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The 404 Reports

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

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The bad news we should have heard

  + WHY WAS SCHIAVO'S BULIMIA IGNORED?   "Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the tragic and controversial Terri Schiavo case has been the exposure it has given to living wills," reports Tom Fontaine, staff writer at the Beaver County (Pennsylania) Times. He's not the only one who thinks so; the Google news search engine ( shows hundreds of other newspapers, broadcasters, and other news sites agree that there's now better awareness of living wills as a result of the white-hot coverage. Hooray for that; raising public awareness of such important issues is the news media's highest calling.

But just as she tragically entered her twilight world without a living will, Terri Schiavo was certainly an undiagnosed bulimic. Testimony at the malpractice trial revealed that she ran to the bathroom after eating. Her periods had stopped. At 26, she weighed about half of what she did in high school. After her collapse, doctors found her stomach lining was damaged and the enamel on the back of her teeth was burned from the caustic effects of vomiting. Her heart failure was caused by a severe potassium imbalance, which is the result of extreme dieting stunts like purging and abusing laxatives.

March 27 media coverage
...eating disorder 9670
...potassium 1920
...heart attack 1680
...bulimia / bulimic 227
While the press was telling us the Good News about living wills, a valuable opportunity for public education about bulimia was missed. Over 95 percent of the coverage did not mention bulimia at all. Statistics from Google news on March 27th tells the story; of the nearly 52 thousand pieces written (or republished) about Schiavo, only about 1 story in 5 even mentioned she had an "eating disorder." Some reports even went to great lengths to avoid mention the root cause of her condition. That same night, CBS Evening News said she had a "chemical imbalance" and left it at that.

What's going on here? Why are so few mentioning her self-destructive behavior that led directly to her death? Jennifer Roberts, spokesperson for ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), thinks some of it is sensitivity to her parents, who stubbornly denied their daughter was bulimic, just as they stubbornly insisted that she wasn't in a vegetative state at all. Another reason could be that editors often avoid technical-sounding words like "bulimia" and replace them with euphemisms like "eating disorder" -- even though Roberts says there is no known research that reveals what the public thinks "eating disorder" means.

Schiavo's face became familiar to everyone in the dramatic two weeks before her death, both with her final, vacant glaze and in old family snapshots of the vibrant young woman. That itself was a major lost opportunity to educate Americans about bulimia; experts say victims usually look outwardly healthy, even as their disease gnaws away inside. Few have the emaciated look we associate with people who aren't eating.

Terri Schiavo should have been the poster child for bulimia, and a national dialog on the illness should have followed. But these kinds of diseases spread two ways; first by the low self-esteem that drives young women (and yes, young men, too) to harm their bodies for appearance's sake, and then by society's discomfort about acknowledging the problem. There are no reliable statistics about how many people die or are permanently disabled from these mental illnesses, which are rarely listed on death certificates. Unfortunately, while the press kindly told us the good news about living wills, they also spared us the bad news about eating disorders, and thus contributed to the spread of the sickness.   (March 31, 2005)

Schiavo case attracting extremists


McVeigh is Hardly a "Lone Nut"

John Salvi and Conspiracy Thought

Soldier in The Army of God

Anti-Choice "Nuremberg Files" Off The Internet -- For Now

What year is this, again? It's looking uncomfortably like March, 1993 as once more, the networks are in Florida reporting on a controversial "right to life" story with Randall Terry at center stage. And just like before, there are disturbed, dangerous individuals lurking on the periphery of the crowd, ready to kill in order to preserve life.

Today's event is the Terri Schiavo case, as the family of the brain-damaged woman seeks to find a judge willing to order her feeding tube restored. In 1993, the issue was the murder of Dr. David Gunn, shot in the back by an anti-abortion fanatic.

At that time Randall Terry was still with the group he founded, Operation Rescue, known mostly for its noisy blockades of family planning centers. Terry and his group always walked just this side of advocating violence; they called doctors who performed abortions "mass murderers" and prayed for their execution, but didn't go so far as making "wanted" posters with the doctor's pictures and the home addresses (others did). Terry is now mainly protesting "judicial activism" that he says is a result of the "bizarre agenda of the far left [which] has been shoved down our throat via the courts," as he wrote in a March 17 plea to the Florida legislature. Terry is now acting as spokesman for Schiavo's family, although broadcast media rarely mentions his Operation Rescue past.

Another player in the Schiavo story from the bad old days is former Green Beret Commander Bo Gritz, most famous for convincing Randy Weaver to leave his Ruby Ridge redoubt in 1992 without further violence. Gritz is now trying to serve notarized "citizen's arrest warrants" on Schiavo's husband, Circuit Court Judge George Greer who ordered the feeding tube removed, state Attorney General Crist, and Gov. Jeb Bush. The involvement of Gritz -- a folk hero with enormous stature in the militia subculture -- has fueled high levels of Internet chatter among the proudly- armed- and- dangerous crowd.

FOX NEWS cutaway shot of crowd outside Terri Schiavo hospice, March 24, 2005
At the same time, an array of Christian activist and right- to- life groups are using the Schiavo case as an emotional rallying point for direct action; Operation Rescue (sans Terry) is even paying expenses for some activists descending on Florida. For the last week, hate TV and radio talkers have discussed little else but the situation, and their distortions are well-documented by the good folks over at Media Matters.

The situation is ripe for violence. Members of the Florida state legislature have received death threats, and guards have been posted outside the politicians' offices. Just like the scariest days of 1993, "wanted" posters with pictures and home addresses of the judges involved are being circulated. Schiavo's case is also attracting nutcases, and the lessons from 1993 show that the true dangers lie with them. Killers like Shelley Shannon, John Salvi, and yes, Timothy McVeigh, weren't leaders in their movements; they were hangers-on who were easily swayed by heated rhetoric.

On March 24, police arrested an Illinois man who robbed a Florida gun store as part of an attempt to "rescue Terri Schiavo." The same night, Fox News cameras captured someone waving a "Repent Or Else" sign outside her hospice -- and it's a pretty safe bet that not-so-veiled threat wasn't aimed at the dying woman. The next day, the FBI charged a North Carolina man with offering a $250,000 bounty "on the head of Michael Schiavo" and another $50,000 to kill an unspecified judge who refused to intervene.

What's brewing in Florida won't end with Schiavo's death. If the Department of Homeland Security is truly concerned about preventing domestic terrorism, they'd be well-advised to give some scrutiny to those ready to conduct a fatwa against judges and elected officials.   (March 25, 2005)

Losing a billion gallons of fresh water daily

  + THE LAKESHORE MYSTERY   The Albion Monitor archive passed the 8,500 milestone in early March, but that doesn't include all the items that have appeared here in the 404 Reports corner over the years. Mostly these entries are postscripts to earlier articles, but there's almost always some media criticism included, usually a bitter overview of the poor coverage of the topic; in fact, anyone who wants to parody these 404 Reports could follow a simple formula:

"The President/ a Cabinet member/ a federal Department did something illegal/ awful...
... and only one damn U.S. newspaper reported it."
"MegaCorp/ ConglomCo got away with something illegal/ awful...
"Historic event happened outside the U.S...
"Major health risk uncovered/ important science discovery made...
"Kissinger/ Pinochet/ Ken Lay still not in jail...

For once, though, let's turn the tables; let's cheer for that one newspaper or broadcaster that did cover overlooked news. Let's send an "attaboy" to the intrepid reporters and editors who run ahead of the journalist pack to research and write these stories that almost everyone else ignores. And in particular, today let's thank staff writer Dan Egan and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for coverage of a remarkable story: That Lakes Michigan and Huron are losing almost a billion gallons of water per day, and nobody knows why.

The story begins with the Georgian Bay Association, a Canadian nonprofit that grew anxious as Lakes Michigan and Huron -- really the same body of water -- began dropping an average of a foot of water per year in the late 1990s. As they watched wetlands become meadows and the water levels neared all-time lows, the group was concerned that this was no natural fluxuation. Members went door- to- door collecting donations to commission their own study. The engineering report was released in late January and confirmed their fears: the lake's normal level is now 2 1/2 feet (80 centimeters) lower than the historical norm, and still sinking.

The researchers offered a few reasons why this might be happening. One theory is that the ground underneath is gradually swelling upward, rebounding from the crushing weight of Ice Age glaciers that formed the lakes. Another possibility is that Michigan and Huron are simply not taking in as much rain and snow, for some reason. But the most likely explanation is that the water is draining out of the lakes, eventually tumbling over Niagara Falls on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Water from Lake Huron drains into the St. Clair River on its way to Lake Erie
The study lay the blame on a 1962 project by the Army Corps of Engineers, when about 30 feet were dredged from the bottom of the St. Clair River (see arrow on map) to allow freighters into the upper Great Lakes. It was expected the lakes would have a one-time drop of about 16 inches as a result, but they did not forsee that damage to the riverbed and the deeper, faster moving water in the channel would also speed up erosion. Combined with gravel mining in the river and shoreline changes, it had the effect of unclogging a bathtub drain.

No one noticed this because wet weather over most of the period between 1970 and 1998 kept the water at familiar levels. Historically, all of the Great Lakes vary as much as five feet over decades-long cycles. By coincidence, the 2 1/2 foot difference between normal and high lake levels was about the same as the water lost. Thus the new low levels will be 7 1/2 feet below the old high levels.

Michigan Rep. Candice Miller is seeking $2.5 million in funding to study the issue, and sees the issue as a water grab, albeit an unintended one: "I have always said I would oppose any attempts to divert our precious water, and this potential overflow of water is nothing more than a diversion of water out of the Great Lakes basin," she said. "If this theory of erosion in the St. Clair River is correct, what is happening currently dwarfs any concept of diversion we have ever imagined."

There are several lessons in this story that should be remembered. First there's the already-praised yeoman work of Dan Egan and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who are responsible for more coverage on the topic than all other newspapers combined. What, the Chicago Trib doesn't report the draining of Lake Michigan? Evidently they're too busy trying to be the right-wingnut paper of note.

Tributes are also due to the Georgian Bay Association for scraping together $200,000 in private donations to pay for a study that officials didn't think necessary. Grassroot enviro and citizen groups do this sort of thing all the time, and rarely get the credit they deserve for such good works.

Boos to the Army Corps of Engineers, who too often fall afoul of the Laws of Unintended Consequences. How much research did they do before tinkering with the largest system of fresh water on earth, holding nearly 20 percent of the world's supply? Answer: not enough.

But to see the real lesson in this tale, step back and look at the overall picture. For two generations, no one knew water was steadily disappearing from the two of the Great Lakes, the source of water for millions of people in the cities and towns built near its shores. All this happened under the nose of U.S. and Canadian governments and the agencies charged with monitoring those water levels.

It's humbling to realize it was so easy to miss such obvious changes in a best-case situation; ponder that when politicians vow there will be no negative consequences of drilling in a hard- to- observe place like ANWR, losing an obscure endangered species, breathing air with toxic levels that some studies find unsafe, or any of the other items on the Bush anti-environmental agenda. There's a lot we don't know, and the consequences of our ignorance always comes back to bite.   (March 20, 2005)

The secrets that shouldn't be


Pentagon Crosses Line With New Domestic Spying, Police Powers

Blurring the Lines Between Soldiers and Cops

Iraq Special Ops Sounding Like Iran Contra

Despite Failures, Pentagon Bets It All On Special-Ops Forces

404 Report: "Operation Urban Warrior" (1999)

SEARCH for MONITOR articles by William M. Arkin
In every cranny and nook of the Internet today, blogs abound. As the latest phenom to sweep cyberspace, it seems that everyone who can rub two words together is now a blogger offering his/her 2¢ on matters great and small. This is not a Bad Thing; let a billion blogs sprout and blossom.

Soapboxes are great, but the real value of the blogs shines through in collective, not individual efforts. It was a loose coalition of bloggers that recently busted fake reporter Gannon/Guckert after the U.S. press had ignored the guy for over a year. It was also the teamwork by bloggers and their bulletin-board cousins that quickly pushed the authenticity of the CBS memos into the headlines. And it's a group effort, led by Über-blogger Josh Marshall, that has effectively kept pressure on the "Fainthearted Faction" swing votes in Congress that could otherwise lead to passage of Bush's dismantlement of Social Security.

This collectivism is also the downside. Bad information can rattle around in the blogosphere as easily as facts -- probably more easily, considering that so many blog entries are nothing more than terse comments and links to entries on other blogs, or a snippet taken from a mainstream media story. Cut and paste, not research and analyze, are the blogger's usual tools.

One topic that recently ignited the blogosphere (wasn't concern for igniting the blogosphere part of a Star Trek episode?) was an early February column in the Toronto Sun:

Paranoia Grips the U.S. Capital
by Eric Margolis

The film Seven Days In May is one of my all-time favorites. The gripping 1964 drama, starring Burt Lancaster, depicts an attempted coup by far rightists in Washington using a top-secret Pentagon anti-terrorist unit called something like "Contelinpro."

Life imitates art. This week, former military intelligence analyst William Arkin revealed a hitherto unknown directive, with the Orwellian name "JCS Conplan 0300-97," authorizing the Pentagon to employ special, ultra-secret "anti-terrorist" military units on American soil for what the author claims are "extra-legal missions."

In other words, using U.S. soldiers to kill or arrest Americans, acts that have been illegal since the U.S. Civil War.

This frightening news comes as Washington is gripped by reborn, Cold-War-style paranoia, ominous threats of war against Iran from the real president, Dick Cheney, and a titanic bureaucratic battle just won by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.


About 300 blogs can be found discussing that column, all focused on "extra-legal missions... to kill or arrest Americans." but that's not what Arkin was describing -- although the truth may be even more frightening.

First, some context: William M. Arkin is a well-respected military analyst often seen on NBC. He's written columns for the Washington Post and LA Times that periodically appeared in the Monitor, and most recently published the encylopedic "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. military plans, programs and operations in the 9/11 world" which provides information of over 3,000 secret plans, programs, and operations that have been created since the Terror War began. Written to shine light on the Bush Administration's destructive cult of secrecy (see following 404 Report item for more on that hot topic), Arkin earlier had revealed the creation of an above-Top Secret classification titled "Polo Step." His disclosure of Polo Step in turn was the subject of a Pentagon investigation that (naturally) had its own code name, "Seven Seekers." Code Names isn't summer reading at the beach, but if you have Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris" or James Bamford's "Body of Secrets/Puzzle Palace" on your shelves, this book is for you. End of plug.

The item that's so excited the bloggers appears in a suppliment, "National Security Contingency Plans of the U.S. Government" available online (PDF). Here is exactly what it says:

JCS CONPLAN 0300-97, Counter-Terrorism Special Operations Support to Civil Agencies in the event of a domestic incident (entire title classified), 14 January 1997, Top Secret
Special Category (SPECAT) plan for the use of special mission units (Joint Special Operations Command) in extra-legal missions to combat terrorism in the United States based on Top Secret JSCP tasking, managed by the J3 SOD (Special Operations Detachment) of the Joint Staff and coordinated with SOCOM and NORTHCOM. Likely updated in 2002.

So what does all this military mumbo-jumbo jargon really mean? For a translation, we wrote to Arkin, who kindly helped us hack through the weeds:

Since the start of the Cold War, the Unified Command Plan has been the organization chart for all things military. It divides the world into simple geographic regions with a command structure to delegate responsibilities for U.S. military interests in the area; EUCOM, for example, is in charge of everything from the mid-Atlantic to the east coast of Russia, and SOUTHCOM is the Pentagon presence for all of South America. But there never was a matching NORTHCOM until Rumsfeld created it almost three years ago as part of the Pentagon's post-9/11 war footing.

SOCOM is the U.S. military's Special Operations Command which includes commando groups like the Army Rangers, Navy Seals, as well as more clandestine forces (more about them in a minute). The Unified Command Plan specifies SOCOM's relationship with the various other commands such as NORTHCOM in fighting the war, but the Plan also leaves vague "other duties as assigned" to be determined by other, secret-level plans. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has a plan ready for the recovery of a lost or stolen nuclear weapon, for example, which was the 1970s-era beginnings of CONPLAN 0300.

Today, Arkin explains, CONPLAN 0300 (code name: "Power Geyser") is a plan for the military, and specifically JSOC, to take action during an emergency to protect the Presidency and enduring constitutional government, among other tasks.

But what about the "extra-legal" part? The only other media coverage of the plan, a Jan. 23 NY Times story, says "three senior Defense Department and Bush administration officials confirmed the existence of the plan and mission, but disputed Mr. Arkin's characterization of the mission as 'extra-legal.'"

"Extra-legal is my term, I think properly applied as the entire enterprise is based on secret Presidential directives and not law (hence extra-legal)," Arkin replied in e-mail.

"How the military would act under the most catastrophic circumstances, and what authorities the President has already provided ('pre-delegated') is the question," he writes. "What is going on here is a suspension of law" [our emphasis].

This is not the same as martial law, Arkin notes. The President always has the power to call out the troops to quell riots and end insurrections, which Bush I did during the 1992 "Rodney King" riots in LA. By writing the plan would allow "using U.S. soldiers to kill or arrest Americans," Margolis suggests that CONPLAN 0300 would turn American cities into a turkey shoot; Arkin doesn't think commandos would actually arrest anyone nor "enforce" law, although they probably would have the authority to use lethal force to discharge their specified duties.

That all of this hyper-secrecy is unnecessary and counter-productive is the central point of Arkin's book. The public has a legitimate need to know about this stuff and who's in charge. Even if you're not bothered by the Hollywood scenario of above-the-law commandos swaggering down American streets, remember that this is a secret plan based on secret Presidential orders, and there's no way for us to know how far it goes. "I'm happy to have secret plans to protect the President and enduring constitutional government; I just want to have the authorities legislated and clear," Arkin says.

Remember also that you're paying for it; since 9/11, billions are being spent every year with little or no scrutiny. The budget for Special Ops alone has nearly doubled in the last two years, and now is nearly $7 billion annually. This pays not only for covert actions chasing bad guys abroad, but also the infamous interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

And understand that "Power Geyser" is also a key part of our civil defense plans, as described in another CONPLAN from FEMA: The military will "provide assistance" to federal agencies during a "terrorist incident" when 0300-97 is activated, including "...custody, transportation and disposal of a WMD device; and other capabilities including mitigation of the consequences of a release." Doesn't the public have the right to know what our government plans to do in case of a WMD attack? Civil defense shouldn't be a state secret; our very lives may depend on knowing what to do in case of such an emergency. But sad to say, the White House and Pentagon apparently don't agree. If these jokers had been in power during the 1950s, schoolchildren wouldn't have learned about "duck and cover" until the ICBMs were screaming overhead.   (March 15, 2005)

Bush's Contempt For Open Government


Robert Scheer: What We Don't Know About 9/11 Hurts Us

Now They're Feeding Us Actual Covert Propaganda

White House Tightens Homeland Secrecy Rules

Bush Stacking Science Panels (2003)

The Day Ashcroft Foiled FOIA (2002)

Conservatives Try To Turn FOIA Into Weapon (2000)


Perchlorate is usually called "rocket fuel," which is misleading; although that is a major use, it's a solid propellant also commonly used in air bags, matches, fireworks, and road flares. The chemical can now be found in the water of 35 states, as well as concentrated in lettuce and other leafy vegetables irrigated with that water. A study released in late Feb. found that perchlorate was in every breast milk sample as well as in all but one samples of dairy milk. It interferes with your thyroid's ability to absorb iodide; in fetuses and small children this can lead to mental retardation, blindness, deafness, or neurological problems.   (MORE)

In case you missed it (and you did, because there was absolutely no media coverage), there was an important hearing on Capitol Hill March 2nd. The topic: The secret government of George W. Bush.

Never in American history has government been so eager to rubber stamp papers as "Confidential," or "Secret;" last year, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said that fully 75 percent of the materials reviewed shouldn't have been classified, and the secrecy hampered informaton-sharing by agencies with a need to know. But this recent hearing by the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations went beyond that, looking at how the Bush Administration is hiding information with new "pseudosecret" terminology, such as "Sensitive but Unclassified" and "Sensitive Homeland Security Information." Or, as more usually happens, the government agency simply ignoring the requests for documents or releases them with the entire page redacted.

The testimony by Thomas Blanton of George Washington University's National Security Archive is well worth reading. Last year the Archive asked for copies of FAA warnings on terrorism in the months prior to 9/11. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) refused to disclose anything on grounds that it was "Sensitive Security Information," including the unclassified titles and number IDs of the memos. "When we pointed out that the titles, dates, and numbers were listed in the footnotes to the number one best-selling book in the United States, the 9/11 Commission report, the TSA painstakingly restored those precise digits and letters in its second response to us, but kept the blackout over everything else," Blanton said.

But the shroud of great secrecy extends far beyond supposed- national security issues like 9/11 and the handling of Terror War suspects, or big ideological showdowns like revealing the details of Cheney's 2001 energy task force (which is still flopping through the courts). This Administration is clamping down on everything it can, virtually down to office Post-It notes.

To see how bad it's become, look at the battle waged by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) over the perchlorate advisory panel. Although the chemical is a health risk (see sidebar), there are currently no state or federal regulations on how much is allowed in your drinking water. The EPA has made safety recommendations over the years ranging up to 18 part per billion (ppb), but announced in 2002 that the new standard would be a new low of just 1 ppb. After an outcry from special interests, the EPA left the decision to an independent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel.

The NRDC filed over a dozen FOIA requests to learn more about the panel and the EPA's decision to pass the buck, but was stonewalled at every turn. According to the NRDC, every single related White House document was either completely blacked out or withheld. When documents are not released at all, the Freedom of Information Act requires the government to still provide a "Vaughn Index" with a general description on each paper and explaining why it couldn't be released. The Vaughn Index for the NRDC requests was over 1,500 pages long, single-spaced -- more than the NRDC says it has encountered in decades of experience with FOIA. (A background report has full details.)

As a result, NRDC researchers were left to puzzle out scraps of paper and cryptic index entries. The Vaughn Index revealed that Kerr-McGee, formerly the largest manufacturer of perchlorate, provided talking points to the White House -- but the company's actual presentation was deemed to be a secret and not released. Vaughn Index entries show defense contractors and the Pentagon lobbied the panel with dozens of documents, letters and e-mails, and hundreds of pages of new, generally unpublished data, studies and reviews, according to the NRDC's overview, and the Pentagon actively participated in creating the panel's report. The Pentagon may have even conspired to falsify data -- one intriguing Vaughn Index description is, "E-mail discussing efforts to reconcile perchlorate sampling data that had been previously submitted to Congress."

The Vaughn Index also apparently showed the Pentagon was involved with picking the members for the special NAS 15-member panel, so it should come as no surprise that at least four of them had close industry ties. It should also come to no surprise that when the panel released its report in January, it decided perchlorate wasn't so dangerous after all, and even 20 ppb was within safety margins.

There is no national security justification that the Bush Administration can claim for this blatant coverup of information the public is owed. Had perchlorate been declared unsafe, it would have been a major headache for the Pentagon and the arms industry. There are about 12,000 military sites in the United States that have been used for training with live explosives, and many are still probably contributing to ground water contamination. Perchlorate also has a short shelf-life, and must be replaced regularly in missles, hand grenades, land mines, and all the other wonderful toys that use it; how well is the military disposing of the old stuff?

The possible health risks of perchlorate are worrisome, but this Administration's contempt for open government is downright frightening, and likely to do more harm to this country. Thomas Blanton summed it up well in his testimony to Congress: "In the final analysis, of course, it is openness that empowers our citizens, weeds out the worst policy proposals, ensures the most efficient flow of information to all levels of law enforcement, makes a little more honest the despots who are our temporary allies against terrorism, and keeps our means more consistent with our ends."   (March 8, 2005)

The Sharansky Scandal


Bush, Sharansky's Mutual Admiration Society

Israel's War On Palestinian Olive Trees

Israelis Resurrecting Old Deeds To Seize Palestinian Property

Israel Wants To Suppress History Book

During Bush's recent European tour, the President was scheduled to have a much-touted Q&A session with "normal Germans." But three days before it was to happen, Germany's Ambassador to the U.S. remarked to the NY Times, "Don't be mad at us if some nasty question comes up." The event was quickly scrubbed by the White House and replaced with a meeting between Bush and about 20 hand-picked "young leaders," including Americans working for conservative think-tanks. You have to wonder: Did Germany really believe this White House, with its fanatical obsession for staying on-message and projecting a positive image of Bush, would throw the Prez into a free-for-all with angry, hissing Germans? These people are completely unklar auf dem Konzept.

It's a sweet irony that an open town-hall style meeting was replaced with a faux round-table because the first (of two) questions was about the importance of free speech. Was Bush influenced by Natan Sharansky's book, "The Case for Democracy?" Specifically, Sharansky's "town square test" for free societies -- that a person can walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fearing arrest or physical harm.

The question was almost surely planted; Sharansky's book and The Test are favorite topics of the President, and he mentions Sharansky at every opportunity. "That thinking, that's part of my presidential DNA," he gushed to the NY Times in January. Condoleezza Rice is also a big fan, bringing up his name and that Test during her Senate confirmation hearings.

But despite the heaping portions of Presidential praise, Sharansky's background is little-mentioned in the U.S. press, aside from the frequent mention that he is an Israeli cabinet member who spent 13 terrible years in the Soviet gulags. The best article appears in the March 7 issue of Newsweek, and fills in some of the missing details: That Sharansky is really a minister without portfolio, dealing with Jewish diaspora relations and Jerusalem affairs. The Newsweek article, written by an editor of Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper, explains that he is mostly ignored by Sharon's government, which sees him as an eccentric right-wing intellectual. But even that magazine article barely mentions Sharansky's central role in a recent scandal that stirred outrage among Muslims and moderate Israelis alike.

The controversy began last year when Sharansky was chairman of a little-noticed committee, and at a June 22 meeting attended by only one other cabinet minister, he updated Israel's "Absentee Property Law." Sharansky's new policy was rubber-stamped by the full Israeli cabinet a few weeks later and little-noticed until January, when Israel tried to use the law's new power to grab Palestinian-owned land on the Jerusalem side of The Wall.

Even before this erupted, the Absentee Property Law was a salt-in-wound issue for Israelis. Enacted in 1950, it was a legal mechanism for the new nation to seize land that supposedly had no owner. The key part was the interpretation of "absentee;" Israel used this to take land from people forced to leave their homes during the 1948-49 Middle East war, with only a small fraction of the landowners paid so much as a shekel. The law has been used rarely, if ever, since that time; it was specifically not invoked after the 1967 Six-Day War. Today most Israelis and apologists apparently don't like to think about it much, and view this wholesale land theft as a necessary evil that took place in a distant, historical era.

The discovery that Sharansky had tinkered with this old, hateful law and revived it became a spotlight scandal. Fingers pointed; Sharansky said that he was only making a "technical decision" to clarify the law and anyway, he did it with the approval of Israel's attorney general. Not so, said A.G. Mazuz -- he said he knew nothing about the matter and Sharansky had exceeded his authority. Mazuz made a lengthy statement promising the law would not be enforced because of "many legal difficulties," including "Israel's obligations according to the rules of customary international law," which itself is a concession that originally taking the land was illegal.

So, students, get out your pencils -- it's time for a quiz.

Imagine you're living in the Middle East on February 1. Muslim, Jewish, or Christian; it doesn't matter. This controversy has been roiling for a couple of weeks, and today the Israel attorney general declares the new application of the law invalid, and only stops short from actually denouncing Sharansky as a dangerous zealot. But on this same day you hear that Bush embraces Sharansky's thinking "as part of my presidential DNA." On a scale of 1 to 10, now rate the credibility of the President of the United States as viewed by the Middle East (numbers zero and below are not allowed).

And let's reverse the test for those in Middle Eastern classrooms: Imagine that you live in the United States on the first of February. It's likely you know Sharansky's name, if you follow the news; besides the Bush interviews, he was mentioned frequently in discussion of the recent inaugurial speech and Rice's nomination. His book is in's top 100. But only a handful of American newspapers offered even short inside-page articles about the Absentee law furor, and only two of those papers mentioned the Sharansky connection. Thus the chances that an American might know about this bellwether event are A) slim B) nil.

Postscript: The theft of Palestinian lands by both the state and crooked individuals is an ongoing story that receives little or no U.S. media attention. In late February, Israeli police arrested eight people, including a member of the Likud's Central Committee and Israeli army officials, who were caught selling "absentee" land using forged documents. The group made at least $5 million illegally selling property to Himanuta, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, which manages state land. Israeli media reported one motive behind the crime was to "redeem" Palestinian lands to build more Jewish settlements.   (March 5, 2005)

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