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April 11, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 6




global perspective

But what is going on off screen?

by Tom Roberts, editor of NCR

We’re nearing the end of a jolting week during which we were treated, almost as if it were some new network pilot, to the invasion of Baghdad and the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

It was great live theater, and in some ways just as scrubbed as normal TV fare.

Only the slightest hint began to come through in the papers of the truly awful trail of dead humans upon which the conquest rested. The number of Iraqi dead will probably never be totaled up, but the original estimates were beginning to grow to staggering proportions.

While neither the U.S. nor Iraq was bothering to count the dead, some calculations began to become apparent. Whole Iraqi divisions had been obliterated, that we know, but where were the bodies? How many had paid the price?

What was the count of civilians in all of the towns and small cities in which fighting had been described as “fierce” on the way to Baghdad. And what of the hospitals that the International Committee of the Red Cross claimed were being overrun with patients?

Toward week’s end I began to think more and more about what was happening off camera, not only in Iraq, but, perhaps more figuratively, off our screens at home.

It seems the Bush administration has succeeded, in the absence of proof, in lumping together in the public imagination Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq with Osama bin Laden and Sept. 11. That success presumably has added to the American public’s hesitation at questioning the creeping assault on civil liberties that is being carried out in the name of fighting terrorism.

With alerts at code orange and troops in the field and the air alive with warnings and cautions, who can raise questions?

Some groups, thankfully, are not only raising questions but also meticulously documenting the erosion of civil liberties. One good source for such information is the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. That group’s report, “Imbalance of Powers: How changes to U.S. law and policy since 9/11 erode human rights and civil liberties”, is available from the committee’s Web site at

The secrecy fostered by the Bush Administration is extreme. In the last 18 months, it has spearheaded a rollback of federal open-government statutes. The Congress fought hard in 1977 to pass an update to the Freedom of Information Act. Over the veto of President Ford the Congress made it clear that all Americans are entitled to know what information the federal government retains on them and to whom it was communicated. In 1972, the Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act requiring the government to disclose the minutes of almost all committees within the federal structure.

Granted, few average citizens would have reason to seek information under the acts, but this is a case of not appreciating what you’ve got until it’s gone.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, 22 agencies were folded into an enormous federal bureaucracy, but the amount of information available to the public shrunk. Any information about the “critical infrastructure” can be withheld.

Under the war on terrorism, the FBI has permission to engage in domestic spying; its power to conduct surveillance and detain people has expanded. And the federal government’s authority to execute its powers in secret has also expanded.

The right to privacy is slowly being eroded, with the patriot act providing the power to compel banks, libraries and health facilities to furnish personal records.

The list of threats is long and complex. The Lawyers Committee details the threats in its report.

The dangers that remain in Iraq and the uncertainty about what might follow the military operations will continue to draw our attention and concern. But we should be diligent in tracking the dangers at home that grow out of measures enacted ostensibly to protect us. Democracy suffocates on secrecy and the violation of civil liberties.
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