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Forty years ago this week, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act.
The choice of July 4 for the signing ceremony was no coincidence.
The signing of the Freedom of Information Act represented the realization of the promise of self governance that may have been born on July 4, 1776, butthat was never fully realized until 190 years later.
Why is the Freedom of Information Act such a big deal?
Because, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, explained, ""Apopular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge willforever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors,must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
Until the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Americans were deniedaccess to information that should rightfully have been available to them,and without which they could not be their own governors. As John Moss, thecrusading California congressman who secured its passage, frequently noted,the Freedom of Information Act was the first law in the long history of theRepublic that gave Americans the right to access the records of federalagencies that are funded with their tax dollars and that are, supposedly, attheir service.
That is a right that, Moss argued, was every bit as essential to realizingthe full potential of America democracy as the protections contained in theBill of Rights. And, of course, he was correct. What good is freedom ofspeech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government isdoing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom ofthe press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies areup to?
The American people well recognize the value of the Freedom of InformationAct. Millions of citizens have made FOIA requests over the past fourdecades.
Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive and hyper-secretive Bush administrationis now at war with the Freedom of Information Act -- just as the New York Times-bashing president and his allies are battling Freedom of the Press.
In the first year of hispresidency, Bush's then attorney general, John Ashcroft, dispatched a memoto federal agencies that told their administrators to use delaying tacticsto thwart the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ashcroft'sorder directed federal agencies to stall the release of requestedinformation until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full anddeliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particulardocument.The response by federal agencies to FOIA requests slowed to a crawl,creating an outcry that finally led Bush to issue an order last year thatappeared to endorse the values contained in the Freedom of Information Act.In fact, that was not the case.
While Bush's language seemed to support openness – "Agencies shall processrequests under the FOIA in an efficient and appropriate manner and achievetangible, measurable improvements in FOIA processing" – his order wasactually a vague statement that was issued not to get agencies jumping onFOIA requests but to head off Congressional action on the bipartisan OpenGovernment Act.
Written to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Open GovernmentAct seeks to end stonewalling by establishing a deadline – 20 days after thefiling of an FOIA request -- by which agencies must respond.
It's a timely and necessary reform.
Yet, at this point, both the House and Senate versions of the OpenGovernment Act are languishing in the Judiciary Committees of the respectivechambers.
If Americans want on this 4th of July Holiday to honor the democratic values that arethis country's greatest strength, perhaps of the best way to do so is bymaking a resolution to contact our representatives in the House and Senateand tell them to support the Open Government Act. This enactment of thissimple reform will renew the promise not just of the Freedom of InformationAct but of the Declaration of Independence and the American experiment.
There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the final vote by the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving for an extended Fourth of July break involved a basic question of American freedom – and there is no small measure of tragedy in the fact that the majority of House members took a position closer to that of King George III than the American revolutions who will be celebrated next Tuesday.
The question so basic that it should not have produced a division at all: Should the United States have a free press that challenges and exposes government wrongdoing, or should the United States have a subservient press that "cooperates" with government to report the "news" in a manner that pleases those in power?
Yet, in a flurry of last-minute procedural votes on House resolutions rebuking the news media for reporting leaks about Bush administration schemes to spy on Americans produced a variety of results, the Congress consistently came down on the side of a subservient press that performs stenography to power.
The final measure of authoritarian sentiment came in the vote Thursday evening on the measure introduced by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley: House Resolution 896. And the result was even worse than on some of the earlier votes: Only 183 of the House's 435 members voted to uphold the Constitution.
The Oxley resolution, written as part of the Bush administration's push to punish the New York Times for reporting on a secret program that monitors millions of bank transfers was fairly draconian in its language – despite the efforts of some House Republicans to temper their caucus' vitriolic response to recent leaks and news stories about Bush-backed domestic and international spying programs.
Among other things, it declares that the House "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" in keeping secret spying programs that the Bush administration claims are part of a war on terrorism but that could easily be used to invade the privacy of Americans.
No member of Congress who took seriously his or her oath to "defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" could vote for legislation that is so clearly at odds with the Freedom of the Press protections contained in the First Amendment to that document, and with the clear intention of founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Yet, the final tally on the Oxley resolution was 227 in favor, 183 against.
The party breakdown was murkier than on some of the earlier votes, which pretty much divided along partisan lines.
Two hundred and ten Republicans endorsed the "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" language, as did 17 Democrats.
The anti-First Amendment Democrats were John Barrow of Georgia, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Brian Higgins of New York, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charles Melancon of Louisiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike Ross of Arkansas, John Salazar of Colorado, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
The 183 voted for a free press came from 174 Democrats, 8 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The pro-First Amendment Republicans were Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Donald Manzullo of Illinois, Butch Otter of Idaho, Ron Paul of Texas, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Jim Walsh of New York.
Through the various procedural votes, Shays was the most consistent backer of Freedom of the Press. But all the Republicans who voted against the resolution deserve praise. They provided a faint signal that there is still bipartisan support for the First Amendment in Congress – even if that there was not enough of it to carry the day for the Constitution.
O.K., so can we just admit that when it comes to redistricting – the processby which politicians define the legislative branch of the federal government– there are few if any limits on partisan power grabs?
That certainly seems to be the signal from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasruled that disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his henchmenin the Texas legislature were fully within their rights to radically alterthe maps of the state's U.S. House districts in order to solidify Republicancontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The redistricting of congressional districts – a process traditionallycarried out once every ten years by state legislators, who are supposed touse fresh Census data to assure that all of state's districts have similarpopulations – is the single most powerful tool by which the make up of theU.S. House of Representatives is determined. By gerrymandering districts togive advantages to incumbents from one party or another, legislators haveover the years made most House elections irrelevant. Even a well-fundedchallenger with the issues on his or her side cannot upset an incumbent whohas been given a district with favorable lines. As a result, in any givenelection year, only a few dozen of the nation's 435 House districts seecompetitive contests.
As bad as the circumstance was, in 2003, DeLay made things dramaticallyworse. After using his national contacts to raise the money to putRepublicans in charge of the state legislature in 2002, he had his allies inAustin radically redraw the state's congressional map with the expresspurpose of defeating Democratic incumbents and electing more Republicans.
It worked. Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats in 2004.
Democrats challenged the redistricting, but the court's ruling has placed astamp of approval on DeLay's map – with one minor objection – and assuredthat the gains Republican gains engineered by DeLay will be retained.
But the importance of the 7-2 Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday goes far beyond Texas.
Three dangerous precedents have been set:
• The court has stated that the map DeLay's produced did not represent an"unconstitutional political gerrymander" of the state's district lines.Since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically-motivated map, thecourt has effectively said that partisans can draw maps that suit theirpolitical purposes without fear of intervention or objection by the courts.While some analysts interpret a line from a previous court ruling assuggesting that critics of a redistricting map could come up with a"reliable standard" for challenging a map, if such a standard could not beapplied to the DeLay map it is hard to say where it would ever be viable.
• The court has upheld the right of states to change their congressionaldistrict boundaries more frequently than once every ten years -- followingthe completion of a U.S. Census. – which is the traditional standard. Whatthis means is that, when control of a state legislature shifts, so too couldthe state's congressional district lines.
• The court has held that there is "nothing inherently suspect about alegislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with oneof its own." Thus, court-ordered plans – which are usually the fairest tovoters, in that they tend to set up more competitive districts – can bereplaced by legislators who don't like them. This is a hugely significantdevelopment, in that it effectively removes the fall-back position that goodgovernment groups have used when challenging legislative gerrymandering.Foes of a particular map might get it thrown out by the courts, and theymight even get a panel of judges to draw a new map, but there is no longerany certainty that the new map will stand.
The court did rule that the lines of one Texas district will need to be redrawn because DeLay and his minions moved 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the southwest Texas 23rd District in order to protect a Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, politically. The court determined that move to undercut the influence of Hispanic voters was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, notably, the four most conservative justices on the court opposed even that determination.
Anyone who was looking to the Supreme Court to clean up the redistricting process and to provide for competitive elections is making a mistake. As Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy says, "If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have stop counting on the courts and start looking for political solutions."
In the short-term, Richie says, Congress should set national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards for transparency -- sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."
In the long-term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing from a proportional representation system that might see three members of Congress elected from larger, more competitive districts using an instant-runoff voting model.
"If you are concerned about what the court ruling has done, there are immediate steps that can be taken," says Richie. "But what we need to do is dig in to really reform how elections for Congress are conducted."
In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That's why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.
So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.
While this is hardly a classic example of "reporting on troop movements," it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.
So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.
The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.
Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.
Ostensibly, the monitoring is intended to track transfers of money by supposed terrorists. But the program, like many of the administration's other moves to monitor the conversations and business dealings of private individuals, has been implemented in secret, without the subpoenas that are traditionally required for such reviews, and in a manner designed to avoid the sort of independent governmental oversight that is supposed to prevent abuse.
Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else associated with al Qaeda would be naïve enough to think that they could transfer large amounts of money through regular banking channels without being found out. So the revelation of the monitoring could hardly be called a threat to the "war on terror" – at least, not by anyone who knows anything about dealing with terrorist networks.
Yet, President Bush went ballistic about reporting on the monitoring, telling White House reporters, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."
Vice President Cheney was even blunter, saying, "Some of the press, particularly the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."
Bush allies in Congress have even called for the prosecution of the New York Times for revealing to Americans the extent to which they are being spied upon.
So why is the Bush administration so freaked out about a leak regarding a spying program that could not possibly have come as news to any terrorists but that certainly might interest average Americans? And why isn't the president concerned about leaks regarding specific redeployments of troops in the near future?
There's no mystery.
The leak about spying on bank records will feed concerns about the extent that this administration has engaged in spying on citizens. That could be politically damaging.
On the other hand, the leak about planning for troop deployments – coming at a time when the majority of Americans say they want to see a plan for getting the U.S. out of Iraq – eases the political pressure on the president and his Republican allies.
What's the bottom line? The cynical Bush White House has always seen the "war on terror" as a political tool. The president and his allies – heeding the advice of White House political czar Karl Rove – regularly tailor their responses to new developments to benefit their domestic political fortunes while undermining the prospects of their political foes.
Leaks about plans for troop redeployment are fine with the president because they could help him and his congressional allies politically.
Leaks about the administration spying on citizens, on the other hand, are "disgraceful" because they could cause the president and his Republicans acolytes political harm.
Senator Joe Lieberman has maintained his status as the Bush administration's favorite Democrat.
Lieberman did not merely vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year, the Connecticut Democrat also voted against a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.
Lieberman was one of just six Democrats who backed the administration's position on both measures. The others were Minnesota's Mark Dayton, who is not seeking reelection this year, and four Democrats who represent Republican-leaning southern and western states: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Florida's Bill Nelson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.
Even Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faces an aggressive challenge from a conservative is his party's primary this summer, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, which called on the president to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq and to submit a long-term exit strategy to Congress.
There was no expectation that Lieberman would back the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which drew just 13 votes -- from its sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii. Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
But there had been speculation that Lieberman would join the vast majority of his fellow Democrats -- including Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd -- in backing the Reed-Levin amendment. During Wednesday's debate on the measures, Lieberman, long the most outspoken Democratic advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, admitted that Iraqis need to be given real responsibility for defending and governing their country.
But, when it came time to vote, the senator was not willing to break with the Bush administration. Instead, saying that he did not want to tie the president's hands, Lieberman joined most Senate Republicans in refusing to provide any check or balance on the administration's warmaking.
There is no mistaking the position that Lieberman has put himself in. Though he represents a state that voted against Bush's election in 2000 and against the president's reelection in 2004, and though Connecticut voters express higher levels of opposition to Bush and his war than voters in most other states, Lieberman has signaled that he will continue to give the administration a blank check to wage exactly the war it wants in Iraq.
Lieberman has wedged himself so firmly in the administration's corner that, during the Senate debate on whether to push for any sort of exit strategy, the Connecticut Democrat was not given floor time by the his own party's leadership. Rather, he was introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., who served as the White House's floor manager on the issue. When he spoke Wednesday, Lieberman was the first Democrat to back the president's position.
Warner heaped praise on the Connecticut Democrat, as did right-wing Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Senate.
Having Lieberman on board is important for the Bush administration and its Republican allies, who like to suggest that there is broad support for the president's failed approach to Iraq. It's no small thing, when criticizing Democrats who express sensible concerns about the war, to be able to say: "Even the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 says the president is right to stay the course."
There is no question that Lieberman's stance undercuts attempts -- hapless as they may be -- by Democrats to send clear signals regarding their concerns about a war that a clear majority of Americans now describe as "a mistake."
So who were the "winners" in Thursday's votes? The Bush administration may have gotten a boost from Lieberman, but so too will Ned Lamont, the businessman who is mounting an increasingly powerful anti-war challenge to the senator in Connecticut's August 8 Democratic primary. Before the Senate votes this week, Lamont urged Lieberman to break with the administration, saying that it was time to "build a Democratic coalition to establish and stick to a plan to end the war."
"‘Stay the course' is not a strategy for any real victory, and it is time that the President and Congress recognize that fact and take the steps needed to ensure true safety and security for the region and for America," the challenger argued.
Lamont, who has begun to garner support not just from the netroots but from prominent Democrats in Connecticut -- such as former state party chair George Jepsen -- is over 40 percent in the polls and rising rapidly. And this week's pro-administration votes by Lieberman will only serve to reinforce Lamont's message that Connecticut needs a senator who "stand up for our progressive democratic values."
"This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.
"Don't let its slimness fool you," added Copps. "It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country."
The commission's decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.
Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.
Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules -- and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.
Martin's attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday's FCC meeting finished. "The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation."
Copps and Adelstein, the FCC's stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin's rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission -- on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans -- to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.
At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same metropolitan area. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.
Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.
"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."
Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.
Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.
In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.
"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."
The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."
Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.
The Federal Communications Commission will again attempt to do the bidding of big media this year, with a scheme to rewrite ownership rules in much the same manner as it did in 2003. FCC chairman Kevin Martin is expected to announce Wednesday that the commission will embark upon a rulemaking initiative that will seek to make it possible for one company to own all daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same community. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.
But big media companies, which hope to reap massive profits by creating one-newsroom towns where a handful of "content providers" produce all the local print, broadcast and digital coverage of government, culture, sports and community affairs, did not accept defeat graciously. In collaboration with friendly FCC commissioners, they kept looking for an opening that would allow them to renew their demands. And they think they have found one now that the five-member commission -- which had a GOP vacancy for months -- has a newly-minted 3-2 Republican majority. [Republican commissioners, now led by Martin, have generally sided with big media companies in recent years, while Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been stalwart defenders of divisity and competition.]
Martin, a Bush appointee with extremely close ties to a White House that has long wanted to implement rule changes favored by the generous campaign donors who own the nation's largest communications firms, has calculated that in an election year when the country's attention is focused on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigrations and mounting trade deficits, it will be possible to slip significant rule changes past an American public that is passionately opposed to them.
The FCC chair is a smarter politician than his predecessor, Colin Powell's son Michael. But Martin may have miscalculated.
Even before tomorrow's announcement of that the commission will attempt again to rewrite the rules in a manner that allows for greater concentration of ownership of local and national media by fewer companies, Martin was being challenged by members of Congress.Led by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who chairs the Future of American Media (FAM) Caucus that was organized after the last fight over ownership rules, sixteen House members launched a preemptive strike in a letter to Martin.
The House members wrote:
We have noted with interest recent reports that you intend to revisit the issue of media ownership... If the FCC does in fact consider this issue, then we hope that the Commission will strengthen existing rules, and not further damage an already weak structure intended to protect diversity in American broadcasting. Put simply, we believe that any action on media ownership similar to what was proposed by the FCC in 2003 would be an unmitigated disaster.
Since their enactment in the 1940s, our media ownership rules have been a vital safeguard, ensuring that the power to inform the public is not inappropriately concentrated among a relative few. But since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we have seen a significant relaxation of the media ownership caps limiting the number of outlets that one company may own in a single market. The unfortunate effect has been consolidation of newspapers, television channels, radio stations, and other media under the control of a handful of giant media conglomerates. The resulting monopoly situations have forced independent broadcasters out of business, limited minority ownership, and denied the American public the wide array of content they deserve.
The FCC's 2003 proposal to weaken the local TV ownership limits, national TV ownership caps, and newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules would have delivered a fatal blow to our media ownership infrastructure. For example, if these rules had been enacted, a single corporation would have been.allowed to acquire as many as threetelevision stations, eight radio stations, and the only daily newspaper -- all within a single city. While such action would not have caused a media blackout per se, it would have essentially reduced content to a single source, rather than providing communities with the full array of information that should truly be available. As you know, millions of Americans and dozens of Senators and Representatives have contacted the FCC to express their concern about the proposed rules. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals echoed these concerns by remanding the issue back to the Commission in June 2004.
As Members of Congress who are deeply concerned about the impact that further media consolidation would have upon our democracy, we believe that the Federal Communications Commission should fulfill its intended role as a strong defender of diversity in broadcasting. We hope that the FCC will move to strengthen existing ownership rules to guarantee an array of content and wide variety of viewpoints for everyone seeking news, information, and culture across our country.
In addition to Hinchey, House members signing the letter included: California's Anna Eshoo, Barbara Lee, Diane Watson, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, Hawaii's Ed Case, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, New York's Louise Slaughter, North Carolina's David Price, Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Marcy Kaptur, Oregon's Peter DeFazio, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin.
Both Sanders and Brown are ahead in the polls in contests for Senate seats from their respective states, while most of the other signers are ranking minority members on key committees and subcommittees.
Translation: This time, the FCC is going to be watched by thoughful members of Congress from the start, just as it will be dogged by a media reform movement that is dramatically bigger and better organized than in 2003. To be sure, the fight will be a serious one. And determination of Martin -- whose long-term political ambitions are no secret -- to deliver for the White House and the big-media companies it favors should not be underestimated. But if the letter from Hinchey and his colleagues is any indication, the FCC chair's not going to be able to sneak new ownership rules past anyone. In deed, Martin might find that he has created an issue that -- instead of being obscured by the 2006 election campaign -- will be central to it.
The February Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey of U.S. troops serving in Iraq found that 72 percent of them thought United States forces should exit that country by the end of 2006.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate decided not to call for the withdrawal of combat troops by year's end when it shelved a measure proposing that "only forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces" remain in Iraq in 2007.
After a stilted debate, the Senate voted to block the amendment 93-6.
Every Republican in the Senate voted for the amendment, which was advanced by their party leadership in as part of a coordinated political push by Karl Rove and the White House political shop to mock and minimize the debate about the war and create the impression that there is broad support for the long-term occupation of Iraq. So, too, did most Democrats, who chose not to oppose the latest administration strategy, just as they refused to challenge the Republicans prior to the disastrous 2002 and 2004 elections.
Who were the six senators who refused to play Rove's game and voted for the "Bring the Troops Home" amendment?
Barbara Boxer of California.
Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
John Kerry of Massachusetts.
On the day when the 2,500th American died in the Iraq quagmire, the Senate was asked to approve the sentiment of the troops who say that it is time for them to get out of the middle of a foreign civil war.
The vast majority of senators decided to do the bidding of the president who deceived them about the "case" for war and who then played politics with national security and the lives of the young men and women who wear the uniform of the United States.
Only six members of the chamber charged with serving as the ultimate check and balance on the fools' missions of failed presidents chose to support the troops. Boxer, Byrd, Feingold, Harkin, Kennedy and Kerry will, of course, be vilified by Rove regenerated attack machine for having done so. It will be suggested that they sent the wrong message to the troops by voting as they did.
At the end of the day on which the American death toll topped 2,500, however, the only message the six senators sent to the troops was this: We agree with you.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives maintained its track record of providing absolutely no checks and balances on the Bush administration's warmaking this week, when it voted 351-67 to authorize another $66 billion in "emergency" spending for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the House will hold a symbolic "debate" on the Iraq imbroglio Thursday, that endeavor has been so constrained by the House Republican leadership that it will be of no more consequence than the discourse in a mock legislative exercise for high school students – although, in fairness to the students, a mock Congress would undoubtedly take the Constitutional imperative of shared responsibility for warmaking more seriously than does the actual Congress.
What was truly frustrating about the House vote on the emergency funding was the general failure of the Democrats – who have again delayed announcement of their agenda for this year's election campaign – to mount a coherent opposition to a war that an overwhelming majority of Americans characterize as a mistake.
Of the 351 votes to continue no-strings-attached funding of the Bush administration's wars, 204 came from Republicans while 146 came from Democrats. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders cast the final vote in favor of the "emergency" funding package, which also included $28.5 billion for Hurricane Katrina assistance, border security and farm subsidies.
Democrats who voted in favor of the spending included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois. Fresh from a primary campaign in which she made anti-war sounds in order to fend off a challenge from the left, California Democrat Jane Harman returned to her pro-war voting pattern. And Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is locked in a tight Democratic primary contest for his state's open Senate seat with anti-war candidate Kweisi Mfume, also voted to hand the Bush administration another blank check.
Voting against giving the administration everything it asked for and more were 48 Democrats and 19 Republicans. The Democrats included most of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including co-chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, both of California. The Republican votes came from two camps: war foes such as Texan Ron Paul, Tennessee's John Duncan and North Carolina's Walter Jones Jr., and budget "hawks" such as Arizona's Jeff Flake and Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner, who opposed what they saw as pork-barrel spending in the disaster-relief expenditure.
A few of the Republican fiscal conservatives were courageous enough to complain about the blank-check character of the war funding. "I support our troops, I support the war on terror, but I do not believe we should finance the war through emergency supplemental appropriations," Texan Jeb Hensarling said when explaining his "no" vote. "That approach evades whatever spending discipline we have."
More pointed were the remarks of anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio, who began his remarks on the House floor by declaring, "Mass death on the installment plan. That's what this supplemental vote to keep our troops in Iraq is all about."
Kucinich, who recently one a landslide Democratic primary victory against an aggressive and well-funded challenger, argued that, "The Administration went into Iraq without an exit strategy not because they are incompetent, but because they have no intention of leaving.
"We are spending hundreds of millions building permanent bases in Iraq. The Administration recently announced deployment of no less than 50,000 troops in Iraq far into the future. We are looking at the permanent occupation of Iraq.
"And so the long cadence of lies has led to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Haditha, soon to be replaced by more lies and more tragedies."What can you say when you are watching your nation descend, sleep walking, into something like the lower circles of hell in Dante's Inferno?
"You can say stop it! You can say enough blood is enough blood!
"You can stop it! Bring our troops home!
"You can say no to any more funds for this war! And then we can begin a period of truth and reconciliation about 9/11 and Iraq. Begin the healing of the soul of America."
While the bases will be permanent, the period of truth and reconciliation has been indefinitely delayed.
Now that the long speculation about whether White House political czar Karl Rove would be indicted for the role he played in exposing the identity of a CIA operative is done, perhaps the investigation of the Bush administration "hit" on Iraq War critic Joe Wilson can focus in on the fundamental questions that have been raised by the machinations of key players in the administration with the apparent goal of punishing a former diplomat for exposing White House misstatements and misdeeds.
The attention to Rove's involvement in the effort to reveal the identity of Wilson's wife, veteran Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame -- after Wilson, a former ambassador, revealed that key players in the Bush administration had to have know that elements of their "case" for attacking Iraq had been discredited -- was always something of a distraction. Of course, as David Corn and others have ably illustrated, Rove's actions demanded scrutiny. But the fury that so many Democrats feel toward Rove caused them to obsess on the question of whether he would be indicted, rather than to recognize that the critical indictment was that of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and a key advisor to President Bush on national security matters.
It is Libby who faces trial in January 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. And it is Libby, the neoconservative true believer who was the administration's willing henchman in defense of the Iraq endeavor, who connects this scandal to his old friend Cheney in a way that Rove, the political puppeteer, was unlikely ever to have connected it to Bush. Thus, from the time of Libby's indictment, the question that always mattered most was not: Will special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove? It was always: Will Fitzgerald connect the dots that lead to Cheney?
No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."
Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."
We now know just how right Wilson was. Libby has been indicted. And that documents related to that indictment are filled with references to meetings with Cheney on the very day that Libby began calling reporters as a part of a push to discredit Wilson. We have a copy of a column Wilson wrote for The New York Times with notes from Cheney attacking the former ambassador and making reference to his wife. We have transcripts of Libby saying that he acted with "approval from the President through the Vice President" when he distributed previously classified information -- specifically, portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons -- to the media as part of the move to discredit Wilson.
At this point, it is unclear whether Fitzegerald will see his investigation through to its logical conclusion. But there can be no question that, with Rove off the hook, the administration and its media echo chamber will be doing everything in their power to constrain the special counsel. The White House wants this inquiry shut down.
But shutting it down now would prevent an examination of what Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, correctly refers to "the heart of the CIA leak case."
Hinchey leads a group of several dozen House members who have urged Fitzgerald to officially expand his investigation to include an examination of the motives behind the leaks by Libby, focusing in particular on the question of whether the administration's intent was to discredit Ambassador Wilson's revelation that Iraq had never sought uranium from Niger or other African countries. If that is proven to be the case, Hinchey has argued, "President Bush and other top members of his administration knowingly lied about uranium to the Congress, which is a crime."
The New York congressman, who is the most determined Congressional watchdog with regard to the administration's misuse of intelligence information, was never one of those who waited for the Rove shoe to drop.
After the April revelation that Cheney's former chief of staff said he was authorized to go after Wilson by the president and vice president, Hinchey said: "If what Scooter Libby said to the grand jury is true, then this latest development clearly reveals yet again that the CIA leak case goes much deeper than the disclosure of a CIA agent's identity to the press. The heart and motive of this case is about the deliberate attempt at the highest levels of this administration to discredit those who were publicly revealing that the White House lied about its uranium claims leading up to the war. The Bush Administration knew that Iraq had not sought uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapon, yet they went around telling the Congress, the country, and the world just the opposite. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson's husband, publicly spoke out with proof that the administration was not telling the truth on uranium, the administration engaged in an orchestrated plot, which now reportedly includes President Bush, to discredit Ambassador Wilson and dismiss any notion that they had lied about pre-war intelligence."
As Hinchey has argued for months, Libby's testimony about the authorization he received from Bush and Cheney must be seen in the context of a mounting body of evidence that rules, regulations and laws were bent far beyond the breaking point by the administration. The fact that Karl Rove has not been indicted does not eliminate that body of evidence. Nor does it resolve questions about Cheney's involvement in the scandal, or about the motivations of the president, the vice president and others who sought to discredit Ambassador Wilson for telling the truth. And it ought not serve as an excuse for shutting down an inquiry that has yet to examine "the heart of the CIA leak case."