During his first re-election campaign, FDR came to Bedford, Massachusetts in 1936, stumping for four more years of New Deal.
In the crowd was a young girl with an envelope. She tried to make her way to the President to give him the enveloped note but was turned away by a policeman. Roosevelt told one of his aides: "Get the note from the girl."
The young girl's note read: "I wish you could do something to help us girls ... We have been working in a sewing factory, ... and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week ... Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week."
A reporter asked President Franklin about the note. "Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages," was his reply.
Two years later, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), establishing the minimum wage and 40-hour work week.
A few years ago, I was invited to the cozy confines of the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan to participate in a weeklong retreat with other writers, activists and thinkers. For hours on end, we talked about the sorry state of the world and what we thought could be done to make it better. Like most of these kind of gatherings, we broke into small discussion groups to probe particular social problems more deeply.
John de Graaf, a longtime television producer and creator of the award-winning documentary "Affluenza," was in my discussion group. He noted the irony of how we live in the most affluent society in the history of the world, yet are increasingly time-poor. John had put his finger on the number one reason why people often can't do anything other than try and make their own lives better -- there's no time for anything else.
Then someone brought up FLSA and said, since FDR signed the bill into law, the time most people spent laboring had only increased -- to the point where, for millions of gainfully employed Americans, working 40-hours a week doesn't pay the bills. An increased workload also diminished most people's ability to even spend quality time with their families, to say nothing about getting involved in social activism.
What we needed, John said, was to "take back our time." And at that moment, Take Back Your Time Day was born; meant to symbolize a "challenge (to) the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."
Today, John's vision has grown into a 7,400-member citizens organization, pushing for labor-friendly policies and more free time. This year, Take Back Your Time Day (Oct. 24) is celebrating the 70th anniversary of FSLA while calling for a new labor law that would make paid vacation a guaranteed right and not just a voluntary benefit employers "offer" workers.
A recent poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found 69 percent of Americans support guarantee paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more. Every demographic showed majority support for a vacation law. Only 27 percent said they opposed the idea.
Respondents were also asked how many weeks of vacation were needed to prevent "burnout." 52 percent said they need three weeks or more and 82 percent said they needed at least two weeks.
The survey also uncovered a sad feature of working life in America. Almost a third of working Americans (28 percent) took no vacation time at all; half took a week or less; and two-thirds got less than two weeks off. The median vacation time: 8.2 days, far below the three weeks most cited as the needed amount of time-off to prevent burnout.
The eighth annual Expedia.com vacation survey backs that up, reporting for "the eighth consecutive year, Americans received and used the smallest amount of vacation time among their (European) counterparts abroad."
Even worse, despite reporting an average of 14 paid vacation days again this year, about a third of employed U.S. adults will not even use all the vacation days they do get.
"Again this year, employed U.S. adults will leave an average of three vacation days on the table, in essence giving back more than 460 million vacation days in 2008. Despite these statistics, Americans do see the value in vacation, with more than one-third (39 percent) reporting they feel more productive and better about their job upon returning from vacation and 52 percent claiming to feel rested, rejuvenated and reconnected to their personal life."
"Work responsibilities" was cited as the biggest deterrent to taking vacation. And even when Americans do take vacation, 24 percent "report that they check work e-mail or voicemail while vacationing." That's up from 16 percent in 2005.
All of this has significant economic implications, de Graaf points out. "Time off is essential to health. Men who don't take regular vacations are 32 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease than those who do, and women are 50 percent more likely. If we want to cover everyone and reduce the cost of health care, one way to do it is to improve our health, and every study shows that more time off can help do that."
Seeing as how both Obama and McCain like to talk about health care and "creating more jobs," I've been meaning to pass a note to their respective campaigns: "I wish you could do something to help us take back our time. Let me tell you about Take Back Your Time Day."
I just haven't had the time.
As the Fed tries to shore up the levees against the derivative deluge -- and as politicians seek to redistribute wealth upward -- other equally important things are happening in the world, which is why I have a problem with bumper-sticker phrases like "it's the economy, stupid." It reduces politics to economics, as if political behavior can be explained by economic self-interest. If "it's the economy, stupid," then "What's The Matter With Kansas?"
But we're not in Kansas anymore. And we're not in Oz either, where you can click your heels three-times and everything will be 401-OK. This is the land of "secretocracy," where the "living document" of the Constitution is on life-support.
Here in Secretville, the buzz is all about fusion and financial markets ain't the only thing melting down. The Justice Department recently finalized new -- and more lenient -- investigative tactics FBI agents can now use. The new rules fuse together the FBI's General Crimes Guidelines, National Security Investigative Guidelines and Foreign Intelligence Guidelines.
In a joint statement before the Select Committee on Intelligence on Sept. 23, the assistant AG and the FBI's general counsel testified that the FBI was no longer primarily concerned with investigating crimes after they are committed. It has become "an intelligence-driven agency capable of anticipating and preventing" crime.
When you're in prevention mode, you have to do assessments. And that's what has civil liberty watchdogs nervous -- how the Justice Department defines "assessment."
The Electronic Privacy Information Center warns: the FBI's new powers "pose serious threats to the right of individuals to speak and assemble freely without the spectre of government monitoring. The policies also threaten Fourth Amendment rights, as (agents have been permitted to) engage in prospective searches without possessing any evidence of suspicious behavior."
The new rules also present a practical problem. "At a time when it is clear that the FBI has been awash in data and unable to process leads effectively," the new guidelines enable "the agency to obtain even more information that is less likely to result in solid leads."
Not only do the new guidelines allow the FBI to conduct surveillance without a court order, it also allows them to "collect information relating to demonstration activities," without a single iota of evidence that a national security threat exists.
Recall the mid-1970s, when it came to public light, the FBI was working to actively undermine peace groups and leaders like Dr. King (which included an officially-sanctioned effort to persuade King to kill himself), guidelines were put in place to prevent such abuses of authority. The new guidelines unravel those safeguards and fuse it back together again in the name of fighting terrorism, as if terrorism posed an existential threat to America.
Beyond the new FBI guidelines, another area of "secretocracy" has experienced fusion.
Over 40 "fusion centers" have sprouted up across the country, according to the ACLU's report, What's Wrong With Fusion Centers.
Fusion centers are these post-9/11 institutions where local, state and federal law enforcement officials meet with business leaders to share -- not just criminal intelligence -- but also private sector data, with the hopes of mining that information to determine possible patterns of possible future crime. Kinda like that movie "Minority Report" where officers of the Department of Pre-Crime arrest people before any law is broken, except without the gift of "pre-cognition."
"There's nothing wrong with the government seeking to do a better job of properly sharing legitimately acquired information about law enforcement investigations ... But in a democracy, the collection and sharing of intelligence information," especially info about American citizens, "need to be carried out with the utmost care ... because security agencies are moving toward using such portraits to profile how 'suspicious' we look," the ACLU notes.
"New institutions like fusion centers must be planned in a public, open manner, and their implications for privacy and other key values carefully thought out and debated. And like any powerful institution in a democracy, they must be constructed in a carefully bounded and limited manner with sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse. Unfortunately, the new fusion centers have not conformed to these vital requirements."
We've seen the fusion of political power in a "unitary executive," the fusion of the Fed and financial markets and now we've got Fusion Centers. How many fusions equal full-fledged fascism?
As I was saying, we're not in Kansas anymore.
First, the U.S. Treasury nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which holds over $5 trillion in combined assets and guarantees most of the mortgages in the country -- an implicit acknowledgement by the government that the mortgage market is broken.
We've overthrown regimes and threatened others with military action for nationalizing industries. When other governments do it, it's evidence of their evil, socialist heart. When our government does it, it's necessary.
Next came Lehman Brothers filing the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Then, the following day, the Federal Reserve gave an $85 billion "bridge loan" to A.I.G., the largest insurance company on the planet, holding over $1 trillion in assets with 100,000 employees across the globe.
What we are witnessing is what economists Douglas Diamond and Anil Kashyap call "the most remarkable period of government intervention into the financial system since the Great Depression."
At the heart of this credit crunch mess is something called "derivatives." The Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University offers a good primer:
As popular a reference tool as Wikipedia has become, our newsroom policy doesn't allow for our reporters to use it as an official source for any story. And for good reason: anyone with access to a computer can edit entries.
Through the various industry grapevines, I've ascertained that the Cape Cod Times isn't the only news organization that considers Wikipedia to be a potentially polluted source.
Wikileaks, however, is a different animal -- despite the similar interface the fledgling whistleblower site shares with Wikipedia.
If you're not familiar with Wikileaks, you should be because, since it debuted last year, the international transparency network behind the site has forced governments and news media to take notice, most recently with the posting of whistleblower documents that indicate "thousands of sterilizations, and possibly some abortions, took place in 23 Texas Catholic hospitals from 2000 to 2003," as reported by the Catholic News Service in the wake of the leak.
The same day of the Catholic hospitals leak (June 15), Wikileaks posted the 219-page U.S. military counterinsurgency manual, Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces (1994, 2004).
Wikileaks investigative editor Julian Assange writes that the manual can be "critically described as 'what we learned about running death squads and propping up corrupt government in Latin America and how to apply it to other places.' It's contents are both history defining for Latin America and, given the continued role of U.S. Special Forces in the suppression of insurgencies, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, history making."
Students of U.S. foreign policy history, particularly guerrilla warfare history, will find no real surprises in the counterinsurgency manual, as eye-popping as it may be to some.
In February, Wikileaks posted the secret rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq, which was followed by The New York Times and prompted the Iranian government to hold a press conference, warning U.S. military planners about border crossings. The Washington Post reported on leaked Guantanamo detainee policy documents first posted on Wikileaks that forced the Pentagon to respond.
Wikileaks describes itself as a site that's "developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact."
Besides having been briefly banned by a judge in the U.S. (the site appears to be based in Sweden), the anonymous founders are international computer geeks who know how to hide in cyberspace and get around things like the Great Firewall of the government in China. In fact, Wired magazine notes that one of Wikileaks' advisers, security expert Ben Laurie, "doesn't even know who runs the site -- other than (co-founder Julian) Assange (who lives in Kenya) -- or where the servers are."
What makes Wikileaks a unique "news" site is that instead of "breaking stories," it publishes leaked documents, now boasting "over 1.2 million documents ... from dissident communities and anonymous sources."
An early criticism of Wikileaks was its posting of anonymously leaked documents without running it through an editing process and without providing any context -- something that many industry insiders (and military brass), including prominent open government advocates like Steve Aftergood, view as "irresponsible," at best.
While Wikileaks Web masters seem immune from government and press criticism, they're not unresponsive, having changed the site a bit since it first hit the net in January 2007. The home page now features analysis of recently leaked documents, as well as "fresh leaks requiring analysis."
The site also notes: "Wikileaks is not like Wikipedia. Every submitted article and change is reviewed by our editorial team of professional journalists and anti-corruption analysts. Articles that are not of high standard are rejected and non-editorial articles are fully attributed."
As for the possibility of someone, including spy agencies, posting forged documents -- well, Wikileaks has an answer for that too.
"Wikileaks believes that the best way to determine if a document is authentic is to open it up for analysis to the broader community -- and particularly the community of interest around the document."
"So for example, let's say a Wikileaks document reveals human rights abuses and it is purportedly from a regional Chinese government. Some of the best people to analyze the document's veracity are the local dissident community, human rights groups and regional experts (such as academics). They may be particularly interested in this sort of document. But of course Wikileaks will be open for anyone to comment."
"Journalists and governments are often duped by forged documents. It is hard for most reporters to outsmart the skill of intelligence agency frauds. Wikileaks, by bringing the collective wisdoms and experiences of thousands to politically important documents, will unmask frauds like never before."
While journalists should view Wikileaks with a healthy dose of skepticism, its short-track record has proven that it cannot be ignored. Welcome to the brave new world of investigative journalism.
In 1788 Patrick Henry wrote: "The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."
In 2008 Wikileaks is poised to test just how much we believe in the idealistic rhetoric celebrated over the Fourth of July weekend.
Seems everyone's talking about prospective vice presidential candidates. But who cares about the vice president?
Go ahead and laugh but the VP view of the "founding fathers" wasn't far from the sentiment embedded in that question.
An afterthought in the construction of the Constitution, it was on Sept. 6, 1787 that America's powdered-wig wearin' Constitutional Convention approved Alexander Hamilton's proposal to create the office of the vice presidency, declaring that the Veep should be the runner-up in the race to be president.
That's how VPs were picked until the rules were changed to allow presidential nominees to pick their running mates, which has since been used as a way for candidates to garner more votes with a "more balanced" ticket.
The first two vice presidents had two different perspectives. John Adams famously quipped: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
Jefferson wrote: "The second office in the government is honorable and easy; the first is but a splendid misery."
Is it a stretch to think Jefferson considered the vice presidency "honorable and easy" because, as Adams observed, it's "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived?"
As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, VPs were still considered of such little consequence that when Vice President Garret Augustus Hobart died in November of 1899, the office was left vacant, as it had been on ten previous occasions for periods ranging from several months to as long as four years. Don't you just love progress? We've gone from the marginal significance of the vice presidency to the shadowy co-presidency of Dick Cheney. And while Cheney is arguably the most powerful (and secretive) vice in U.S. history, the transformation of the office began long before he was officially embedded in the White House.
The first VP, John Adams, attended a Cabinet meeting in 1791; something no other VP did until 1918 -- the year President Wilson asked Vice President Marshall to preside over the Cabinet while he was off at the Paris Peace Conference.
The expanded role of the vice presidency took another leap when President Warren Harding invited his VP, Calvin Coolidge, to attend all Cabinet meetings.
But, it was Vice President Charles G. Dawes who, in refusing to attend Cabinet sessions, cautioned that by doing so, "the precedent might prove injurious to the country." (Did he foresee Cheney?)
The response to Dawes warning: precedent, schmecedent!
Eisenhower took it to the next level, directing Vice President Nixon to preside over Cabinet meetings in his absence instead of following precedent in which the Secretary of State presided.
JFK and LBJ kept the VP snowball rolling before handing it off to Carter and Reagan, both of whom further expanded the office. Bush and Clinton followed suit.
Then came the JFK expansion, making LBJ chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the head of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
Johnson kept the ball rolling when he became president, appointing Hubert H. Humphrey to lead his administration's anti-poverty and civil rights programs. Nixon followed up by putting Spiro T. Agnew in charge of promoting the administration's domestic policies with state and local officials.
Walter Mondale helped President Carter craft U.S. policy in South Africa and was at the forefront of Carter's effort to reorganize the U.S. intelligence community.
Vice President George H. W. Bush -- the first VP to serve as acting president (while President Reagan underwent surgery) -- ran the group of advisers that provided Reagan with recommendations on how to respond to foreign flare-ups.
Quayle, believe it or not, headed the National Space Council, while Gore was given a primary role in foreign affairs, environmental policy, and the taxpayer subsidized effort to hand over government communications research and technology to private profiteers.
(And they say government doesn't help create wealth. Tell that to all the entrepreneurs who have made a fortune using technology initially funded with taxpayer R & D money. Gore didn't invent the Internet but he did carry on the long-standing government tradition of giving taxpayer-subsidized research and technology over to private companies for "free" -- the kind of bottom-up transfer of wealth free-market purists like to pretend doesn't exist and never enters the hand-wringing discussion over government hand-outs. But I digress).
So here we are, coming off eight years of the Imperial Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney, which seems to have conditioned us into thinking the VP must be something more significant than a bench-warmer called in to do PR work like representing the White House at state dinners and funerals the President can't make or getting involved in First Spouse kinda stuff like reading to kindergartners in the "inner-city."
Not to understate the semi-importance of VP candidates (especially in Obama's unique case, given America's historical penchant for assassination, especially popular leaders labeled by racial politics as "black") but, isn't it more important to bring some focus to bear on Israel flirting with an attack on Iran?
An Israeli-Iranian war would undoubtedly draw in the U.S. military, putting over a 100,000 U.S. troops now stationed in Iraq in the middle of a mess that'll make the insurgency look like kiddie play; not to mention the potential for the needless death of even more innocents, fanning the flames of the self-fulfilling prophecy of Armageddon that millions of Bush supporters hope to speed up.
Memo to national news editors: We got into Iraq with cooked intelligence and escalating sanctions under the guise of "diplomacy." Fool us once, shame on them. Fool us twice and, never mind, shame -- say hello to zero credibility.
You hear it all the time, especially during election season. "The media is biased" -- a criticism leveled from both the Right and Left.
In fact, there's a cottage industry devoted to "exposing media bias," most of which has people in the news biz rolling their eyes. And for good reason: not that media criticism is unwarranted, it's just that most of it, to put it bluntly, is oversimplified nonsense that generates more heat than light.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of pop media criticism is its lack of clarity. People talk about the media as if it were a single entity.
"The media"? Are we talking about the broadcast or print media? Are we talking about the Colbert Report, PBS, NPR, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal or the Cape Cod Times? Are we talking about reporters, editors, publishers, radio talk-show hosts, columnists, bloggers or TV pundits?
As Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote in a recent issue of American Journalism Review, "critics often blame 'the media,' as if the sins of some are the sins of all. It's not just a bland, inexact generalization; it's a slur. The media are, of course, made up of numerous parts, many of which bear little relation to each other. Critics need to define their terms. Holding 'the media' responsible for some perceived slight is like blaming an entire ethnic or racial group for the actions of a few of its members."
Still, surveys show ever-increasing public skepticism about the traditional news media. According to survey data cited by media scholar S. Robert Lichter, two-thirds of the public thought the press was "fair" in a 1937 survey but by 1984 rolls it dropped to 38 percent, while only 29 percent said the same about TV news.
Adding insult to injury, a national survey conducted by Sacred Heart University in January found that only 19.6 percent of respondents said they believed "all or most" reporting, while an a larger percentage (23.9 percent) said they believed "little" or none of it. Next stop: zero credibility.
These survey results should be taken with a grain of salt, in part because, news consumers tend to overstate how closely they pay attention to news, as the Sacred Heart study indicates.
For example, the survey found that Americans described the New York Times and NPR as "mostly or somewhat liberal" -- about four times more often than they described those two outlets as "mostly or somewhat conservative."
"Leave aside the blunt generality inherent in this. (Is all of NPR -- from "Morning Edition" to "Car Talk" -- "mostly or somewhat liberal?") The more important (and unasked) question about this finding is its shaky foundation. Given that only small fractions of the populace read the Times or listen to NPR on a regular basis, how is it that so many Americans seem to know so much about the political leanings of the Times and NPR?" Farhi asks.
Part of this disconnect stems from the lack of actual content analysis among the general public and an over-reliance on anecdotal examples.
Take this year's primary campaign season, for example. Depending on which candidate you supported in the primaries, the universal claim is that the media was biased for/against Clinton or Obama. Yet, a study of the A sections of three agenda-setting newspapers (the Washington Post, NY Times and L.A. Times) done by researchers at Bowling Green State University paints a more nuanced portrait.
The study found Clinton and Obama received about the same number of "positive" and "negative" headlines from those papers (from Labor Day through the Super Tuesday primaries in early February). About 35 percent of the headlines for Obama were positive and 27 percent were negative. Clinton received 31 percent positive and 31 percent negative. The rest of stories were considered to be either mixed (with positive and negative elements) or neutral.
So what's the deal? Is the entire news biz soooo biased that it warrants such a profound sense of distrust among the public?
My own biased answer is: of course, there are media biases, most of which are on the institutional level; shaping the way news is gathered and delivered, regardless of individual preferences. But, the "media bias" news consumers decry doesn't manifest itself in the way most people think, especially as conceived by those who think the media is "liberal."
That's going to sound "liberally biased" to Limbaugh and O'Reilly fans but it's a bias shared by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.
"To this day, I'm often asked about the 'liberal media' critique," he writes in his new memoir. "My answer is always the same. It's probably true that most (journalists) are personally liberal or leftward leaning and tend to vote Democratic. But this tilt to the left has probably become less pronounced in recent years."
I would say that's an understatement.
"Everything I've seen as a White House press secretary and longtime observer of the political scene ... suggests that any liberal bias actually has minimal impact on the way the American public is informed. We in the Bush administration had no difficulty in getting our messages out. If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House," McClellan observes.
The run-up to the invasion of Iraq is the most obvious example. McClellan argues that the press were asking the wrong questions, focusing on the "march to war," instead of whether war was necessary. When it comes to Iraq, he writes, "the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."
For those of us who saw the invasion of Iraq as a war of choice and not necessity from day one, McClellan's observation is, by now, a truism. But what is interesting about his conservative view is that he takes it one step further.
"I'm inclined to believe that a liberal-oriented media in the United States should be viewed as a good thing," especially considering that the last several presidential administrations and the bulk of Congress have been "a succession of conservative/centrist leaders, either right of center or just left of center, who pursued mainstream policies designed to satisfy the vast bulk of middle-class American voters."
"Over the past forty years, there have been no flaming liberals in positions of greatest power in American politics. Under these circumstances, a generally liberal or left-leaning media can serve an important, useful role. It can stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative and mainstream politicians."
Tell your right-wing friends to put that in their Limbaugh pipe and smoke it.
Moving beyond the oversimplified and misleading debate about liberal/conservative media, there's a deeper problem to consider.
These seemingly intractable, polarized, news-views show no sign of abating. In fact, there's every reason to expect it to get worse. With the Internet and the ability of news consumers to pick and choose what news they want to engage, I wonder how America will ever have a meaningful conversation about any national issue when we're all living in our own individual media bubbles, clinging to news that affirms our individual world view while rejecting any information that doesn't fit neatly into our political philosophy as worthlessly "biased."
That doesn't facilitate conversation. It encourages us to continue shouting past each other.
"They hate our freedoms," we've been told. Over and over again. Never mind the willful ignorance involved, even using that shallow Bushism as a measuring stick, we're losing the war on terror.
To say "we're losing" is not even controversial, much less news -- if you've been paying attention.
But in this neo-PC era, in which talking about obvious realities in the political arena is considered beyond the pale ("chickens coming home to roost," for example), merely suggesting that "we're losing" will be taken by some readers as an expression of eternal "anti-American" defeatism instead of the realistic assessment that it is; a necessary first step toward the renewal of the Republic.
Exhibit A: Access to information is the cornerstone of a free and open society. I don't think Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Wall Street Journal editorial page lovin' conservatives could disagree with that. Yet, under Bush, access to information has been increasingly restricted in the name of national security at levels never seen before. And it's happening right under our noses.
So, even if you buy into the oversimplified "they hate our freedoms" mindset, the mere fact that since 9/11, America has gone from formal democracy to an official "secretocracy" must have the yet-to-be-captured bin Laden singing praises to Allah.
As former Bush White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes in his new book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, "keeping the curtains closed and doors locked is never a good idea in government, unless it involves vital matters of national security. Secrecy only encourages people to do things they would prefer others not know about. Openness is critical for accountability."
"The Bush administration lacked real accountability in large part because Bush himself did not embrace openness or government in the sunshine. His belief in secrecy and compartmentalization ... ultimately self-defeating in the age of the internet, blogsphere, and today's heightened media scrutiny."
Last week, an official background paper on the new White House information security policy plan was leaked to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
In essence, the new policy, announced early last month, gives federal agencies the authority to designate many government press releases as "Controlled Unclassified Information" under the guise of "standardizing practices" and safeguarding unclassified government information deemed sensitive.
The official acronym is CUI. On its face, the policy gives federal information officers a single catch-all acronym to replace the various labels individual agencies use to control information i.e. "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." There's about a hundred labels used by Uncle Sam to mark degrees of need-to-knowness.
But, beneath the surface we find this 2006 Congressional testimony from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): "The great majority of information which is now controlled can be put in a simple unclassified, uncontrolled category, it seems to me," ODNI Information Sharing Environment program manager, Thomas McNamara, testified.
Here's the rub: under the new Bush CUI policy, as Steven Aftergood of FAS notes, the "great majority of the information" McNamara said should be uncontrolled is likely to remain controlled and unavailable to the public.
What if a member of the public (or reporter working as a proxy for Joe and Jane Q. Public) wants information that a federal agency has stamped CUI? According to the White House background paper, that person should submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
Speaking from experience, anyone who has submitted FOIA requests knows the process is anything but timely, cheap or even necessarily fruitful. The current FOIA system is, as my grandmother used to say, slow as molasses in January. (Several years ago I submitted a FOIA request to the Interior Department. It took six months and $360 to get a few hundred pages of fairly innocuous documents).
The unveiling of the new CUI policy happens to coincide with news that The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is overwhelmed and backlogged, facing a mind-boggling increase in electronic and classified records.
"The National Archives today faces two overwhelming challenges -- the exponential increase in government-held electronic records, and the geometric increase in currently classified and previously declassified records -- with which NARA has neither the resources nor the strategy to cope," National Security Archives director Thomas Blanton testified at an oversight hearing two weeks ago.
The hearing also revealed an interesting budget detail. We spend more than $8 billion a year keeping secrets and only $44 million declassifying them, which helps explain why the National Archive administrators are calling for a "classification tax" on federal agencies to fund a National Declassification Center.
They're also pushing Congress to change the standards for how government info is classified; how historical records are released; and for the establishment of independent review boards -- a la the Kennedy Assassination Records Act and the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.
"Institutionalizing presumptive withholding in a government-wide CUI policy could make it harder to overcome current secrecy practices when the opportunity to do so presents itself," Aftergood cautions.
The irony is hard to miss. In our Information Age, the information citizens need to make informed decisions is becoming less accessible.
Inheriting the Mess-o-patamia left behind by Bush & Co., it would be nothing short of miraculous if the first 100 days of the next administration accomplished nothing more than to pull back the curtains, open the White House windows and let the sun shine in. Then -- maybe, just maybe -- we can start "winning."
Once upon a time, a team of federal attorneys went before the Supreme Court only to discover that their entire case was based on a revoked executive order and therefore moot.
True story. Look it up. Panama Refining Company v. Ryan. The revoked presidential order was understandably missed by the attorneys. The revocation had never been made public -- an example of what legal scholars refer to as "secret law."
Cases like that caused Congress, in the '30s and '40s, to pen legislation aimed at bringing order to the dissemination of vital government information, amid the chaotic complexity of state administrative laws and downright shoddy record-keeping. Congress also established statutes to keep a growing body of secret law in check.
That's how we got the Federal Register Act of 1935, the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 and the golden key to open government (and investigative reporting) -- the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Those legislative acts exemplify one of the defining features of American government -- the publicizing of laws and regulations. The political philosophy isn't hard to understand. Secret laws are the antithesis of a free and open society, which explains why the first U.S. Congress mandated that every "law, order, resolution, and vote (shall) be published in at least three of the public newspapers printing within the United States."
But, never mind -- for the moment -- the decline of newspapers, and the harmful implications it has for democratic governance. Even more alarming is the underreported increase of unpublicized "secret laws," clandestinely cultivated in recent years.
We're talking everything from secret interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to secret Presidential directives and transportation security orders.
And don't let the word "opinion" throw you off. If, for example, they're "opinions" issued by the OLC -- like the now infamous Yoo torture memos -- those kind of "opinions" are binding on the executive branch.
So, while the Washington press heavy-hitters were analyzing flag pins and pastors, a Judiciary subcommittee hearing was held on "Secret Law and the Threat to Democratic and Accountable Government".
Among the half-dozen or so witnesses to testify was the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood -- one of the nation's preeminent authorities on secret law. What should have been a top-story across the country was rendered invisible by a tsunami of triviality.
Here's some testimony you probably missed:
"There has been a discernible increase in secret law and regulation in recent years" to the point where "legislative intervention" is required to "reverse the growth."
Unsurprisingly, secret law really became entwined with the government during the Cold War. But today, "secrecy not only persists, it is growing. Worse, it is implicated in fundamental political controversies over domestic surveillance, torture, and many other issues directly affecting the lives and interests of Americans."
The law that governs espionage activity has been re-interpreted by the FISA Court, the specific nature of which has not been disclosed to the public?
In August 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the court on First Amendment grounds to make public those legal rulings, after redacting classified information. The court denied the ACLU petition, claiming it didn't have the expertise to decide what information should be redacted.
The denial was issued despite it being evident "that there is a body of common law derived from the decisions of the (FISA court) that potentially implicates the privacy interests of all Americans. Yet knowledge of that law is deliberately withheld from the public. In this way, secret law has been normalized to a previously unknown extent and to the detriment, I believe, of American democracy," Aftergood testified.
Other areas of concern: "there appears to be a precipitous decline in publication of OLC opinions in recent years ... In 1995, there were 30 published opinions, but in 2005 there were 13. In 1996, there were 48 published opinions, but in 2006 only 1. And in 1997 there were 29 published opinions, but only 9 in 2007."
"One secret OLC opinion of particular significance, identified last year by Sen. Whitehouse, holds that executive orders, which are binding on executive branch agencies and are published in the Federal Register, can be unilaterally abrogated by the President without public notice."
Such orders mean "Congress is left with no opportunity to respond to the change and to exercise its own authority as it sees fit. Worse, the OLC policy ... implies a right to actively mislead Congress and the public."
Here's something else that's been waaaay underreported. As of January 2008, the Bush administration has issued 56 National Security Presidential Directives on a range of national security issues. Most of those directives have not been disclosed. "Texts of the directives or descriptive fact sheets have been obtained for about a third of them (19)," Aftergood testified. Only the titles have been obtained on 8 of the directives and absolutely no information is available for 10.
Congress has also gotten in on the action, having "participated in the propagation of secret law through the adoption of classified annexes to intelligence authorization of bills, for example."
Aftergood concluded his testimony, rightly observing that "it should be possible to identify a consensual middle ground that preserves the security of genuinely sensitive national security information while reversing the growth of secret laws."
That's why he's pushing for the passage of the State Secrets Protection Act -- S. 2533 -- which aims to balance conflicting interests of secrecy and public disclosure.
"The rule of law, after all, is one of the fundamental principles that unites us all, and one of the things we are committed to protect. Secret law is inconsistent with that commitment."
Of course, whenever someone points out how civil liberties have taken a back-seat in the name of "national security" under Bush, what's the typical response of true believers?
They call talk radio, blog and write letters-to-the-editor about how "liberals" and "leftists" aid and abet terrorists with a naive insistence that America's political leaders adhere to quaint luxuries like long-established Constitutional freedoms.
The old saw -- "loose lips sinks ships" -- has been replaced by another now familiar brain-dead mantra: "if you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about." But the metastasizing growth of secret law pulls the rug out from underneath that flimsy argument. And for obvious reason: you can't know what you don't know.
Look! In the sky. It's absurd. It's insane. No, it's Irony Man.
Not Iron Man -- Irony Man. News junkies know him as Scott Bloch, after it was reported last week that the FBI had raided the office of Special Counsel. In the wake of the raid, the National Whistle-blower Center issued this statement, hinting at Bloch's Irony Man identity: "In a notably ironic turn of events ... Bloch -- who is charged with protecting federal whistle-blowers -- has been under investigation for, among other things, whistle-blower retaliation within his own agency. Most of the whistle-blower community has been disappointed with Bloch's tenure in office. He had no actual expertise in the field and was viewed as a patronage appointment."
I couldn't get in touch with Bloch but I think he would agree with my assessment that the FBI's timing couldn't be better -- at least for the folks organizing "Whistle-blower Week" in the nation's capital, which happens to be this week!
But I was able to catch up with the president of No Fear Institute, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. NFI is organizing the Whistle-blower Week conference.
Coleman-Adebayo was a senior Environmental Protection Agency representative to the White House under the Clinton administration. While serving on a special U.S. commission working with the South African government, she blew the whistle on the death she discovered was being wrought in South African communities where vanadium pentoxide is mined by poor villagers to supply the steel alloy America relies on for making bridges, airplanes, cars, even knives, forks and surgical instruments. Vanadium is one of the chemical compounds mixed with steel that allows it to bend and contract without breaking.
When Coleman-Adebayo found that lack of environmental regulations and labor laws in South Africa were literally killing poor miners and their families, Coleman-Adebayo tried to call attention to the silent killer. Her superiors told her to forget about it but her refusal to forget about it led to her increasingly hostile ouster.
In August of 2000, a federal jury found the EPA guilty of violating her civil rights. Coleman-Adebayo became an activist and organized a grass-roots campaign that eventually led to the passage of the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act (the No FEAR Act), which was signed into law by President Bush in 2002.
A year later, Congress began to gut the law. Since then, Coleman-Adebayo and the rest of the whistle-blower community has been working with congressional allies on new legislation.
"One of the goals of Whistle-blower week is to push for new legislation," she told me on Mother's Day.
One is called the Congressional Disclosure Protection Act, which is designed to protect workers against whistle-blower retaliation if they should testify before Congress.
"Almost always, when you testify (as a whistle-blower) before Congress, you are immediately retaliated against, usually fired. This Act will provide some protection when workers exercise their constitutional right to talk to Congress."
Another law being advocated is the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act -- to prevent the IRS from taxing compensatory damages awarded to whistle-blowers whose civil rights were violated. When Coleman-Adebayo was compensated for the EPA's retaliation, the IRS took half of it back in taxes! The Civil Tax Relief Act would end that foolishness.
"People don't know it but they've gutted the 1964 Civil Rights Act through taxation. There are people who have gone into bankruptcy trying to get their day in court under a law that Dr. King died for."
Then there's No Fear Act II, designed to make No Fear I gut-proof by defining what disciplinary action must be taken by employers who violate workers civil rights in retaliation for whistle blowing, left undefined in No Fear I.
"I think it will go down as one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in history," Coleman-Adebayo said.
Because she has seen corruption in federal government first hand through her experience in South Africa, Coleman-Adebayo believes "one of the most important things whoever the next president can do is to clean up the federal government."
"We are hoping Senator Obama, Clinton or McCain will take up the mantle to clean up the corruption. Until the corruption is cleaned up, nothing the government does will work for the people. Whistle-blowers are simply the canaries in the mine. We die off first -- but not long after, the carbon dioxide comes out of the mines."
"The whistle-blower community is one of the most courageous communities I've been involved with. Through loss of jobs, families, even death, in some cases, they've made the decision to stand and fight. That's what the week is all about -- a community of people willing to stand up and fight for their country."
The canaries are calling. Will you listen?
I'm hoping this week is a better one for journalism.
Last week began with the American Society of Newspaper Editors reporting that 2,400 full-time newspaper jobs were lost in 2007 -- the largest annual drop in 30 years, bringing the total number of tanked news workers to about 15,000 over the past decade.
"It was an even larger decrease than the 2,000 drop-off in the recession year of 2001," laments Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poytner Institute.
Then, millions witnessed ABC's Democratic presidential debate moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson putting all of their feet (via their mouths) on the accelerator toward the collapse of modern journalism, in their trivial pursuit of "tough questions" on behalf of "ordinary Americans."
At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the Washington press corps asked Obama if he's ever given someone the middle-finger and if so, what does that say about his character? "Mr. Obama, are you aware that one time, someone burned a flag somewhere in America at the precise time you were giving a speech. Does that say something about your patriotism?"
Notice when candidates are pilloried with red-herring inconsequential GOP talking points, campaign commentators point to the "wise" public, adroitly able to sniff out political flaws, as the reason. But when there's widespread public opposition to war policies or corporate-friendly trade agreements, the "wise" public turns back into the stupid, unthinking rabble the true elite have always seen it as, in need of a lecture about personal responsibility and what the experts say is in the "national interest."
And do you recall political reporters grilling W about cocaine allegations and his "character" when he was running? Neither do I. Bush said he didn't want to talk about it and that was that.
I won't belabor the absurdity of two highly paid "newsmen" claiming to have the slightest clue about the experience of "ordinary Americans" or the patronizing responses of Clinton and McCain, essentially arguing that economically-assaulted Americans are not obviously bitter, which implies the masses are enjoying the nearly $4-a-gallon ride. But Gibson thinks an annual salary of $200,000 is middle-class, when the overwhelming majority of Americans earn a quarter of that! And we're talking about Obama's elitism?!
Memo to Gibson and former Clinton confidante (conflict of interest?) Stephanopoulos: Other than "analyzing" the meaning of bitterness and the Sean Hannity inspired Weather Underground nonsense, Obama's "character" issues are well covered in David Mendell's book Obama: From Promise to Power.
Maybe you ought to read it, where you can learn why thinking Americans are way past you, having already read about why Obama begrudgingly accepted his campaign manager (David Axelrod's) advice to dumb-down his policy-wonkish speeches to better connect with ordinary people before he ran for the Senate, later criticized by Washington pundits, Clinton and McCain as being "empty rhetoric."
The book, published LAST SUMMER, covers everything from young Barry in Hawaii to the emerging Barack in Chicago who spent his post-Harvard years actually living and working with poor people (unlike his "regular folk" challengers). Mendell also explores Obama's relationship with the "controversial" Rev. Wright, since you can't seem to get enough of questioning the patriotism of a former Marine who happened to passionately articulate what a lot of "bitter" people are thinking and feeling.
If you want to keep a secret from "informed" Obama-critics, apparently the safest place to hide it is inside a best-selling book.
Though most public criticism I see and hear of the "mainstream media" doesn't distinguish between print journalism and TV news (and there are important differences, in terms of format, content and variety), it's still fair to ask: how are newspaper staff cuts and the Stephanopoulos/Gibson farce related?
Newsweek's Tony Dokoupil notes: "less than one person in five believes what he reads in print, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism" ... and a recent Sacred Heart University study found that nearly nine in 10 Americans believe that journalists are actively biased."
It's good that news consumers are skeptical but the internationally televised gotcha "debate" in Philly has only made a bad news biz situation worse. And when I say "bad," I'm speaking in relative terms. "Bad" means news organizations are only bringing in 20 percent profit, instead of 30 percent margins owners used to rely on. Not exactly the poorhouse.
Having been a reporter and columnist for 13 years and an assistant news editor for a year, I don't want to be too glib about what many of my colleagues consider as a "crisis in journalism." News gathering is an expensive, labor-intensive, boots-on-the-ground mission and the current business model is in serious financial trouble.
Why should non-journalists care about newspaper cutbacks and why should cynical bloggers hold off on celebrating a dying "old media"?
PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer provides a succinct answer. "Most of the major stories about which there is so much talk, consternation, blogging, and yelling on shout shows all began with a print news story," Lehrer told USA Today.
He's right. The overwhelming majority of original reporting is done by professional print journalists. Most stories covered on local TV news stations are culled from the morning paper. Talk radio wouldn't exist without newspapers and just about every political and news blog in the country is a literal para(web)site of print journalism.
"The fewer the resources that are devoted to (print journalism), the poorer the public." Take The Washington Post story about the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for example.
"Nobody would have known about that without The Washington Post devoting four months, with two reporters working full time, to that story. Those kind of resources won't be available if newspapers continue to cut back."
Without strong newspapers, "my worry is that nobody else is going to fill in that reporting vacuum."
That giant sucking sound you hear is democracy wheezing.