Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories

 + FBI CRIES WOLF   Think the WTO protests in Seattle were important? Think again. The biggest story on Nov. 30, judging by primetime TV news, was the FBI discovery of graves near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico that were thought to hold 100 victims of drug cartel murders. It was ABC Nightline's sole topic that evening, and both CBS and CNN led with the story, giving it more time than their entire WTO-protest coverage. "People were expecting body after body to be unearthed -- like digging up carrots," an anonymous Mexican government official told the Washington Post.

But now the FBI's celebrated mass grave for 100+ turned out to contain the remains of... nine. Plus the bones of someone's pooch.

The U.S. press famously covers up Bureau blunders, however, and only about a dozen newspapers mentioned this embarassing end to The Big FBI Story. The New York Times -- which had prominently featured the lurid story on Nov. 30/Dec. 1 and noted that "as many as 200 people might be buried in several graves" -- made only a passing reference to the "largely unsuccessful... recent search for mass graves" in a long feature six weeks later.

Exactly how the FBI screwed this up is unclear, but it appears that their informant, "a former Mexican police officer... [who] had passed a lie detector test," (NY Times, Nov. 30) had sold the gullible G-Men a bill of goods. The DEA refused to have anything to do with the operation, and even a group of senators and staff members briefed by the FBI came away skeptical after being told that this informant knew the names and locations of up to 100 bodies. "We said to each other afterward, 'Boy, this guy had some memory'" (Washington Post, Jan. 10).

So who was the agent who blew the FBI's credibility? Turns out he's the new boss.

As we described in a recent 404 report, the FBI announced in November that the Agency was completely restructuring itself. There would now be an "Investigative Services Division" and a newly-created "Counterterrorism Division," both reporting to new FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard. It was Pickard himself who made the prediction that 100 bodies would be found on Nov. 28, just three days before he officially settled into his new, powerful position. (February 12, 2000)

 + THE CONSERVATIVE'S SECRET WEAPON   Wondering what actual damage might be done by a Bush (or McCain) administration? The candidates are remarkably silent about their specific plans, but clues can probably be found by reading conservative think-tank papers and the right-wing press. There you'll find excited buzz about the Shelby amendment.

If you've not heard of the Shelby amendment, you're not alone. Fewer than a dozen articles have appeared in the mainstream press nationwide since it was passed into law last year, and the most important of these stories have appeared in regional newspapers, such as the Greensboro NC News & Record, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Here's the background: Last October, Senator Richard C. Shelby (R - Alabama) slipped a single sentence into the 4,000-page Omnibus Appropriations Act. The deceptively simple change requires the Office of Management and Budget to "ensure that all data produced under an award will be made available to the public through the procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)." In other words, anyone can obtain all information about any science study funded (even in part) by the government.

Hooray, you might say; FOIA certainly has been an important tool to expose government excess and fraud. And hooray for the free exchange of ideas, which lies at the heart of scientific inquiry. But this is really a tool for conservatives to gut hated regulatory agencies like the EPA.

As Congressman David Price noted in a newspaper op/ed, the amendment's broad inclusion of all data "...could include laboratory notebooks, interview notes, medical records or anything else used in the conduct of research." It's a neat way to intimidate both the scientists and any subjects that might participate in a study.

In the only major newspaper article to appear on the Shelby amendment, Kevin Casey, senior director of Federal and state relations at Harvard, told The New York Times that the Shelby amendment a backdoor attack on regulations. "This is not about getting the public information," he said. "It is about attacking regulations on pollution and other areas."

Through the new rule, Mr. Casey asserts, Republicans are able to attack environmental laws under the guise of sunshine laws and not lose public support, as they have for their more open challenges in recent years.

"The Shelby amendment is a backdoor way to achieve the same goal," Mr. Casey said. "It allows company lawyers to harass scientists collecting data on the most sensitive and controversial issues -- such as environmental health and pollution -- to slow down the research used to make policy."

Consider what this could mean if, for example, a study showed small children knew Joe Camel as well as Mickey Mouse. The tobacco company could demand all data related to the study, including names and addresses of the children. With that information, company "experts" could go back and quiz the 6 year-olds. A chilling scenario -- and true. This actually happened in 1991; R.J. Reynolds forced disclosure of the identities of the children in this study, but chose not to pursue a "re-interview." The researcher spent years in court fighting the corportation, and ultimately said he would never again study tobacco topics.

Many wait in the wings to use the Shelby amendment to attack regulators. The Gun Owners of America, according to The Times, wants to discredit the data showing guns in the home most often kill family members instead of bad guys. Other groups note enthusiastically that the amendment can be used to hack away at the EPA on clean air and water regulations.

Efforts to limit or repeal the Shelby amendment have failed so far, and as of this writing, the White House Office of Management and Budget has not allowed any widespread abuse. But how the amendment is interpreted is entirely up to the discretion of the man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (February 18, 2000)

 + SCABS FOR LUNCH?   There was considerable outrage in early February when reporter Elliot Jaspin revealed that schoolchildren in 31 states were being fed meat made (in part) from diseased poultry. Up to half the animals processed into chicken nuggets from two Alabama plants may have sores, scabs or some kinds of infection, according to U.S. Agriculture Dept. supervisor John McCutcheon.

"The skin's got sores and bruises and things on it," Ellen Dingler, a federal food safety inspector at a Gold Kist poultry processing plant told Cox News Service. "They mix that with the meat and it's called 'binder.' So I won't eat a chicken nugget or a pressed patty or anything because of that. Because that skin is mixed in with it and it's got sores." The story noted that other inspectors described chickens with tumors or coated with pus moving unhindered down the processing line where they are eventually turned into chicken nuggets or other processed chicken products.

The only news here is that this is a non-story: No child (apparently) fell sick from eating processed chicken scabs. But regularly investigators find nightmares far worse than this. In 1997, OSHA proposed a $1,072,000 fine against the largest midwestern egg farm for forcing employees to work under life-threatening conditions. Monitor was the only nationwide media to report that; we could have followed up with regular reports of that sort, if we wanted this to become the Fecal Coliform Weekly.

Here's one of the latest shockers, also igored by nationwide media: In late January, a federal grand jury has indicted a Mississippi poultry rendering company and its president on criminal charges that they dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of slaughterhouse waste illegally. The waste -- manure, grease, and "other rotting material" -- went into a stream that supplies drinking water to Jackson, Mississippi. It even gets worse: The owners knew that they couldn't handle all the waste, so workers just dumped truckloads of untreated chicken blood into a wastewater lagoon behind the building.

Reading stories like that, it's easy to understand why the EPA seeks to regulate livestock factories for pollution discharge by the year 2005. Of course, that's assuming ther is an EPA by the year 2005 -- see story above. (February 27, 2000)

 + INDONESIAN INTRIGUE   These 404 reports often have items on Indonesia, probably trying the patience of many readers. But there's no continuing story that illustrates so well "the news you're missing" in the mainstream press. In the fourth largest nation on the globe, events happen on an epic scale: From the horrors in E Timor last year (where thousands are still missing) to the 1998 overthrow of dictator Suharto (where more than a million ordinary people took to the streets against a murderous army), this is one of the most dramatic news stories in the world today, and utterly ignored by the Western media.

The latest developments involve Machiavellian intrigue: Who's really in charge of the country? Is it President Wahid, elected in November -- or is it still Suharto's extended family? The latest twist centers on General Wiranto, head of the Indonesian Armed Forces.

Wiranto is either a great hero or a great villian. He's praised by the mainstream press for subduing the army during the overthrow of Suharto and calling for restraint by troops committing genocide in E Timor. But there's another view that these were empty statements made at Suharto's behest, and aimed at keeping alive the threat of another violent coup by the old Suharto military cabal. Intended or no, that has been the effect on the Indonesian people: When President Wahid visited Europe and Asia in January, rumors swept Jakarta that the generals were again sharpening their knives.

Then on February 14, President Wahid asked General Wiranto to resign, after two weeks of public statements that such a move was imminent. As before, there are two contradictory interpretations: It is a triumph of Indonesia's new civilian government to rein in the military -- or a sign that Wahid administration is continuing the coverup from the Suharto era.

As head of the army, Wiranto was foremost among the 6 generals that an independent commission has recommended be investigated for accountability in the E Timor atrocities. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan leads a host of human rights groups that insist that these were systematic crimes against humanity, and there must be an international tribunal to probe the army's role in that slaughter. President Wahid responds only that he doesn't want Indonesians tried by outsiders -- perhaps because such a trial would set precedent for a trial of Suharto himself. (In October, we even raised the question that the Timor atrocities might be a kind of "insurance" to discourage war crimes be brought against the Suharto family.)

But an open investigation of Wiranto could lead to revelations that might well rock nations around the world, particularly the U.S. and England, which continued to collaborate with dictator Suharto despite clear evidence of crimes against humanity. The U.S., of course, maintains that Indonesia can police itself. And without pressure from the West, it's doubtful that there will be any real democratic government in this sad nation. (February 21, 2000)

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