• FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

    March 31, 2018 // 21 Comments »

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

    This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.

    The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would join Russian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

    Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the U.S. The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, U.S. counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

    FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

    Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.

    But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the U.S. wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

    That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

    The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”

    As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

    Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

    Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the U.S. will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

    The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The U.S. is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.

    The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    My Oath is to the Constitution, Not Hillary

    April 28, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    My thanks to Ryan, who I don’t know and have never met, for putting together this inspiring video making clear the difference between being a government drone and pretending your oath of allegiance is to some political boss, and standing up for the fact that the oath is to the Constitution.

    There is a difference between obedience to authority, which is required in an autocracy above all else, and loyalty to one’s Oath, which is required of patriots.

    Watch it now:

    (If the video is not embedded above, see it on YouTube)

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Battle Buddies

    March 24, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    (This article originally appeared on the blog, Ranger Against War)

    We have many friends and acquaintances her at RangerAgainstWar whom we have never met, save in the ether world. Among these is one each, Peter Van Buren, a true American patriot and razor sharp thinker.

    We first heard Mr. Van Buren in his NPR interview regarding his book, We Meant Well, and were impressed with his cogency and wit. It convinced us that at least one person in the State Department uses his head as something other than a hat rack. To their shame, he seems to be in the minority.

    Peter was fired by State this week in a confusing welter of accusations suggesting improper leaks, but it looks like a simple case of bullying an employee for exercising his right of free speech — Oh, yeah, that thing the U.S. was supposedly spreading with those Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which Peter helped lead. He has laid the situation and players out well over the past several weeks @ WeMeantWell.com.

    Bottom line: The State Department (DoS) cannot brook free speech, and in that way is unlike the Department of Defense (DoD), or any federal agency. So the U.S. spends Trillions of dollars exporting fanciful democratic ideals, all the while stomping on those very same concepts here in The Homeland ™.

    The treatment of the Branch Davidians during the Clinton White House might reveal Secretary of State Clinton’s proclivities when dealing with a DoS whistleblower. She will attempt to roll over him like an Engineer Assault vehicle crushing the Branch Davidian compound. Peter needs our support if that still has relevance in our democratic scheme.

    His case is similar to Bradley Manning’s in many respects, except Manning (being in DoD) has less rights. At least Van Buren has not been charged with espionage (at least, not yet!)

    Ranger finds it curious that there at least three Constitutions: One for domestic consumption, one for export, and one for DoD and DoS. We just presume that the military does not have free speech because they cannot criticize the Commander in Chief and Chain of Command (even if what they say is correct and factual.) If Van Buren is fired (following appeal), then free speech will not be tolerated in any government office, obviating the need for federal whistleblower laws.

    Men who march in lock step to their next promotion talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, and sadly, they will be the ones judging men like Van Buren. Screw the War on Terror — let’s defend freedom over here.

    Our best wishes go out to Peter van Buren who is stuck out on point without a battle buddy.

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Freedom of the Press Fail in Iraq

    January 27, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    The goal of a democratic Iraq propelled the US through almost nine years of occupation, and still serves as part of the hilarious justification for maintaining the World’s Largest Most Expensive Embassy (c) there. Thank you, soldiers, for your service.

    Democracy has many moving parts; an earlier blog post showed that implementing the rule of law in Iraq has fallen apart faster than a Chinese-made Rolex. Bought in West Africa. In the rain. And the guy selling it gives you a special friendship price. And you drop it. In that rain, so it gets rusty.

    Family Guy asides aside, a key pillar of democracy is freedom of the press, the right to air different opinions, criticize the government, even say rude shit about Thomas Jefferson if you want, that kind of thing. As it is said, “The equation is simple: the absence or suppression of civil liberties leads necessarily to the suppression of media freedom. Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them.”

    The nice people at Reporters Without Borders track the way different countries implement this freedom, or not, and produce yearly rankings.

    Sadly, the US comes in at number 47. Iraq, however, trolls the pathetic mid-ranks at 152, having fallen 22 places as the US war of terror packed up and left the country. That places freedom of the press in Iraq below that of such inviting democratic hot spots as Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Venezuela. Quite an accomplishment given the resources the US poured into establishing new media as part of the reconstruction of Iraq.

    Here’s some specifics on press freedom in Iraq from Reporters Without Borders:

    The threat to Iraqi media staff today comes above all from the authorities or political figures that block them from gaining access to certain areas. Abusive measures and legal proceedings against newspapers for “defamation” have become commonplace. Even media that are considered to be pro-government cannot escape this pressure.

    Alongside court proceedings and the resulting heaving fines, there has been an upsurge in threats to the safety and physical wellbeing of some independent journalists. Armed groups, but also Iraqi police and the authorities responsible for law and order have all threatened or committed acts of violence against them.

    Though possessing only at best a tenuous grasp of the concept of irony, I could not find any comments from the World’s Most Expensive Embassy (c) on Reporters Without Borders’ announcement.

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    State Department and Free Speech?

    October 10, 2011 // Comments Off on State Department and Free Speech?

    From an inteview with RT.com television:

    Peter Van Buren is being investigated by the US Department of State, whom he works for. What did he do? He blogged. Van Buren posted a link to a publically available WikiLeaks diplomatic cable. He also wrote a book.

    “Two years ago I served 12 months in Iraq as a Foreign Service Officer, leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team. I had been with the State Department for some 21 years at that point, serving mostly in Asia, but after what I saw in the desert — the waste, the lack of guidance, the failure to really do anything positive for the country we had invaded in 2003 — I started writing a book.”

    If the video embed is not showing on your screen, follow this link to watch.

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America