Keeping it under their hats

Often in times of war liberal democracies that believe in freedom of speech seek to limit the openness of government and the type of information available to the public. A debate is raging about what information can remain publicly accessible.

The impact on the amount and type of information available in the media has been most apparent in the US, which has traditionally supported making policy information available to the public.

For example, Miami’s Home Defense, Public Security and Ports Committee, which was created after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, bars the public from meetings in which security is discussed.1

The committee scheduled its closed-door meeting in March 2003, not in the State House but in the locked-down Tallahassee headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Behind closed doors the committee was expected to request increased funding for its continuing counter-terrorism intelligence effort, taking advantage of the rule that allows senators to bar the public when discussing security.

"Sensitive but not classified"

The US government has removed access to information at source. In March, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card ordered agencies to purge their Internet sites not only of classified information but also of "sensitive but not classified information".2

In another incident of note, in the wake of the 11 September attacks the Government Printing Office ordered 1,300 libraries to remove and destroy books and CD-ROMs of water resources and geological surveys. More worrying still to those US citizens concerned with civil liberties issues, the then Attorney General John Ashcroft (who annnounced his resignation on 10 November) sent a memorandum in October 2001 to federal agencies that encouraged them to deny requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an unusual move, US Department of Justice (DoJ) attorneys even succeeded in winning the right to pre-screen discovery in private lawsuits seeking damages for deaths and injuries against the airlines whose aircraft crashed on 11 September. This move was intended to insulate the terrorism investigation from unwanted leaks of information.

Utilising information

As the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The Justice Department’s tally of more than 280 suspects detained for prosecution [of suspected terrorism] after September 11 is inflated with dismissed and unrelated cases."3

The Los Angeles Times is one of several publications to note that Ali Alubeidy, who was singled out by Ashcroft as a potential terrorist, was in fact only guilty of bribing a bureaucrat in order to get a commercial driving licence. He received three years’ probation but still remains on the DoJ’s list of more than 280 people captured as part of its war on terrorism.

Alubeidy is not alone in being on the list for dubious reasons. Another 19 men are listed who were caught in the driving licence scam, as was Brooklyn-born ‘dirty bomb’ suspect Jose Padilla, who US President George W Bush described as an "enemy combatant".

The list also includes two New Jersey men, operators of small grocery stores, who were convicted of accepting hundreds of boxes of stolen breakfast cereal, in a crime that occurred 16 months before the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Another person on the DoJ’s list is a Somali who was convicted in the Boston Federal District Court of operating an unlicensed money-transfer business. During the trial, the judge rebuked prosecutors for trying to have the defendant sentenced as a terrorist.

Another judge recently told the DoJ to either charge Padilla or release him from his legal limbo. Padilla has been held without charge since 2002 after he was accused of plotting with Al-Qaeda to detonate a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ in the US.

The DoJ says that it did not keep a single roster of cases and added that the cases mentioned derive from terrorism investigations and do not necessarily involve terrorists or people convicted of terrorism-related crimes.


Civil liberties organisations in the US have brought some judicial cases to try and reverse this tide of censorship. A lawsuit filed earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) aimed to have part of the USA Patriot (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act declared unconstitutional.4

In the Manhattan Federal District Court the ACLU, on behalf of an Internet service provider, challenged a provision that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain personal records, for example which Internet sites they visit, without notice to the individual concerned and without judicial oversight. However, the lawsuit itself was gagged earlier this year and its papers censored for sensitive material, according to an ACLU lawyer.

Ironically, one of the passages censored by the DoJ mentioned a 1972 decision by the US Supreme Court: "The danger to political dissent is acute where the government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect ‘domestic security’. Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent."

Governments turn to censorship because it costs little financially and sends the message that the authorities are serious, according to Geoffrey Stone, a former dean and provost of the University of Chicago Law School.5 "If you want to create an atmosphere in which people are willing to go off and die in a war, censorship is an effective way of making them feel that it’s worth it."

The most widely known example of how information has been used to justify an agreed position was the US and UK publication of security material designed to show Iraq’s connections with terrorists and the danger that it posed to the West. Since the fall of Baghdad, the US and UK governments have backed away from these assertions. Nonetheless, the misinformation (deliberate or otherwise) about the extent of Saddam Hussein’s connections with Al-Qaeda and the threat posed by his weapons were key criteria in justifying the 2003 invasion.

The continuing security operation against insurgents in Iraq has also illustrated the ideological framework within which the US administration attempts to control the media. Leo Strauss, a neo-conservative philosopher whose influence with right-wing US politicians extended beyond his death in 1973, argued about the importance of the power of myth. Strauss feared that the West would be weakened by moral relativism – that people can decide how they want to live – making it powerless to resist absolute creeds such as fascism, communism or, in the case of the 21st century, Islamic extremism.

The Pentagon changes its focus

In a policy shift that reaches across all the armed services, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has revised missions and has created new agencies to make information warfare a central element of the US armed forces’ plans, according to military analysts.6 These plans bring together traditional-style military information warfare, such as radar jamming and leaflet dropping, with the dissemination of public information for the US public to understand what is happening in a war.

In 2001 Rumsfeld was forced to retreat from his creation of the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence, which was established to generate disinformation and propaganda among the foreign media, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

Critics successfully argued that the risk of backfiring was too great and that propaganda would find its way into the US media. The Office of Strategic Influence was subsequently closed down.

The following year, Rumsfeld ordered the reorientation of the US Strategic Command. In October that year, Strategic Command, the successor to Strategic Air Command, assumed total responsibility for global information attacks rather than focusing on nuclear weapons. US strategic capabilities, which had been geared towards deterrence and war, also now include the manipulation of public opinion.7

Of course, the aim of governments generally in times of conflict is to manipulate public opinion in their favour. The UK during the First World War was one of the first modern powers to establish a propaganda unit to try and influence the US public to enter the war against the Central Powers.

The US in Vietnam also recognised the importance of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the indigenous public. Such efforts have continued in other theatres but now use more media than the traditional pamphlets or maps, which are often manipulated by those in power. "A map is politics as art."8

Even today, maps remain very political. Despite the existence of satellite technology that enables governments to map terrain, some blank spaces remain on public maps. As the UK Ordnance Survey has said: "A small number of classified and declassified sites still appear as blank spaces on our maps."9

In the middle of an ambiguous war on terror in which the tactics and targets are often information-based, the debate and balance between providing security and promoting open information will only increase in importance. A balance that protects the public’s access and safety is essential to avoid policies of limiting knowledge and civic debate. Otherwise such efforts could undermine the reasons for going to war in the first place.

James Mawson was International Editor at Financial Times Business and continues to write for the Independent on Sunday business section and the Financial Times


1 The Miami Herald, 5 March 2003.

2 Newsday, 15 September 2002.

3 Los Angeles Times, 21 December 2003.

4 The New Yorker, 27 September 2004.

5 ibid.

6 William M. Arkin, a military affairs analyst, writing in the Los Angeles Times, 24 November 2002.

7 ibid.

8 The Times (London), 3 August 2001.

9 The Independent (London), 2 June 2001.

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