible to 100% verify the cause of death.The medical examiners they had hired made requests for the organs to be sent from Guantánamo, but their requests were ignored.
In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Huvelle did not really address any of these issues raised in the petition. Instead, she cited a decision by a federal appeals court in Washington stating that conditions at Guantánamo should not be investigated by the courts and should remain the purview of Congress alone due to national security concerns.
In light of this ruling, it is unlikely that all of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and al-Utaybi will ever be discovered. The Obama Administration has already made it clear that it not interested in looking backwards to investigate potential war crimes and there is no reason to think that Congress would investigate the Pentagon’s official account.
The whole incident and yesterday’s ruling in particular serve as a stark reminder of Obama’s broken promise to close Guantánamo within one year of taking office. Even if Obama does end up closing Guantánamo down, it is difficult not to wonder how much of its true history will remain forever unknown?
There are expected to be as many as 100 competitive races for House seats as well as 37 races for governor this year and according to the Associated Press, the latest financial reports show that House and Senate candidates have already raised 1.2 billion dollars in order to win those races. This is far ahead of the pace of the past several record-setting elections and the money is pouring into the coffers of both Democratic and Republican candidates alike. Despite the rhetoric from both sides of the aisle surrounding the ailing US economy and the need for fiscal responsibility, both parties seem unwilling to spare any expense when it comes to investing in their own self-preservation. So, why even as the US economy continues to shrink is 2010 on pace to be such a record setting year?
Of course there is the fact that there is currently an especially bitter and divisive political climate within the United States, but that is hardly so different from any other election in at least the past decade. The more likely culprit is the Supreme Court’s ruling on January 21st of this year. The court ruled 5-4 that it was unconstitutional for the government to restrict corporate campaign contributions because they qualify as protected political speech under the first amendment. That historic ruling means that it is now open season for corporations and any other special interest group to give as much money as they see fit to any political cause. This does not mean we are going to see overt massive corporate donations and open corporate endorsements of political candidates. On the contrary, we haven’t seen this because most corporations are to afraid of the backlash that this might cause. To borrow from the Associated Press’ article:
“What we will see is corporations not wanting to anger their shareholders, not wanting to anger their retail customer by getting involved in partisan elections,” said Paul Ryan, a senior lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center. “Instead they will employ strategies to obscure the fact, or hide completely the fact that they are dumping money into politics by routing their money through groups like the Chamber of Commerce.”
The best part of this arrangement for corporations is that many of these “independent” organizations like the Chamber of Commerce are not required to make their donors public. In this way corporations can keep money flowing into Democratic and Republican candidates in order to influence policy without fear of repercussion. The Federal Election Commission has not yet written any rules regarding how to apply the court’s decision, so for the time being there are none. Corporations and anyone else can effectively contribute to campaigns in secret and the sky is the limit.
It is worth making it clear that the court’s ruling does not just apply strictly to corporations. In fact, any individual or group can now give as much money as they like to political candidates, but the reality is who has enough money to give to really make a difference? The answer is millionaires, billionaires, and the corporations they own. It is impossible to trumpet the Supreme Court’s ruling as an expansion of human freedom when it is so obvious that the vast majority of Americans can hardly spare a dime. While companies continue to downsize, say they can’t afford to hire new employees, and balk about having to help pay for employee’s health care it seems that they still somehow have enough money to make 2010 a record year for campaign contributions.
Meanwhile the rest of us would only be able to scrape together the occasional twenty, fifty, or maybe even a hundred dollars to contribute to a political campaign if we wanted to- but how far would that get us compared to the millions corporations can afford to spend? Who’s going to continue to have even more pull in Washington than they have already?
The answer is as obvious as it is disheartening: electoral politics in the US is typically just going to keep benefiting the rich.
Friday, August 6th, marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the day the United States’ dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima killing some 140,000 people and bringing the second world war to a quick and brutal end. The anniversary was covered in The New York Times and many other major news outlets across the US. This years’ anniversary was especially notable because for the first time ever a US government official, US ambassador to Japan John Roos, attended the remembrance ceremonies in Hiroshima. Though the US government has never actually apologized for the bombing, some took ambassador Roos’ attendance as a symbol of reconciliation and hope for nuclear disarmament worldwide. However, there is another grimmer story that seems to contradict these dreams of peace that has received little if any news coverage within the United States.
On July 6th, exactly one month before the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) released a study titled, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009.” The study’s authors Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan, Entesar Ariabi and their team of researchers gathered data from household surveys of 711 homes in January and February of this year that revealed a tremendous spike in cancer rates and birth defects in the city of Fallujah within the last five years. Using cancer rates among similar populations in the neighboring nations of Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait as a standard for comparison the researchers’ made some disturbing discoveries in Fallujah including:
- 38 times higher rates of Leukemia
- 10 times higher rates of breast cancer
- 5 times higher infant mortality rates
- A wide range of birth defects
- unusual gender disparity in newborns of 860 boys per 1,000 girls
These results are shockingly similar, but even worse, than what researchers found among survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were exposed to radioactive fallout from the blasts. The first scientific study of Fallujah supports the anecdotal evidence of increased cancer related deaths and other mutations in the city that have been surfacing since the United States’ invasion of Iraq, but it begs the question: what’s poisoning the people of Fallujah?
The authors’ argue that to cause this sort of sudden and widespread mutagenic damage there had to have been some sort of recent catastrophic contamination in Fallujah. While they are not yet positive what this was as there are a number of incredible difficulties when conducting research in a war-zone, they have already identified one prime suspect: depleted uranium munitions (DU’s). In one of the bloodiest battles of the war the US military shelled Fallujah relentlessly with tons of DU shells killing untold numbers of armed Iraqis resisting the occupation as well as unarmed civilians in 2004. The US military often uses DU’s like those used in Fallujah because they are significantly denser than lead and make for much better armor-piercing rounds. DU’s are essentially made from spent nuclear reactor fuel. Typically, this sort of nuclear waste would be stored securely, probably somewhere far under ground, but in this case it is sold to munitions manufacturers for profit and a small amount is put into each DU round. The US government officially insists that DU’s are perfectly safe, but other independent sources violently disagree.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons was formed in 2003 just before the US siege on Fallujah and represents a coalition of more than 120 NGO’s worldwide that support banning DU’s. According to their website, DU shells release an incredibly noxious dust as they burst that is easily inhaled into the lungs, and furthermore:
From the lungs uranium compounds are deposited in the lymph nodes, bones, brain and testes. Hard targets hit by DU penetrators are surrounded by this dust and surveys suggest that it can travel many kilometres when re-suspended, as is likely in arid climates. The dust can then be inhaled or ingested by civilians and the military alike. It is thought that DU is the cause of a sharp increase in the incidence rates of some cancers, such as breast cancer and lymphoma, in areas of Iraq following 1991 and 2003. It has also been implicated in a rise in birth defects from areas adjacent to the main Gulf War battlefields.
This directly contradicts the position of the US government, but is supported by enough evidence that the coalition has convinced the EU’s Foreign Affairs Committee to advocate for EU support of a treaty that would ban DU’s. Unfortunately, even if successful, such a treaty will do little to help the people of Iraq generally and the residents of Fallujah specifically as such a treaty would have no bearing on the US. Despite what the US government may claim, the truth is that there is serious reason to believe that the US has used radioactive weapons thousands of times since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki- one DU shell at a time.
All the while when President Obama was speaking nobly of nuclear disarmament in Prague in 2009 or when Ambassador John Roos was attending remembrance ceremonies in Hiroshima this month the US army has been continuing to use DU weapons. Weapons that are very likely to be what are causing babies in Fallujah to be born looking like (warning: images are highly disturbing) this. The damage in Fallujah may not be as immediately visible as a mushroom cloud, but it is present and ongoing. The IJERPH’s study may well be just the first piece of scientific evidence that confirms what many have already suspected for several years: the US military committed at least one war crime in Fallujah in 2004 by using DU’s.
This is incredibly hard for some people in the US to believe as it runs directly contrary to the images of the US military in the mainstream media as heroic liberators in Iraq or at worst misguided heroes. It is impossible to know, but maybe this is why this important news simply hasn’t been reported within the US outside of the independent media. By almost any measure it would seem to be an incredibly significant story, but the corporate media within the US has entirely failed to cover it. Perhaps there are some things mainstream news sources simply can’t see because of their biases or can’t say because of their close proximity to power. This is not conspiratorial or even terribly surprising. In the same way you may not want to trust the Tehran Times for accurate news about popular protests in Iran, our major newspapers may not be the best source for accurate news about US wars. Moreover, while the US media remained silent the Tehran Times did in fact run a story about the IJERPH’s study. Considering how authoritarian many within the US believe the Iranian government to be as compared to the US this comparison is thought-provoking to say the least. The sad truth is that the people of Iran probably know more about the fallout in Fallujah than most Americans.
On July 25th the organization known as WikiLeaks, a confidential resource for whistleblowers who wish to release secrets to the public, released tens of thousands of classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan War Diary, as it is called provides an unfiltered look at the war in Afghanistan as told by coalition forces on the ground. Not surprisingly, these documents paint a somewhat different picture of the war than what the American public is used to hearing from American journalists and politicians. According to an interview WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange had with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, the documents (some of which have not yet been released by WikiLeaks) even reveal dozens of potential US war crimes against innocent civilians. At a minimum The Afghan War Diary reveals numerous civilian deaths, problems with unmanned drones, Pakistan’s possible support of the Taliban, and the corruption and unreliability of Afghan government officials as well as military and police forces. However, what is perhaps more revealing than the leak itself, is the opportunity it has provided to gauge media bias.
WikiLeaks did an interesting thing when they decided to release The Afghan War Diary- before going entirely public with the leak they gave three major newspapers a sneak preview: The New York Times in the US, The Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Der Spiegel in Germany. All three papers received the WikiLeaks documents three days before they went up on the WikiLeaks webpage and agreed not to publish anything about them until WikiLeaks’ official release date on July 25th. Two days later Eric Johnson broke a fascinating story in the Huffington Post about how differently The New York Times and The Guardian had covered the leak. In essence, he found that the two papers ran entirely different stories about the same exact material.
Johnson relied on a method called content analysis when comparing the two papers. This method involves both recording the number of instances a certain word or phrase appears in an article as well as determining the broader intention of the text. However, the simple truth is you don’t need a scientific approach to realize the vast differences between the two stories. It’s obvious. All you have to do is look at the most prominent article in The Guardian with the headline, “Afghanistan war logs: Secret CIA paramilitaries’ role in civilian deaths” versus the most prominent article in The New York Times with the headline, “Pakistan Spy Service Aids Insurgents, Reports Assert.” The difference between the two papers’ coverage of the leak is plain to see: The Guardian focused on civilian casualties and The New York Times focused on the connection between Pakistan and the Taliban. For an interesting example from Johnson’s article:
“Of the twenty times the word “civilian” is used in The Times only nine uses are in reference to casualties resulting from combat operations (four of these are clustered in a single section midway down the page and two were at the hands of Afghan soldiers or police). The Guardian‘s coverage used the word “civilian” 41 times in their primary coverage and 37 of these uses referred specifically to civilian casualties (two cases occurred in each newspaper concerning hypothetical casualties and these have not been included). The difference between The Times and The Guardian is dramatic and represents a ratio of 2:1.”
Johnson goes on to explain that after he factored in the differences in word count between the two articles it became apparent that The New York Times had actually focused seven times less attention on civilian casualties than The Guardian. So, why is there such a discrepancy in the coverage?
Johnson writes that the fact that The New York Times chose not to emphasize civilian casualties, “suggests a political motive to avoid discussing the human impact of the war. This is consistent with the hypothesis that a close association between journalists and American political, economic, and military officials would influence reporters in the direction of those same officials.” In other words, this sort of bias is the inevitable result of journalists and editors constantly rubbing shoulders with (as well as needing to maintain access to) the very politicians they are theroretically supposed to be holding accountable.The New York Times’ own Note to Readers on July 25th reaffirms this hypothesis in that it reveals that the paper’s editors spoke with White House officials prior to making a decision regarding what they would publish. This sort of voluntary censorship coupled with an article that almost completely omits what many believe to be the primary significance of The Afghan War Diary is disturbing to say the least. It would seem that the United State’s most prestigious newspaper is doing US government officials a favor by trying to garner public support for an increasingly unpopular war.
None of this is to say that The Guardian is a more honest paper. The fact of the matter is that if The Guardian were addressing an issue as central to British politics as the Afghanistan war is to politics in the United States you could probably expect a similar result. While it focused much more on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even The Guardian’s story dramatically underestimated the number of civilian deaths revealed in the documents. To quote Johnson again:
“In The Guardian‘s article entitled “Logs Reveal Grim Toll on Civilians” they state that the documents show “144 entries in the logs recording…hundreds of casualties.” However, this was only in the so-called “blue on white” events (those cases where US and NATO forces acknowledged firing on civilians). Further analysis of the data show that these are only a small percentage of the overall impact on the Afghan population. In the category labeled High Severity there are 1,539 pages including 50 military reports on each page. A search for CIV KIA (military code for civilians killed in action) among the first 5,000 reports brings a total of 796 hits. In other words, an average of one in six reports contains evidence of a civilian death, and most involve more than one.”
All of this demonstrates the incredible importance of what Julain Assange and WikiLeaks are doing. By releasing actual reports detailing what the war is really like as told by actual reports from coalition forces the American public is empowered to ask not only, why is the war in Afghanistan being spun to us? But also, who’s doing the spinning?