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2006-03-15

Sunshine Week: Newspapers and Broadcasters Challenge Government Secrecy

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This week is "Sunshine Week" when newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, and Web sites around the nation publish reports to raise public awareness about the importance of open government. We look at an upcoming special on the PBS weekly newsmagazine NOW that challenges government secrecy in America through the stories of whistleblowers. [includes rush transcript]

This week is "Sunshine Week" when newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, and Web sites around the nation publish reports to raise public awareness about the importance of open government.

On Friday, the PBS weekly newsmagazine NOW will air a one-hour special about government secrecy. Titled "The Sunshine Gang," the NOW segment shines a spotlight on the erosion of open government in America through the stories of whistleblowers.

  • Maria Hinojosa, senior correspondent of the PBS newsmagazine NOW.
  • Peter Meryash, producer of the PBS Newsmagazine NOW.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in the Firehouse right now by the senior correspondent and producer for that program, Maria Hinojosa, correspondent, and Peter Meryash, a producer for NOW. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

PETER MERYASH: Thank you.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just listening to Pablo Paredes talk about the son of Fernando Suarez del Solar, Jesus, and how he died in Iraq. You are continuing to follow this theme of families being told one thing and ending up learning that their children died in another way.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You know, everybody knows the Pat Tillman story, because it’s got a lot of attention, but in fact, the Pat Tillman —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you remind us?

MARIA HINOJOSA: The Pat Tillman story is that he was an NFL star who basically gave up his NFL contract to go and join the military to fight the war in Afghanistan. Pat Tillman dies soon after he gets there. The entire country is told that it happened when he was defending his troops and there was enemy battle. He becomes a national hero. Later, the family finds out that, in fact, he was killed by friendly fire, and the military hadn’t revealed this, even though they knew this information. They didn’t reveal it to the family or to the country and essentially used Pat Tillman to create this hero image.

Many of the mothers who have lost their sons have realized what happened to the Tillman family, and some have started to ask questions. They said if the military could lie to Pat Tillman’s family, who was this national hero, this NFL star, then maybe they could lie to us. So, we found two mothers who have very different political perspectives on the war, but both of whom had questions about how their sons had died. And, believe it or not, Amy — and when I found this out, I was entirely shocked — if a mother wants to have more information than what the military is giving to her, she has to request a Freedom of Information Act to get information about her own son’s death. In some cases, it may be because next of kin may be the young widow, the wife. But in many cases, they just want more information, and the military will say, "Well, It’s classified. We can’t tell you. You have to request this through a Freedom of Information Act."

So, two stories. One mother in Canton, Ohio, her name is Peggy Buryj, her son is Jesse. When the military arrives, they basically tell her that he was killed in — he’s told at that moment that there was a battle. She’s told at that moment that there was a battle, rather. And then she starts asking all kinds of questions: What is this? She’s told, at first, that it was an accident. Then, she gets the autopsy report after a long time of pushing, and she finally gets the autopsy report, and it says that, in fact, there was a gunshot wound. And she starts asking more questions, has to request through the Freedom of Information Act: What’s going on here? And then it turns out that she gets the incident report, and she’s told that it’s through friendly fire, through Polish troops. And she’s saying, "Wait a second, you told me one thing. Now, you’re telling me all of this other information." In the end, she gets what she believes is a final report, where it’s told that he was killed by friendly fire from Polish troops. But it says, "Suspected does not mean proven." So, she’s never told definitively. Just about a month ago, a young soldier from her own son’s troop shows up at her door and says, "It had nothing to do with the Polish, it was one of our own troops." And, essentially, there was a cover-up. This woman entirely supports the war, supports President Bush, but does not believe in the military.

On the other hand, Karen Meredith in California, her son is told — she is told at first that there’s a confrontation, a war battle. In the process of trying to find out more information — and it takes a long time; she has to request Freedom of Information — I mean, I’m condensing this. She requests through Freedom of Information Act information about the incident report. It turns out that her son actually died in an accident when a branch falls on the tank and sets off an unmanned gun. And she, in the end, believes that she does get the full story from the military.

So it’s an interesting paradox, because on the one hand, the woman who is against the war, believes that in the end she’s getting the truth from the military. The woman who is for the war says she’ll probably never be able to believe what the military tells her. But these are stories that are happening, and these many, many mothers and parents are having to request this Freedom of Information Act about their own children.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking in this Sunshine Week — Peter, can you talk about what this is, this week, and why you did this program?

PETER MERYASH: Well, it’s an attempt, as you said, by news organizations to bring attention to the need for government to be open with the public, because, obviously, there’s a lot that goes on in the government, whether it’s state, local, national government that affects our lives. So we wanted to bring attention to different examples at different levels of government.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the couple in Montebello, Virginia?

PETER MERYASH: Sure. A retired couple, lived just up the street from a fish hatchery that they love to visit. It was closed by the state, because of, they were told, budget cuts. But this couple didn’t quite believe it, and so they started asking questions, and they tried just to ask directly to the state agency. And they weren’t getting any answers. So they started — they resorted to filing FOIA requests. And ultimately, after a number of FOIA requests, insiders within the agency who were not happy with how the agency was being run contacted this couple, Lee and Paulette Albright, and said, "These are the kind of questions you need to be asking, specifically, in your FOIA requests." And, you know, they met in a hotel room at night far from where everyone lived, because people were afraid that their jobs were on the line. And then, they filed another FOIA request, and they got about — more than 2,800 pages of documents from this agency. And, ultimately, these insiders and the Albrights were able to present evidence to the state of questionable expenses, personal purchases on state credit cards. Now, these are all allegations; nothing has been proven, but there is a state investigation, a criminal investigation now. People have been — have left the agency. And it kind of highlights the importance of using FOIA by citizens to get at information that ultimately can expose, you know, wrongdoing.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You know, what’s interesting, Amy, is that in the process of researching for this program, both Peter and myself and the other producers, the associate producers involved in the show, you end up making these phone calls, and you find out that there are regular citizens who are taking on this battle. I mean, there was a phone call I made to a woman out in New Jersey who said — fabulous Brooklyn accent — she said, "Listen, I was a disco queen. I didn’t even read the editorial page. But now, I’m a one-woman power house for open government." This is her issue. And it doesn’t matter what political party you are from, whether you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent, there are people who understand that this issue of open government and pressing the government legally to give the American public what we should have access to is becoming a front burner issue for a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Fall River, Massachusetts, and the LNG plant, liquefied natural gas.

MARIA HINOJOSA: That’s a story that I’m actually going to let Peter kind of tell a little bit, because this is one of the — the two stories I was most involved with were the military mothers’ story and the story of that happened with the N.S.A. and the warrantless eavesdropping. The story of Fall River is a fascinating story about liquefied natural gas and how a mayor in that case is trying to get information from a company that’s trying to establish one of these plants and can’t get the information.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter?

PETER MERYASH: Well, there’s a part of our war on terror, the government now has something called critical energy infrastructure information, which basically covers what the government considers critical infrastructure: bridges, energy plants, transportation areas. And there’s information that they want to keep, allegedly, from terrorists. But it can also be used to keep information from local citizens. And, in this case, a company wants to site a liquefied natural gas plant in the community. And information — safety information about that proposed plant is now with the government. The mayor and citizens want access to that information, because they want to know what’s being put in their backyards. But they’re told, "No. In order to get that information, you have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. You can see it, but you can’t talk about it." And as mayor, an elected official, then says his hands are going to be tied. What if he finds something that is wrong? How does he tell his citizens that, you know, in his community? So he’s refused. Someone, a local expert, has volunteered and actually did sign the nondisclosure agreement, and about five months later, I think it was, he finally got this critical safety information. It turned out it was all redacted, and it came in a regular envelope, and it was opened in the regular mail. How important could the information have been if the government sent it to him? But, of course, it was redacted, so it was no help to them.

MARIA HINOJOSA: There’s a Catch-22, though, Amy. If the mayor were to sign the nondisclosure agreement, that he would read the plans of what the company says would happen if there was an attack, and if he were to say, "My gosh, there’s something here that I need to tell the public about," and if he told the public in violation of that nondisclosure agreement, then he loses all of the legal rights to challenge the establishment of this plant. So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: In the last 30 seconds that we have, this is going to be an hour show. NOW, the PBS program, has been cut back from an hour, so it’s normally half an hour. And it’s interesting, in this week of transparency and Sunshine, that you at NOW, under Bill Moyers, who left — now it’s David Brancaccio — were also monitored by the chair of the C.P.B., Kenneth Tomlinson, _NOW_’s programming monitored for its content.

PETER MERYASH: That’s right. I mean, they hired — at public expense, they hired some consultants to keep an eye on who was being invited onto the program, whether they were liberal or conservative.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations on the show going back to an hour, if it’s even only for this week.

MARIA HINOJOSA: That’s what the plan is.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Maria Hinojosa, correspondent; Peter Meryash, producer with the PBS news magazine, NOW. And finally, on media issues, MediaChannel.org and United for Peace and Justice have announced that today is a day of media protest, kicking off a year’s weeklong spring offensive against the war, just before the third anniversary of the invasion, taking on media outlets to talk honestly about and reveal as much information as possible, accurate information, about the occupation in Iraq.

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