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Project Censored 

The Top 10 Stories from the Past Year that You Probably Haven't Heard About

  • Illustration by Mirissa Neff

The daily dispatches and nightly newscasts of the mainstream media regularly cover terrorism but rarely discuss how the fear of attacks is used to manipulate the public and set policy. That's the common thread of many unreported stories last year, according to an analysis by Project Censored.

Since 1976, Sonoma State University has released an annual survey of the top 25 stories the mainstream media failed to report or reported poorly. Culled from worldwide alternative news sources, vetted by students and faculty and ranked by judges, the stories were not necessarily overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo, or general under-the-radar subject matter may have kept them from the front pages. Project Censored recounts them, accompanied by media analysis, in a book of the same name published annually by Seven Stories Press.

"This year, war and civil liberties stood out," says Peter Phillips, project director since 1996. "They're closely related and part of the War on Terror that has been the dominant theme of Project Censored for seven years, since 9/11."

The threat of terrorism is being used to silence people and expand power, whether in preventing what one piece of legislation calls "homegrown terrorism" by federally funding the study of radicalism, using vague concerns about security to quietly expand NAFTA, or refusing to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war, the project found.

"The war on terror is a sort of mind terror," says Nancy Snow, one of the project's 24 judges and an associate professor of public diplomacy at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "You can't declare war on terror. It's a tactic used by groups to gain publicity and it will remain with us."

The number of terrorist attacks has dropped worldwide since 2003, says Snow, and some use the absence of fresh attacks as evidence the so-called war on terror is working. But a RAND Corporation study for the Department of Defense released in August said the war on terror hasn't effectively undermined al-Qaida.

Both Phillips and Snow agree that comprehensive, contextual reporting is missing from most of the coverage. With that in mind, Project Censored's top 10 underreported stories for 2008 are:

1. How Many Iraqis Have died?

click to enlarge No one knows exactly how many Iraqis have died as a result of the war, but estimates go as high as 1.2 million. - ILLUSTRATION BY PAT KINSELLA
  • Illustration by Pat Kinsella
  • No one knows exactly how many Iraqis have died as a result of the war, but estimates go as high as 1.2 million.

Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Iraq War has claimed. Even more astounding is that so few journalists have mentioned the issue or cited the top estimate: 1.2 million.

During August and September 2007, Opinion Research Business, a British polling group, surveyed 2,414 adults in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces and found that more than 20 percent had experienced at least one war-related death since March 2003. Using common statistical study methods, it determined that as many as 1.2 million people had been killed since the war began.

The U.S. military, which claims it keeps no count, employs civilian death data as a marker of progress. For example, in a Sept. 10, 2007, report to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus said, "Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45 percent Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December."

In October 2006, the British medical journal Lancet published a Johns Hopkins University study vetted by four independent sources that counted 655,000 dead, based on interviews with 1,849 households. The Associated Press called the report "controversial" and began its own count in 2005. By 2006, AP said at least 37,547 Iraqis had lost their lives due to war-related violence.

Iraq Body Count, a group of U.S. and U.K. citizens that aggregates numbers from media reports on civilian deaths, puts the figure between 87,000 and 95,000. In January, the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government did door-to-door surveys of nearly 10,000 households and put the number of dead at 151,000.

The 1.2 million figure is out there, too. It raises questions about the real number of deaths from U.S. aerial bombings and house raids, and challenges the common assumption that this is a war in which Iraqis are killing Iraqis.

2. NAFTA on Steroids

Coupling the perennial issue of security with Wall Street's measures of prosperity, the leaders of the three North American nations convened the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The White House-led initiative — launched at a March 23, 2005, meeting of President George W. Bush, Mexico's then-president Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin — joins beefed-up commerce with coordinated military operations to promote what it calls "borderless unity."

Critics call it "NAFTA on steroids." However, unlike NAFTA, the SPP was formed in secret, without public input.

"The SPP is not a law, or a treaty, or even a signed agreement," Laura Carlsen wrote in a report for the Center for International Policy. "All these would require public debate and participation of Congress, both of which the SPP has scrupulously avoided."

Instead, the SPP has a special workgroup: the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC). It's a coalition of private companies that includes the Chevron Corporation, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Merck & Co. Inc., New York Life Insurance Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

"It's a scheme to create a borderless North American Union under United States control without barriers to trade and capital flows for corporate giants, mainly U.S. ones," Steven Lendman wrote in Global Research. "It's also to insure America gets free and unlimited access to Canadian and Mexican resources."

3. Infragard Guards Itself

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have effectively deputized 23,000 members of the business community to tip off the feds in exchange for preferential treatment in the event of a crisis.

"Members of this rapidly growing group, called InfraGard, receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does — and ... before elected officials," Matthew Rothschild wrote in the March 2008 issue of The Progressive.

InfraGard was created in 1996 as part of an FBI probe into cyberthreats. After 9/11, membership jumped from 1,700 to more than 23,000, and now includes 350 of the nation's Fortune 500 companies. Members typically have a stake in crucial infrastructure industries, including agriculture, banking, defense, energy, food, telecommunications, law enforcement and transportation. The group's 86 chapters coordinate with 56 FBI field offices nationwide.

While FBI Director Robert Mueller has said he considers this segment of the private sector "the first line of defense," the American Civil Liberties Union issued a warning about the potential for abuse in an August 2004 report. "There is evidence that InfraGard may be closer to a corporate TIPS program, turning private-sector corporations — some of which may be in a position to observe the activities of millions of individual customers — into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI."

A DHS spokesperson told Rothschild that InfraGard members receive special training and readiness exercises and are privy to information that usually is shielded from disclosure under the trade secrets provision of the Freedom of Information Act.

4. ILEA: Training Ground for Illegal Wars?

The School of the Americas (SOA) earned an unsavory reputation in Latin America after many graduates of the Fort Benning, Ga., facility turned into counterinsurgency death squad leaders. The International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) recently installed by the United States in El Salvador — which looks and acts like the SOA — is also drawing scorn.

The school, which opened in June 2005 before the Salvadoran National Assembly approved it, has a satellite operation in Peru, is funded with $3.6 million from the U.S. Treasury and is staffed with instructors from the DEA, ICE and FBI. It's tasked with training 1,500 police officers, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement agents per year in counterterrorism techniques. Its stated purpose is to make Latin America "safe for foreign investment" by "providing regional security and economic stability and combating crime."

ILEAs aren't new, but Salvadoran human rights organizers take issue with the fact that, in true SOA fashion, the ILEA releases neither information about its curriculum nor a list of students and graduates. Additionally, the way the school slipped into existence without public oversight has raised ire.

"Members of the U.S. Congress were not briefed about the academy, nor was the main opposition party in El Salvador," Wes Enzinna wrote in a North American Congress on Latin America report. "But once the news media reported that the two countries had signed an official agreement in September, activists in El Salvador demanded to see the text of the document." The National Assembly narrowly ratified the agreement.

After more than three years in operation, critics point out that Salvadoran police, who account for 25 percent of the graduates, have become more violent. A May 2007 report by Tutela Legal implicated Salvadoran National Police officers in eight death squad–style assassinations in 2006.

El Salvador's ILEA recently received another $2 million in U.S. funding through the congressionally approved Mérida Initiative. It still refuses to adopt a transparent curriculum and administration. Enzinna's FOIA requests for course materials were rejected by the government.

click to enlarge The Security and Prosperity Partnership promotes so-called 'borderless unity' among the United States, Mexico and Canada, with beefed up commerce and coordinated military operations. - ILLUSTRATON BY PAT KINSELLA
  • Illustraton by Pat Kinsella
  • The Security and Prosperity Partnership promotes so-called 'borderless unity' among the United States, Mexico and Canada, with beefed up commerce and coordinated military operations.

5. Seizing Protest

Protesting war could get you into big trouble, according to a critical read of two executive orders recently signed by President George W. Bush.

The first, issued July 17, 2007, and titled, "Blocking property of certain persons who threaten stabilization efforts in Iraq," allows the feds to seize assets from anyone who "directly or indirectly" poses a risk to the U.S. war in Iraq. Citing the technological ease of transferring funds and assets, the order states that no prior notice is necessary before the raid.

On Aug. 1, Bush signed another similar order directed toward anyone undermining the "sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions." In this case, the Secretary of the Treasury can seize the assets of anyone perceived as posing a risk of violence, as well as the assets of their spouses and dependents, and bans them from receiving any humanitarian aid.

Critics say the orders bypass the right to due process and the vague language makes manipulation and abuse possible. Protesting the war could be perceived as undermining or threatening U.S. efforts in Iraq.

"This is so sweeping, it's staggering," said Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration official in the Justice Department who editorialized against it in The Washington Times. "It expands beyond terrorism, beyond seeking to use violence or the threat of violence to cower or intimidate a population."

6. Radicals = Terrorists

On Oct. 23, 2007, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 404-6 the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act," designed to root out the causes of radicalization among Americans.

With an estimated four-year cost of $22 million, the act establishes a 10-member National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, as well as a university-based Center of Excellence "to examine the social, criminal, political, psychological and economic roots of domestic terrorism," according to a news release from the bill's author, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

During debate on the bill, Harman said, "Free speech, espousing even very radical beliefs, is protected by our Constitution. But violent behavior is not."

Writing in The Independent, a newspaper put out by the New York Independent Media Center, Jessica Lee pointed out that in a later news release Harman stated: "The National Commission [will] propose to both Congress and [Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff initiatives to intercede before radicalized individuals turn violent." Civil rights experts say this redefines civil disobedience as terrorism, and the wording is too vague.

"It is criminalizing thought and ideology," says Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center in Portland, Ore.

The equivalent Senate Bill 1959 stalled. After introducing the bill, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) later joined forces with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a report criticizing the Internet as a tool for violent Islamic extremism. Days after the report was released, Lieberman demanded that YouTube remove a number of Islamist propaganda videos. YouTube removed some that broke its rules about violence and hate speech, but resisted censoring others.

7. Slavery's Runner-up

Every year, about 121,000 people legally enter the United States to work with H-2 visas, a program legislators are touting as part of future immigration reform. But Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) called this guest worker program "the closest thing I've ever seen to slavery."

The Southern Poverty Law Center likened it to "modern-day indentured servitude." The group interviewed thousands of guest workers and reviewed legal cases for a report released in March 2007 in which authors Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds wrote, "Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who 'import' them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation."

When visas expire, workers must leave the country, hardly making this the path to permanent citizenship legislators are looking for. The H-2 program mimics the controversial bracero program, established through a joint agreement between Mexico and the United States in 1942 that brought 4.5 million workers over the border during the 22 years it was in effect.

Many legal protections were written into the program, but in most cases they existed only on paper in a language unreadable to employees. In 1964 the program was shuttered amid scores of human rights abuses and complaints it undermined petitions for higher wages from U.S. workers.

Years later, it essentially still exists. The H-2A program, which accounted for 32,000 agricultural workers in 2005, has many of the same protections — and many of the same abuses. Even worse is the H-2B program, used by 89,000 nonagricultural workers annually. Created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, none of the safeguards of the H-2A visa are legally required for H-2B workers. Still, Mexicans are literally lining up for H-2B status.

8. Bush Changes the Rules

The Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been issuing classified legal opinions about surveillance for years. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) had access to the DOJ opinions on presidential power and had three declassified to show how the judicial branch has assisted President George W. Bush in circumventing its own power.

According to the memos:

"There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it";

"The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President's authority under Article II," and

"The Department of Justice is bound by the President's legal determinations."

The issue arose within the context of the Protect America Act, which expands government surveillance powers and gives telecom companies legal immunity for helping. Whitehouse pointed out that the act does not prohibit spying on Americans overseas — with the exception of an executive order that permits surveillance only of Americans whom the Attorney General determines to be "agents of a foreign power."

Whitehouse went on to point out that Marbury vs. Madison, written by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803, established that it is "emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

9. Soldiers Speak Out

Hearing soldiers recount their war experiences is the closest many people come to understanding the real horror, pain and confusion of combat. But in March, when more than 300 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan convened for four days of public testimony on the war, they were largely ignored by the media.

Winter Soldier was designed to give soldiers a public forum to air some of the atrocities they witnessed. Originally convened by Vietnam Vets Against the War in January 1971, more than 100 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians described their war experiences, including rapes, torture, brutalities and killing of noncombatants. The testimony was entered into the Congressional Record, filmed and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Iraq Veterans Against the War hosted the 2008 reprise of the 1971 hearings. Aaron Glantz, writing in One World, recalled testimony from former Marine Cpl. Jason Washburn, who said, "We were encouraged to bring 'drop weapons,'or shovels. In case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent."

An investigation by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian in The Nation that included interviews with 50 Iraq war veterans also revealed an overwhelming lack of training and resources, and a general disregard for the traditional rules of war.

Though most major news outlets sent staff to cover New York's Fashion Week, few made it to Silver Spring, Md., for the Winter Soldier hearings. Testimonies can still be heard at

10. APA Helps CIA Torture

Psychologists have been assisting the CIA and U.S. military with interrogation and torture of Guantánamo detainees — which the American Psychological Association has said is fine, despite objections from many of its 148,000 members.

A 10-member APA task force convened on the issue in July 2005 and found that assistance from psychologists was making the interrogations safe, and the group deferred to U.S. standards on torture over international human-rights organizations' definitions.

The task force was criticized by APA members for deliberating in secret. Later it was revealed that six of the 10 participants had ties to the armed services. Not only that, but as Katherine Eban reported in Vanity Fair, "Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the CIA."

In particular, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, neither of whom are APA members, honed a classified military training program known as SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] that teaches soldiers how to tough out torture if captured by enemies. "Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror," Eban wrote.

As Mark Benjamin noted in a Salon article, employing SERE training — which is designed to replicate torture tactics that don't abide by Geneva Convention standards — refutes past administration assertions that current CIA torture techniques are safe and legal. "Soldiers undergoing SERE training are subject to forced nudity, stress positions, lengthy isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, exhaustion from exercise, and the use of water to create a sensation of suffocation," Benjamin wrote.

Eban's story outlined how SERE tactics were spun as "science" despite a lack of data and the critique that building rapport works better than blows to the head. Specifically, he said, it's been misreported that CIA torture techniques got al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah to talk, when it was actually FBI rapport-building. In spite of this, SERE techniques became standards in interrogation manuals that eventually made their way to U.S. officers guarding Abu Ghraib.

On Sept. 17, a majority of 15,000 voting APA members approved a resolution stating that psychologists may not work in settings where "persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law or the U.S. Constitution, unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights."

Amanda Witherell is a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, where this story originally appeared.

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