Underreported Stories

Project Censored

Photo Illustration By Magali Pirard

The 10 most underreported stories of 1997

Edited By Greg Cahill

DESPITE THE END of the Cold War and recent congressional resolutions prohibiting military aid to governments that are undemocratic, involved in human rights abuses, or engaging in aggression against neighboring states, the U.S. share of the global arms sales market has soared from 16 percent to 63 percent in the past decade.

Researchers for Project Censored–a Sonoma State University–based student-faculty media-watch project now in its 22nd year–found that the mainstream media have failed to report the soaring sales of America’s arms merchants.

That activity tops the project’s 10 most underreported stories of 1997, released this week.

The nation’s arms sales policies were the focus of Guns ‘R Us, an article by reporter Martha Honey published last year in the progressive journal In These Times. That story quotes Brookings Institution fellow Lawrence Kolb, an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, as saying, “It’s a money game: an absurd spiral in which we export arms only to have to develop more sophisticated ones to counter those spread all over the world.”

It is the type of story that gets little play in the mainstream media, which reveled last year in seemingly endless coverage of Princess Diana’s tragic death and funeral, the trial of a British nanny accused of murdering an infant in her care, and salacious sex scandals centered around President Bill Clinton.

“Investigative journalists are writing and printing hundreds of important stories that are ignored by a major media too interested in celebrity news, infomercials, and tittilation,” says Project Censored director Peter Philips, an SSU professor of journalism.

Here are the year’s Top 10 most censored stories:

1. Clinton Administration Aggressively Promotes U.S. Arms Sales Worldwide

THE UNITED STATES is now the principal arms merchant for the world. U.S. weapons are evident in almost every conflict worldwide and reap a devastating toll on civilians, U.S. military personnel, and the socioeconomic priorities of many Third World nations.

Most U.S. weaponry is sold to strife-torn regions such as the Middle East, where–instead of promoting stability–they fan the flames of war and put U.S. troops based around the world at growing risk. The last five times U.S. troops were sent into conflict, they found themselves facing adversaries–including Iraq–that had previously received U.S. weapons, military technology, or training. Meanwhile, the Pentagon uses the presence of advanced U.S. weapons in foreign arsenals to justify increased new weapons spending–ostensibly to maintain U.S. military superiority.

Last June, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct, prohibiting U.S. commercial arms sales or military aid and training to foreign governments that are undemocratic, abuse human rights, or engage in aggression against neighboring states. Yet the Clinton administration, along with the Defense, Commerce, and State departments, has continued to strenuously promote the arms industry at every opportunity. With Washington’s share of the arms business jumping from 16 percent worldwide in 1988 to 63 percent today, U.S. arms dealers sell $10 billion in weapons to non-democratic governments each year. During Clinton’s first year in office, U.S. foreign military aid soared to $36 billion, more than double what President Bush approved in 1992.

Given that international arms sales exacerbate conflicts and drain scarce resources from developing countries, why does the Clinton administration push them so vigorously? The most plausible motive is the drive for corporate profits. It is no small detail that U.S. global arms market dominance has been accomplished as much through subsidies as sales. In return for arms manufacturers’ huge political contributions, many of the U.S. arms exports are paid with government grants, subsidized loans, tax breaks, and promotional activities.

Sources: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, October 1996, “Costly Giveaways,” by Lora Lumpe; In These Times, Aug. 11, 1997, “Gun ‘R Us,” by Martha Honey.

2. Personal-Care and Cosmetic Products May Be Carcinogenic

DO YOU USE toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, body lotion, makeup, or hair dye? These are among the personal-care products that consumers have been led to believe are safe but that are often contaminated with carcinogenic byproducts or contain substances that regularly react to form potent carcinogens during storage and use.

Consumers regularly assume that these products are not harmful because they believe that they are approved for safety by the Food and Drug Administration. But although the FDA classifies cosmetics (dividing them into 13 categories), it does not regulate them. An FDA document posted on the agency’s World Wide Web home page explains that “a cosmetic manufacturer may use any ingredient or raw material and market the final product without government approval.” (This is with the exception of seven established toxins, such as hexachlorophene, mercury compounds, and chloroform.) Should the FDA deem a product to be a danger to public health, it has the power to pull it from the shelves, but in many of these cases the FDA has failed to do so, while evidence mounts that some of the most common cosmetic ingredients may double as deadly carcinogens.

Examples of products with potential carcinogens are: Clairol “Nice and Easy” hair color, which releases carcinogenic formaldehyde as well as Cocamide DEA (a substance that can be contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines or react to produce a nitrosamine during storage or use); Vidal Sassoon shampoo (which, like the hair dye, contains Cocamide DEA); Cover Girl makeup, which contains TEA (also associated with carcinogenic nitrosamines); and Crest toothpaste, which contains titanium dioxide, saccharin, and FD&C Blue #1 (known carcinogens).

One group of the cosmetic toxins that consumer advocates are most concerned about are nitrosamines, which they claim contaminate a wide variety of cosmetic products. In the 1970s, nitrosamine contamination of cooked bacon and other nitrite-treated meats became a public-health issue, and the food industry, which is more strictly regulated than the cosmetic industry, has since drastically diminished their use in processed meats. But nitrosamines now contaminate cosmetics at significantly higher levels than were once contained in bacon.

The FDA has long known that nitrosamines in cosmetics pose a risk to public health. In 1979, FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy called on the cosmetic industry to “take immediate measures to eliminate, to the extent possible, NDELA [a potent nitrosamine] and any other N-nitrosamine from cosmetic products.” Since that warning, however, cosmetic manufacturers have done little to remove the compound from their products, and the FDA has done even less to monitor them.

Sources: In These Times, Feb. 17, 1997, “To Die For,” by Joel Bleifuss; In These Times, March 3, 1997, “Take a Powder,” by Joel Bleifuss.

3. Big Business Seeks to Control and Influence U.S. Universities

ACADEMIA IS BEING auctioned off to the highest bidder. Increasingly, industry is creating endowed professorships, funding think tanks and research centers, sponsoring grants, and contracting for research. Under this arrangement, students, faculty, and universities serve the interest of corporations instead of the public–in the process selling off academic freedom and intellectual independence.

Although universities often claim that corporate moneys come without strings attached, this is usually not the case. A British pharmaceutical corporation, Boots, gave $250,000 to the University of California at San Francisco for research comparing its hyperthyroid drug, Synthroid, with lower-cost alternatives. Instead of demonstrating Synthroid’s superiority as Boots had hoped, the study found that the other drugs were bioequivalents. This information could have saved consumers $356 million if they had switched to a cheaper alternative, but Boots took action to protect Synthroid’s domination of the $600 million market. The corporation prevented publication of the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and then announced that the research was badly flawed. The researcher was unable to counter the claim because she was legally precluded from releasing the study.

University presidents often sit on the boards of directors of major corporations, inviting conflicts of interest and developing biases that undermine academic freedom and interfere with the ability of the university to be critical or objective. While university presidents and chancellors gain from their corporate activities, industry and business are returned favors. Conversely, university boards of trustees are dominated by captains of industry, who hire chancellors and presidents with pro-industry biases. For instance, New York University’s board includes former CBS owner Laurence Tisch, Hartz Mountain chief Leonard Stern, Salomon Brothers brokerage firm founder William B. Salomon, and real estate magnate-turned-publisher Mortimer Zuckerman.

Federal tax dollars fund about $7 billion worth of research, to which corporations can buy access for a fraction of the actual cost. This is largely the result of two 1980s federal laws that allow universities to sell patent rights derived from taxpayer-funded research to corporations–encouraging “rent-a-researcher” programs. The result of these changes has been a covert transfer of resources from the public to the private sector and the changing of universities from centers of instruction to centers for corporate R&D.

Sources: Covertaction Quarterly, Spring 1997, “Phi Beta Capitalism,” by Lawrence Soley; Dollars and Sense, March/April 1997, “Big Money on Campus,” by Lawrence Soley.

4. Spy vs. Spy: Exposing the Global Surveillance System

FOR OVER 40 years, New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, has helped Western allies spy on countries throughout the Pacific region. Neither the public nor the majority of New Zealand’s top elected officials had knowledge of these activities, which have operated since 1948 under a secret, Cold War-era intelligence alliance among the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the UKUSA agreement).

But in the late 1980s, in a decision it probably regrets, the United States prompted New Zealand to join a new and highly secret global intelligence system. Author Nicky Hager’s investigation into this system and his discovery of the ECHELON Dictionary have revealed one of the world’s biggest, most closely held intelligence projects–one that allows spy agencies to monitor most of the telephone, e-mail, and telex communications carried over the world’s telecommunication networks.

It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.

The ECHELON system, designed and coordinated by the U.S. National Security Agency, is meant primarily to gather electronic transmissions from non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country. The system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from the mass of unwanted ones. Computers at each secret station in the ECHELON network automatically search millions of messages for pre-programmed keywords.

For each message containing one of those keywords, the computer automatically notes time and place of origin and interception, and gives the message a four-digit code for future reference. Computers that can automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed since at least the l970s, but the ECHELON system was designed by the NSA to interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole. Using the ECHELON system, an agency in one country may automatically pick up information gathered elsewhere in the system. Thus the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for the NSA no differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases located on their soil.

The exposure of ECHELON occurred after more than 50 people who work or have worked in intelligence and related fields–concerned that the UKUSA activities had been secret too long and were going too far–agreed to be interviewed by Hager, a longtime researcher of spying and intelligence. Materials leaked to Hager included precise information on where the spying is conducted, how the system works, the system’s capabilities and shortcomings, and other details such as code names.

The potential abuses of and few restraints around the use of ECHELON have motivated other intelligence workers to come forward. In one example, a group of “highly placed intelligence operatives” from the British Government Communications Headquarters came forward protesting what they regarded as “gross malpractice and negligence” within the establishments in which they operate, citing cases of GCHQ interception of charitable organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.

Sources: Covertaction Quarterly, Winter 1996/97, “Secret Power: Exposing the Global Surveillance System,” by Nicky Hager.

5. U.S. Companies Lead World in the Manufacture of Torture Devices

IN ITS MARCH 1997 report entitled “Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment,” Amnesty International lists 100 companies worldwide that produce and sell instruments of torture. Forty-two of these firms are in the United States. This places the United States as the leader in the manufacture of stun guns, stun belts, cattle probe-like devices, and other equipment that can cause devastating pain in the hands of torturers.

These weapons are in use in the United States and are being exported to countries all over the world. The U.S. government is a large purchaser of stun devices–especially stun guns, electroshock batons, and electric shields. The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International both claim the devices are unsafe and may encourage sadistic acts by police officers and prison guards–both here and abroad.

“Stun belts offer enormous possibilities for abuse and the infliction of gratuitous pain,” says Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She adds that because use of the belt leaves little physical evidence, there is an increased likelihood of sadistic, but hard-to-prove, misuse of these weapons. In June 1996, Amnesty International asked the Bureau of Prisons to suspend the use of the electroshock belt, citing the possibilities of physical danger to inmates and the potential for misuse.

Manufacturers of electroshock weapons continue to denounce allegations that use of their devices is dangerous and may constitute a gross violation of human rights. Instead, they are making more advanced innovations. A new stun weapon may soon be added to police arsenals–the electroshock razor wire, specially designed for surrounding demonstrators who get out of hand.

Source: The Progressive, September 1997, “Shock Value: U.S. Stun Devices Pose Human-Rights Risk,” by Anne-Marie Cusae.

6. Space Probe Debacle: Russian Plutonium Lost over Chile and Bolivia

ON NOV. 16, 1996, Russia’s Mars 96 space probe broke up and burned while descending over Chile and Bolivia, scattering its remains across a 10,000-square-mile area, despite claims that the wreckage had fallen harmlessly into the sea. The probe carried about a half pound of deadly plutonium divided into four battery canisters, and no one seems to know where they went.

Gordon Benedict, director of legislative affairs for the National Security Council, states there are two possibilities. Either the “canisters were destroyed coming through the atmosphere [and the plutonium dispersed], or the canisters survived re-entry, impacted the earth, and . . . penetrated the surface . . . or could have hit a rock and bounced off like an agate marble.”

This amount of plutonium has the potential to cause devastating damage. According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Plutonium is so toxic that less than one millionth of a gram is a carcinogenic dose.” She warns that “one pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth.” Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California at Berkeley, confirms the increased hazard of lung cancer that would occur if the probe burned up and formed plutonium oxide particles.

On Nov. 17, 1996, when the U.S. Space Command announced the probe would re-enter the earth’s atmosphere with a predicted impact point in East Central Australia, President Clinton telephoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard and offered “the assets the United States has in the Department of Energy” to deal with any radioactive contamination. Howard placed the Australian military and government on full alert and warned the public to use “extreme caution” if they came in contact with the remnants of the Russian space probe.

In the first of a series of blunders, the day after the space probe had fallen on South America, the Space Command remained focused on Australia. Later it reported the probe had fallen in the Pacific just west of South America. A Russian news source put the site in a different patch of the Pacific altogether. Major media in the United States reported the probe as having crashed “harmlessly” into the ocean. On Nov. 18, 1996, the Washington Post ran the headline “Errant Russian Spacecraft Crashes Harmlessly After Scaring Australia.”

On Nov. 29, the U.S. Space Command completely revised its account. It changed not only where, but also when the probe fell. The final report placed the crash site not west of South America, but directly on Chile and Bolivia. The date of the crash was also revised from Nov. 17 to Nov. 16. Apparently the U.S. Space Command had initially tracked the booster stage of the Russian craft, and not the actual probe itself.

The New York Times mentioned the incident on page 7 under “World Briefs” on Dec. 14, 1996. The Russian government has been uncooperative, still refusing to give Chile a description of the canisters to aid in retrieval efforts.

Source: Covertaction Quarterly, Spring 1997, “Space Probe Explodes,” by Karl Grossman.

7. Human Tests in Third World Lead to Forced Sterilization in the United States

LOW-INCOME women in the United States and in the Third World have been the unwitting targets of a U.S policy to control birthrates. Despite continuous reports of debilitating effects of the drug Norplant, women here and in the Third World who have received the implantable contraceptive have had difficulty making their complaints heard, and in some instances have been deceived, according to several sources.

Joseph D’Agostino reported on the British Broadcasting Co. documentary “The Human Laboratory,” which accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of acting in conjunction with the Population Council of New York City to use uninformed women in Bangladesh, Haiti, and the Philippines for tests of Norplant. Many of these women were subjects in pre-injection drug trials that began in 1985 in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. Norplant is a set of six plastic cylinders containing a synthetic version of a female hormone. It is intended to prevent pregnancy for five years. Surgery is required for removal–at a cost far beyond the reach of low-income women, whether in Bangladesh or the United States, if the removal is not subsidized.

The BBC documentary said the women stated that they had been told that the drug was safe and not experimental. Implantation was free. One woman interviewed in the documentary said that after implantation, suddenly her body became weak, and she couldn’t get up, look after her children, or cook. Other women reported similar problems, stating that when they asked to have Norplant removed, they were told it would ruin the study. The narrator of the documentary, Farida Akhter, recounted that when another woman begged to have the implant removed–saying, “I’m dying. Please help me get it out”–she was told, “OK, when you die, inform us; we’ll get it out of your body.”

Many women who were used in the trials have suffered from eyesight disorders, strokes, persistent bleeding, and other side effects.

Now Norplant devices are figuring in reproductive rights policies in the United Sates as well. Journalist Rebecca Kavoussi reports that the reproductive rights of women addicted to drugs or alcohol have once again become the focus of legislation. Senate Bill 5278, now under consideration in the state of Washington, would require “involuntary use of long-term pharmaceutical birth control” (Norplant) for women who give birth to drug-addicted babies. Under this proposal, a woman who gives birth to a drug-addicted baby would get two chances–the first voluntary, the second mandatory–to undergo drug treatment and counseling. Upon the birth of a third drug-addicted child, the state would force the mother to undergo surgery to insert the Norplant contraceptive.

Jennifer Washburn focuses on Medicaid rejection of Norplant removed in the United States. State Medicaid agencies, for example, often generously cover the cost of Norplant insertion but don’t cover removal before the full five years. Although Medicaid policy may cover early removal when determined “medically necessary,” medical necessity is determined by the provider and the Medicaid agency, not the patient.

Sources: Human Events, May 16, 1997, “BBC Documentary Claims That U.S. Foreign Aid Funded Norplant Testing on Uninformed Third World Women,” by Joseph D’Agostino; Washington Free Press, March/April 1997, “Norplant and the Dark Side of the Law,” by Rebecca Kavoussi; 7, November/December 1996, “The Misuses of Norplant: Who Gets Stuck?” by Jennifer Washburn.

8. Little-Known Federal Law Paves the Way for National I.D. Card

IN SEPTEMBER 1996, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996. Buried on page 650 was a section that creates a framework for establishing a national ID card for the America public. This legislation was slipped through without fanfare or publicity.

This law establishes a “Machine Readable Document Pilot Program” requiring employers to wipe a prospective employee’s driver’s license through a special reader linked to the federal government’s Social Security Administration. The federal government would have the discretion to approve or disapprove the applicant for employment. In this case, the driver’s license becomes a “national ID card.” The government would have comprehensive files on all American citizens’ names, dates and places of birth, mothers’ maiden names, Social Security numbers, gender, race, driving records, child support payments, divorce status, hair and eye color, height, weight, and “anything else they may dream up in the future.”

Another part of the law provides $5 million-per-year grants to any state that wants to participate in any one of three pilot ID programs. One of these programs is the “Criminal Alien Identification Program,” which is to be used by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to record fingerprints of aliens previously arrested.

The author of the national ID law, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stated in a Capitol Hill magazine that it was her intention to see Congress immediately implement a national ID system whereby every American would be required to carry a card with a “magnetic strip on it on which the bearer’s unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded.”

Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, among others, has strongly denounced the new law, calling it “an abomination, and wholly at odds with the American tradition of individual freedom.”

Source: Witwigo, May/June 1997, “National I.D. Card Is Now Federal Law and Georgia Wants to Help Lead the Way,” by Cyndee Parker.

9. Mattel Cuts U.S. Jobs to Open Sweat Shops in Other Countries

THANKS TO THE NORTH American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, U.S. toy factories have cut their American workforce in half and sent many of those jobs to countries where workers lack basic rights.

In the past decade Mattel, the maker of “Barbie,” bought out six major competitors, making it the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Employing 25,000 people worldwide, Mattel now employs only 6,000 workers in the United States. NAFTA has freed Mattel to further reduce its American workforce and take advantage of repressive labor laws in other countries.

In the Dynamic factory just outside of Bangkok, 4,500 women and children stuff, cut, dress, and assemble Barbie dolls and Disney properties. Many of the workers have respiratory infections, their lungs filled with dust from fabrics in the factory. They complain of hair and memory loss; constant pain in their hands, necks, and shoulders; episodes of vomiting, and irregular menstrual periods. Metha is a militant woman in her 20s who tried to start a union at the Dynamics plant. She claims the company not only fired her but threatened to shut her up “forever.” She developed respiratory problems and was hospitalized. She expresses her fear of talking to a reporter by saying, “Barbie is powerful. Three friends have already died. If they kill me, who will ever know I lived?”

Though separated by distance, these Mattel workers are intimately connected by experience, as are those of countless other abused workers in toy factories in Thailand and China, where Mattel now produces the bulk of its toys.

Under pressure, the industry adopted a code of conduct, which conveniently calls upon companies to monitor themselves. There’s little evidence, however, according to authors Anton Foek and Eyal Press, of any changes in these abusive practices.

Sources: The Nation, Dec. 30, 1996, “Barbie’s Betrayal: The Toy Industry’s Broken Workers,” by Eyal Press; The Humanist, January/
February 1997, “Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Their World Labor,” by Anton Foek.

10. Army’s Plan to Burn Nerve Gas Toxins Threatens Columbia River Basin

DESPITE EVIDENCE that incineration is the worst option for destroying the nation’s obsolete chemical weapons stockpile at the Umatilla Army Depot, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission gave the green light to the Army and Raytheon Corp. to spend $1.3 billion of taxpayer money to construct five chemical weapons incinerators.

In the face of strong protests in February 1997, the EQC made its final decision to accept the U.S. Army’s application to build a chemical weapons incineration facility near Hermiston, Ore.

Some examples of the chemicals to be incinerated are nerve gas and mustard agent; bioaccumulative organochlorines such as dioxins, furans, chloromethane, vinyl chloride, and PCBs; metals such as lead, mercury, copper, and nickel; and toxins such as arsenic. These represent only a fraction of the thousands of chemicals and metals that will potentially be emitted throughout the Columbia River watershed and from the toxic ash and effluents that pose a significant health threat via entrance to the aquifer.

Contrary to what incineration advocates claim, there is no urgent need to burn the materials, since the stockpile at Umatilla has small potential for explosion or chain reaction as a result of decay. A 1994 General Accounting Office report estimates that the actual duration for safe weapons storage is 120 years rather than the 17.7 years originally estimated by the National Research Council. Thus the time line for action could conceivably be lengthened until all the alternatives–such as chemical neutralization, molten metals, electrochemical oxidation, and solvated electron technology–are considered.

A delay is supported by a National Academy of Sciences report, entitled Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technology, which states that there has been sufficient development to warrant re-evaluation of alternative technologies for chemical-agent destruction.

Source: Earth First, March 1997, “Army Plan to Burn Surplus Nerve Gas Stockpile,” by Mark Brown and Karyn Jones.

From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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