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Top 10 stories that the U.S. news media missed in the past year

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The daily dispatches and nightly newscasts of the mainstream media regularly cover terrorism, but rarely how fear of attacks is used to manipulate the public and set policy. That's the common thread of many of the 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 may not have been overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo or general under-the-radar subject matter might have kept them from the front pages. Project Censored recounts them, accompanied by media analysis, in a book published annually by Seven Stories Press.

"This year, war and civil liberties stood out," says project director Peter Phillips of the top stories. "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."

After talking with educators who bemoan the ongoing decline of news quality and have offered to help, Phillips has launched the Truth Emergency Project, in which Sonoma State partners with 23 other universities. All will host classes for students to search out untold stories, vet them for accuracy and submit them for consideration to Project Censored.

"There's a renaissance of independent media," Phillips says. He thinks bloggers and citizen journalists are filling crucial roles left vacant by staff cutbacks throughout the mainstream media. And, he said, it's time for universities, educators and media experts to step in and help. "It's not just reforming the media, but supporting them in as many ways as they need, like validating stories by fact-checking."

The Truth Emergency Project will also host a news service that aggregates the best 12 independent media sources and posts them on one page.

"The whole criteria," he says, "is no corporate media."

How many Iraqis have died?

Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Iraq war has claimed. But even more astounding is that 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 sociological study methods, they determined that as many as 1.2 million people had been killed since the war began.

The U.S. military, claiming it keeps no count, still 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."

Whose number was he using? Estimates have ranged wildly, and are based on a variety of sources, including hospital, morgue and media reports, as well as in-person surveys.

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. It updated a similar study from 2004 that had counted 100,000 dead. The Associated Press called it "controversial."

The AP began its own count in 2005, and by 2006 said at least 37,547 Iraqis had lost their lives due to war-related violence. The news organization called it a minimum estimate at best, not including insurgent deaths.

"Iraq Body Count," a group of U.S. and U.K. citizens who aggregate numbers from media reports on civilian deaths, put the figure between 87,000 and 95,000. More recently, in January 2008, 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.

And the 1.2 million figure is out there, too. Justifying it, Michael Schwartz, writing on the blog afterdowningstreet.org, pointed to a fact reported by the Brookings Institute that U.S. troops have, over the past four years, conducted about 100 house raids a day a number that has increased recently with assistance from Iraqi soldiers.

Brutality during these house searches has been documented by returning soldiers, Iraqi civilians and independent journalists (See Story #9.) Schwartz suggests the aggressive, "element of surprise" tactics employed by soldiers are likely resulting in several thousands of deaths a day that are going unreported or categorized as insurgents being killed.

The spin is having its intended effect: A Feb. 2007 AP poll showed Americans gave a median estimate of 9,890 Iraqi deaths as a result of the war, a number far below that cited in any credible study.

Sources: "Is the United States killing 10,000 Iraqis every month? Or is it more?" Michael Schwartz, afterdowningstreet.org, July 5, 2007; "Iraq death toll rivals Rwanda Genocide, Cambodian killing fields," Joshua Holland, alternet.org, Sept. 17, 2007; "Iraq conflict has killed a million: survey," Luke Baker, Reuters, Jan. 30, 2008; "Iraq: Not our country to return to," Maki al-Nazzal and Dahr Jamail, Inter Press Service, March 3, 2008.

NAFTA on steroids

Coupling the perennial issue of security with Wall Street's measures of prosperity, the leaders of the three North American nations have convened the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The White House-led initiative launched at a March 23, 2005, meeting of President 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 has been 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. It's a coalition of private companies that are, according to the SPP Web site, "adding high-level business input [that] will assist governments in enhancing North America's competitive position and engage the private sector as partners in finding solutions."

They include Chevron, Ford, General Electric, Lockheed Martin Corp., Merck, New York Life, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart.

"Where are the environmental council, the labor council and the citizen's council in this process?" Carlsen asked.

A look at NAFTA's popularity among citizens in all three nations is evidence why its expansion would be disguised.

"It's a scheme to create a borderless North American Union under U.S. control without barriers to trade and capital flows for corporate giants, mainly U.S. ones," wrote Steven Lendman for Global Research. "It's also to ensure America gets free and unlimited access to Canadian and Mexican resources, mainly oil, and in the case of Canada, water as well."

Sources: "Deep Integration," Laura Carlsen, Center for International Policy, May 30, 2007; "The Militarization and Annexation of North America," Stephen Lendman, Global Research, July 19, 2007; "The North American Union," Constance Fogal, Global Research, Aug. 2, 2007.

InfraGard guards itself

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have effectively deputized 23,000 members of the business community, asking them to tip off the feds in exchange for preferential treatment in the event of a crisis. "The members of this rapidly growing group, called InfraGard, receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does and, at least on one occasion, before elected officials," Matthew Rothschild wrote in The Progressive in March.

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InfraGard was created in 1996 in Cleveland as part of an FBI probe into cyberthreats. Yet 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 one of several crucial infrastructure industries, including agriculture, banking, defense, energy, food, telecommunications, law enforcement and transportation. Eighty-six 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 grave warning about the potential for abuse. "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," it cautioned in an August 2004 report.

"The FBI should not be creating a privileged class of Americans who get special treatment," Jay Stanley, public education director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program, told Rothschild.

As Rothschild related in his story, on Nov. 1, 2001, the FBI sent an alert to InfraGuard members about a potential threat to bridges in California. Barry Davis, who worked for Morgan Stanley, received the information and relayed it to his brother Gray, governor of California, who released it to the public.

Steve Maviglio, Davis' press secretary at the time, told Rothschild, "The governor got a lot of grief for releasing the information. In his defense, he said, 'I was on the phone with my brother, who is an investment banker. And if he knows, why shouldn't the public know?'"

Source: "The FBI deputizes business," Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, Feb. 7, 2008.

4 ILEA: Training ground for illegal wars?

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

The school, which opened in June 2005, before the Salvadoran National Assembly had even approved it, has a satellite operation in Peru and is funded with $3.6 million from the U.S. Treasury. It's staffed with instructors from the DEA, ICE and the FBI and 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."

As Wes Enzinna noted in a North American Congress on Latin America report, when the U.S. decided it wanted a training ground in Latin America, El Salvador was not the first choice of locations. In 2002, U.S. officials selected Costa Rica a country that doesn't even have an army as host. The local government signed on and the plan made headlines, but when citizens learned about it, they revolted and demanded the government change the agreement. The U.S. bailed for a more discreet second attempt in El Salvador.

"Members of the U.S. Congress were not briefed about the academy, nor was the main opposition party in El Salvador, the Farabundo Mart-National Liberation Front (FMLN)," Enzinna wrote. "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." Though they tried to garner enough opposition, the National Assembly narrowly ratified it.

Now, 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 (PNC) 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 Merida Initiative but still refuses to adopt a more transparent curriculum and administration, despite partnering with a well-known human rights leader. Enzinna's FOIA requests for course materials were rejected by the government, so no one knows exactly what the school is teaching, or to whom.

Seizing protest

Protesting war could get you into big trouble, according to a critical read of two executive orders 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. And, citing the modern 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 order, similar but directed toward anyone undermining the "sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions." In this case, the secretary of 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 all 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 Justice Department official, 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."

Sources: "Bush executive order: Criminalizing the antiwar movement," Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, July 20, 2007; "Bush's executive order on Lebanon even worse than the one on Iraq," Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, Aug. 3, 2007.

Radicals = terrorists

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

Jessica Lee, writing in the Indypendent, pointed out that in a later press 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."

Which could be when they're speaking, writing and organizing in ways that are protected by the First Amendment. This redefines civil disobedience as terrorism, say civil rights experts, and the wording is too vague. For example, the definition of "violent radicalization" is "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change."

"What is an extremist belief system? Who defines this? These are broad definitions that encompass so much. ... It is criminalizing thought and ideology," said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center.

Though the ACLU recommended some changes that were adopted, it continued to criticize the bill. Harman, in a response letter, said free speech is still free and stood by the need to curb ideologically based violence.

The story didn't make it onto the CNN ticker, but enough independent sources reported on it that the equivalent Senate Bill 1959 has since stalled.

Sources: "Bringing the war on terrorism home," Jessica Lee, Indypendent, Nov. 16, 2007; "Examining the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act," Lindsay Beyerstein, In These Times, Nov. 1, 2007; "The Violent Radicalization Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," Matt Renner, truthout.org, Nov. 29, 2007.

Slavery's runner-up

About 121,000 people legally enter the U.S. to work every year with H-2 visas, a program that legislators are modeling as part of future immigration reform.

But Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., calls this guest worker program "the closest thing I've ever seen to slavery."

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The Southern Poverty Law Center likened it to "modern day indentured servitude." They 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 that legislators are looking for. The H-2 program mimics the controversial old bracero program, established through a joint agreement between Mexico and the U.S. in 1942, which brought 4.5 million workers over the border during its 22 years in existence.

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.

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 non-agricultural workers annually. Created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, none of the same safeguards are legally required for H-2B workers.

Still, Mexicans are literally lining up to join, the stark details of which were reported by Felicia Mello in The Nation. Furthermore, thousands of illegal immigrants are employed throughout the country, providing cheap, unprotected labor and further undermining the scant provisions of the laws. Labor contractors who connect immigrants with employers are lining their pockets with cash, while people return home with very little.

Sources: "Close to Slavery," Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds, Southern Poverty Law Center, March 2007; "Coming to America," Felicia Mello, The Nation, June 25, 2007; "Trafficking racket," Chidanand Rajghatta, Times of India, March 10, 2008.

Bush changes the rules

The Bush Administration's Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice has been issuing classified legal opinions about surveillance for several years. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., had access to the opinions regarding presidential power and had three declassified in order to show how the judicial branch has, in a bizarre and chilling way, assisted Bush in circumventing its own power.

According to the three memos:

1. "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;"

2. "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

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

Or, as Sen. Whitehouse rephrased them in a Dec. 7, 2007 Senate speech: "I don't have to follow my own rules, and I don't have to tell you when I'm breaking them. I get to determine what my own powers are. The Department of Justice doesn't tell me what the law is. I tell the Department of Justice what the law is."

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 called it "a second-rate piece of legislation passed in a stampede in August at the behest of the Bush administration."

He 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."

"In other words, the only thing standing between Americans traveling overseas and government wiretap is an executive order," Whitehouse said in an April 12 speech. "An order this president, under the first legal theory I cited, claims he has no legal obligation to obey."

Sources: "In FISA Speech, Whitehouse sharply criticizes Bush Administration's assertion of executive power," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Dec. 7, 2007; "Down the Rabbit Hole," Marcy Wheeler, The Guardian U.K., Dec. 26, 2007.

Soldiers speak out

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 describing their war experiences, including rapes, torture, brutalities and killing of non-combatants. The testimony was entered into the Congressional Record and filmed and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Iraq Veterans Against the War hosted a reprise of the 1971 hearings in March 2008, with more than 300 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aaron Glantz, writing on oneworld.net, recalled testimony from former Marine Cpl. Jason Washburn, who said his commanders "encouraged lawless behavior. '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 lawlessness with regard to the traditional rules of war.

Though most major news outlets managed to send staff to cover New York's Fashion Week, few made it down to Silver Spring, Md., for four days of Winter Soldier hearings. Fortunately, KPFA and Pacifica Radio broadcast the testimonies live and, in an update to the story, said they were "deluged with phone calls, e-mails and blog posts from service members, veterans and military families thanking us for breaking a cultural norm of silence about the reality of war." Testimonies can still be heard at ivaw.org.

Sources: "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan Eyewitness accounts of the occupations," Iraq Veterans Against the War, March 13-16, 2008; "War comes home," Aaron Glantz, Aimee Allison and Esther Manilla, Pacifica Radio, March 14-16, 2008; "U.S. Soldiers 'testify' about war crimes," Aaron Glantz, oneworld.net, March 18, 2008; "The Other War," Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, The Nation, July 30, 2007.

APA helps CIA torture

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

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

The group was criticized by APA members for deliberating in secret, and later it was revealed that six of the 10 had ties to the Armed Services. Not only that, but as Katherine Eban reported in a Vanity Fair online exclusive, "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], which 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," wrote Eban.

And, as Mark Benjamin noted in a salon.com 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.

Ongoing uproar within APA resulted in a petition that would make an official policy limiting psychologists' involvement in interrogations.

On Sept. 17, a majority of 15,000 voting 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 (e.g., the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights."

Sources: "The CIA's torture teachers," Mark Benjamin, salon.com, June 21, 2007; "Rorschach and awe," Katherine Eban, vanityfair.com, July 17, 2007.

Editor's note: To read the rest of the Top 25 stories accumulated by Project Censored, visit projectcensored.org.

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