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The dangers of “spin”: information, science, security, and welfare
  1. Nancy Milio
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor N Milio
 University of North Carolina, Carrington Hall no 7460, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7460, USA; milioemail.unc.edu

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Restrictions on full and accurate information

The Bush administration may go down in American history as one of the most creative, or devious, (depending on your point of view) in its use or misuse of information. Other nations can take a lesson from its lethal language. The US public has been focusing on a basic ingredient of democracy: truth in government, the practice of transparency and full disclosure. In public hearings before a special national investigating commission on intelligence and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the government’s practice is found wanting as the public witnessed and listened to the word games of administration officials. The entire history of open information use in the Bush regime is discouraging. The list is long. A few examples:

Going beyond the Patriot Act, (which was passed hurriedly by Congress without debate after September 11 and greatly increased national security agencies’ ability to encroach on civil liberties), the attorney general recently got what he has long sought, buried in new legislation: an extension of the FBI’s authority to get individuals’ financial records from private organisations ranging from credit card companies and car dealers to jewellers and the Post Office, without normal judicial review or showing “probable cause” of a crime. It also imposes a “gag” order under threat of criminal penalty for anyone who discloses that the FBI has obtained such records. In addition, the FBI is no longer required to report to Congress on how often they use this power.

The Department of Defense now restricts unclassified (non-secret) information on its web site, deleting what it deems is “of questionable value to public” and anything not “specifically approved for public release”.

The US Iraq press office in Baghdad is basically a Republican party operation, run by political appointees who have worked on Bush election campaigns, for the Bush family, or in the administration. Its stated task is to communicate to Congress and Americans the positive side of the invasion, occupation, and reconstruction. It targeted “good news” to US media in selected states prior to the recent Democratic presidential nomination primary elections. By comparison, the British press office is staffed by long time civil servants, not political appointees, who have specialist regional knowledge and language skills; the US has five staff who know enough Arabic to be interviewed on Al Jazeera TV.

For two years Vice President Cheney has fought providing information to Congress and the public on the input of the energy industries in the formulation of the administration’s fossil fuel favoured energy policy. The final decision is awaiting resolution by the Supreme Court, whose Justice Antonin Scalia recently went on a hunting trip with the vice president.

The administration understated the cost of the new Medicare prescription drug law for the elderly population and disabled people by $140 billion until after it was passed by Congress, even though a government actuary had provided it with the true cost, which it refused to accept before the legislation was written; the actuary resigned in protest.

Congress’ General Accounting Office, which investigates policy implementation, cited 21 areas of Executive authority that abused science information, including “political interference” and suppressing scientific reports; allowing misleading science statements by the president; providing inaccurate information to Congress; altering web sites and gagging scientists. The topics most affected were those on the administration’s political agenda, such as abstinence-only sex education; purported negative effects of abortions; drinking water and food safety, global warming, and workplace safety.

The administration’s approach to information is to focus on threat risks but not on the benefits of information to Americans’ security. This is erroneous, according to a new report by the highly regarded RAND Corporation think tank. It says web censorship is pointless because potential terrorists can get more detailed material from other open sources. Meanwhile, the benefits are lost by restricting government information, including better law enforcement, the spread of scientific knowledge, response to environmental risks and collaboration among citizens to prevent them.

All of these restrictions on full and accurate information damage civil liberties, respect for government, and ultimately the safety and security, the welfare and health of all who reside in the US, and indeed those in other countries—whether from false rationales for violence or denial of the science behind environmental damage, or of the most efficacious ways to deal with such health issues as HIV/AIDS and birth control.

A prime safeguard against government half truths and misleading information since the early US Republic is an alert, inquiring, and assertive media. But since 1989, the three TV networks’ reporting of foreign news decreased from over 20 hours to less than five hours per week by 2003, as was true of most local newspapers, even though 6 in 10 readers say they are “highly interested” in foreign news. As a result, Americans are using new sources, with large increases in the audiences of the London Economist, the New York Times, Reuters wire service, and the BBC.

More worrisome is a current report of surveys running from 9 June 2002, before the Iraq invasion to September 2003, which shows that more than 6 in 10 Americans had misperceptions of facts about the war, believing, for example, that weapons of mass destruction were found; that Saddam had ties with Al Quaeda; and that world opinion favoured the US invasion. These erroneous beliefs were related to people’s primary source of news. The most accurately informed used NPR (National Public Radio) and read the newspapers; the least well informed used Fox TV, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Sky TV.

Without an informed citizenry, the kinds of governments and societies we want, the kinds the world respects, can shrivel, reaping disaster on the lives and living conditions ultimately of us all. Those especially in the helping professions who understand the need for truth and openness in government and the relentless search for truth by the media must speak openly for this imperative to states and in the media.

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