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by Sheldon Rampton

There is something deeply scary about the Bush administration’s efforts to pass the Cheney/Specter bill, which if approved would give the White House unprecedented powers to wiretap and spy on U.S. citizens, without the need to obtain a search warrant. In addition to the threat that this poses to the privacy of all Americans, it particularly threatens journalists.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union critique of the bill, it would "vastly increase the government’s statutory power to examine all international phone conversations and emails, making warrantless surveillance of Americans’ conversations the rule rather then the exception and expand the ability to conduct warrantless physical searches of Americans’ homes."

As an example of how this legislation could be abused, consider the situation of my own organization, the Center for Media and Democracy. We are based in the United States, but one of our staff members — Bob Burton, who lives in Australia — works as the editor of our SourceWatch project. Giving the government the ability to examine all international emails without a warrant could mean that even our routine staff communications could come under secret surveillance — ranging from discussions of editorial policy to matters as mundane as staff vacations and the family photos that Bob occasionally sends us. The same thing could happen, of course, to any organization whose employees work outside the United States — which happens to describe every major news outlet, and in particular publications whose reporters are covering the mess in Iraq.

This comes, moreover, at a time when the U.S. military is also planning to spend millions of dollars to monitor and and manipulate journalists. As Walter Pincus reported recently in the Washington Post, "U.S. military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid a two-year, $20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq. The contract calls for assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part of a program to provide ‘public relations products’ that would improve coverage of the military command’s performance, according to a statement of work attached to the proposal."

In short, the government will be ranking reporters and news outlets based on how favorable or unfavorable they are to the U.S. military and to the war in Iraq. And $20 million is a lot of money to spend on monitoring the media.

Back when Bill Clinton was president, John Stauber and I wrote an article about then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, criticizing her for spending a much smaller amount — $46,500 — to hire a PR firm named Carma International to monitor reporters and rank them according to whether they wrote favorable or unfavorable articles about the Department of Energy. Not only did we criticize this practice, government officials and journalists from across the political spectrum united in condemning it — including even the Clinton administration itself.

Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, said O’Leary showed poor judgment and her media monitoring was "clearly unacceptable."  The Washington Post called it "a thoroughly dumb idea." The Washington Times wrote that the Carma contract evoked "the chilling suggestion of a press blacklist." The New York Times said O’Leary had "stepped well beyond the bounds of propriety" and called on Clinton to fire her. Mary Manning, a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun who had criticized the federal government’s plans to locate a repository for high-level nuclear waste in Nevada, said that finding herself listed on Carma’s roster of "unfavorable" reporters felt like being put on "Nixon’s enemy list." She added, "If private companies want to hire a PR firm to monitor the media, that’s one thing, but this is the government. If they start making lists of reporters they don’t like so they can ‘work on us a little,’ we have to worry about the fact that they control the police, the FBI, the CIA and the IRS."

At least 77 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, signed on to a letter calling for Clinton to demand O’Leary’s resignation. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) chaired a hearing to investigate the Carma contract, at which Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) complained, "This is about ranking reporters for the purpose of manipulating the press: awarding friends and punishing enemies. Reputations and lives have been destroyed." Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.), said, "My heart’s kind of sick today that we’re even doing this … We don’t have a money problem. We have a moral problem about how we spend our money."

All of these warnings are even more valid today, when the proposals to grade Americans according to their political thoughts are coming, not from the lowly Department of Energy, but from the Vice President of the United States and the U.S. military. Moreover, these proposals come at a time when the Bush administration’s right-wing base is vigorously denouncing journalists as traitors, with some even calling for the editor of the New York Times to be sent to the gas chamber. Nor is it any comfort that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems determined to fan these extremist flames, as he did in his recent speech to naval personnel, when he declared that terrorists are "actively manipulating the media in this country."

The White House and Senator Specter would like us to believe that their plan for warrantless wiretaps and other surveillance of American citizens will only be used to trap real terrorists, and that this vast power to engage in secret spying will not be used against journalists, bloggers and other peaceful citizens who challenge their policies.  Given the things that they have already done, and the frequency with which they condemn their critics as traitors, we would have to be extraordinarily naive to trust them.


Sheldon Rampton is the co-author, with John Stauber, of several books including The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq, which was published this month by Tarcher/Penguin.