Down on the bayou, reporters and activists have been pulled over and questioned by British Petroleum security guards and local police because they might be “terrorists.” Journalists have been kicked off public property, detained, harassed, and forced to hand over their photographs – and their Social Security numbers. They’ve been prevented from renting boats or flying below 3,000 feet over the coast. They’ve been threatened with arrest.
It all sounds pretty In the Heat of the Night, but this goes way beyond the press butting up against powerful interests in the Gulf, or even the government and BP engaging in elaborate CYA message control. Look closer and witness the future. See how they get away with militarizing every law enforcement operation, every domestic emergency response situation, because for years Americans have allowed this creeping militarization to happen. In a post-9/11 world, every problem requires a military solution, and too often in these crises, the people are the problem.
It’s not only in the command structure of modern emergency management – beginning with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – but in the way the public is treated, like children or sheep or, let’s face it, potential criminals. We already live in a hyper-criminalized society where law enforcement is given special dispensations beyond those of any citizen. Throw in a domestic crisis, put the military (and the multinational corporation that caused the spill) in charge, and watch such cherished notions as the First Amendment and “the public’s right to know” float down the river like oily patches of blackened detritus.
“Any time you have this kind of militarization, the kind that claims information crackdowns are for security purposes … it raises serious questions about the ability of the democracy to function,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a former ACLU lawyer who is now a professor at Seton Hall Law School. “What is especially troubling is how ‘national security’ has been broadly defined, and we’ve seen a number of situations where restrictions are more about covering up government misconduct and malfeasance rather than actually restricting information for any valid purpose.”
While BP has been accused of putting profits before safety, causing a rupture that gushed tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day into the open ocean for three months, the federal government takes an equal share of criticism for not engaging in proper oversight and regulatory control. So both have plenty of interest in downplaying the worst effects of the disaster on the economy and the environment. With the U.S. Coast Guard in charge, restricting access to the spill sites has become a “safety” and “security” issue, making it extremely difficult for reporters to do their jobs.
“It feels like news reporting is being criminalized under thinly veiled excuses,” said Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert. “The total effect of all these restrictions is harming the public’s right to know.”
Recently, Coast Guard Petty Officer Rachel Polish posted a response to a column by investigative journalist Georgianne Nienaber, insisting that “media has NEVER been denied access” (clever readers quickly Googled Polish’s name and found out she works for a major public relations agency that represents BP). Nienaber, in an e-mail exchange with Antiwar.com, said the evidence is piling up: not only has the U.S. Coast Guard set up a classic military command to respond to the disaster, but it is also “serving as a buffer between the media and the effects of the catastrophe under the orders of BP.”
A pretty strong charge, but consider reports that have been coming in from all over the coast since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion:
- According to ProPublica, photographer Lance Rosenfield was “penned in” by police, a BP security guard, and “a local police official assigned to an FBI task force” in early July while pumping gas. Earlier, he had been taking pictures of a street sign from a public roadway in front of a BP oil refinery on the Gulf Coast in Texas. Rosenfield said he was pressured to give his driver’s license, Social Security number, and his photographs to the cops, who turned it all over to BP security. BP admitted to showing the pictures to the Louisiana Joint Terrorism Task Force, which determined Rosenfield not to be a threat.
- Conservationist Drew Wheelan was filming in a field (not owned by BP) across from the BP/Deepwater Horizon response command headquarters in Houma, La., when he was approached by a police officer who “strongly suggested” he get lost because “BP doesn’t want people filming.” Wheelan left, but he was soon pulled over by the same cop and a BP security official, who demanded to know why he was there and then “phoned in” Wheelan’s personal information to an unknown official. Wheelan claimed that he was then followed by “two unmarked security cars” for about 20 miles. Police subsequently said the BP security guard was a local cop moonlighting for BP, and that he had pulled Wheelan over because he was acting suspicious and could have been a terrorist.
- In an interview with Amy Goodman, Nienaber said she has been forced to hide her camera and has been confronted by BP private security patrolling what seems to be an expanding perimeter to keep people out of the most devastated areas. “Working and reporting from the American Gulf Coast is starting to remind me of working in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where photos and recordings must be hidden on secreted flash drives at border crossings. Never in my lifetime could I imagine that a foreign company could dictate my ability to move freely and openly in American territorial waters.”
- In late May, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) believed he had the blessing of the Coast Guard to accompany some journalists on a tour of the spill sites on a Coast Guard vessel. But the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, put the kibosh on their plans. “They said it was the Department of Homeland Security’s response-wide policy not to allow elected officials and media on the same ‘federal asset,’” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for the senator. Later, the Coast Guard suggested it was having a hard time managing requests by politicians to tour the coastline.
- The skies aren’t so friendly either. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a policy in which no plane (unless related to the recovery) can fly under 3,000 feet over the coast. The agency says it has honored every request for media flyovers, even granting “special permission” to individual media outlets to fly low. Journalists who have had run-ins with the FAA say otherwise. Rhonda Panepinto, who owns Southern Seaplane with her husband, said her request to fly a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter over restricted airspace in late May was flatly rejected. “The minute we mentioned media, the answer was: ‘not allowed.’”
Some journalists who finally did get access have been prevented from interviewing clean-up workers and taking pictures of the devastated wildlife (this CNN report charges that BP contract workers were forced to sign media gag orders). In one exchange, a CNN crew is told by a National Guardsman to turn their cameras off and that a local animal triage center was off-limits. Who is laying down the law? BP. Why? “It’s more important for the animals,” said Todd Baker of the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s more important for the animals to have a quiet, calm, controlled area at this point.”
One BP flack might have said it best when she told Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland in May that BP has the final say on who has access to the Elmer’s Wildlife Reserve on Elmer’s Island because “it’s BP’s oil.”
Jim Bovard, author of Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil, said he is surprised at the level of “kowtowing” to BP. “To see how the media is being hogtied is just appalling.”
Meanwhile, Adam Dillon, a former Army Special Operations soldier and BP contract worker who once blocked access to reporters on Grand Isle, said he was fired because he took photos of what he said was evidence of the chemical dispersants being used on the water in the Gulf. Twelve hours after he brought the photos to the attention of his superiors, he was “confined and interrogated” and then terminated.
“The bottom line is, it’s just about money, and there are some very cut-throat individuals, and they’re not worried about cleaning up that spill as it is. I will always have loyalty to my country, and my country comes first. And what this company is doing to this country right now is just wrong.”
But is his country loyal to him? Or is it just using the full force of its domestic security apparatus to protect Dillon’s former employer, and in essence, the federal government, from its own culpability in the spill?
Take the “federal mobile medical unit,” for example. Like something out of The X-Files (and hardly mobile), it sits in the “BP compound,” in Venice, La., ringed by fences and layers of barbed wire. Initially, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said the unit would be staffed by an HHS medical disaster response team that will “integrate with the local medical community to triage and provide basic care for responders and residents concerned about health effects of the oil spill.” But what goes on there now is completely unknown, because all efforts by the media to visit have been rejected or ignored.
PBS’s Newshour recently interviewed Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, who was allowed a tour into the compound, commonly known as “the wire” (an interesting battlefield reference). He said business was seemingly slow at the mobile unit, especially since BP had hired a private medical company called Arcadian Ambulance Services to do “pre-screening” of the contract workers who had been brought in with medical issues. As far as he knew, no residents were being treated there. He was struck by “the secrecy” and the elaborate security.
“It was a very unusual situation, trying to get into this compound, with very high-level security and multiple checks and five contract workers sitting inside the booth screening us,” Redlener told PBS. “It was just a little hard to understand what was going on and why they were so attentive to the security detail.”
Earlier this month, the Coast Guard put new rules in place to prevent the public, including the press, from coming within 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or beaches, or face a civil penalty of up to $40,000. The Coast Guard called it a “safety zone.” Violators of the “safety zone” could face charges of a Class D felony under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act.
There was an immediate outcry because the booms, which are everywhere, are typically set more than 40 feet on the outside of the islands and marshes anyway.
“You’d have to mount a telescope” to your camera to get a picture from that distance, said photographer Matthew Hinton of the Times-Picayune.
Adm. Thad Allen, the “national incident commander,” said the media rules were not unusual. Routinely, he told the press, the Coast Guard will invoke the Ports and Waterways Act “for marine events, fireworks demonstrations, cruise ships going in and out of port.” The Coast Guard, according to the official news release, said the containment and clean-up operation needed this “safety zone” to “protect members of the response effort, the installation and maintenance of oil containment boom, the operation of response equipment, and protection of the environment.” Reporters were also told that elected officials had asked for the new rules (this has been denied by locals) after incidents of “vandalism” at the boom sites (which are also highly disputed).
“Local authorities down here are denying that wildly,” McClelland told Democracy Now! on July 7. “[Elected officials] are saying they didn’t have anything to do with it, they didn’t know who said [it], it has nothing to do with them. It is hard [to] see any reason for that happening other then trying to keep media access away.”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper challenged the media crackdown on air:
“But we’ve heard far more from local officials not being able to get a straight story from the government or BP. I have met countless local officials desperate for pictures to be taken and stories written about what is happening to their communities. We’re not the enemy here…. Frankly, it is a lot like in Katrina when they tried to make it impossible to see recovery efforts of people who died in their homes.”
Mainstream Cooper might have hit a nerve. Last week, the Coast Guard amended its rules, ostensibly in response:
“National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen today announced new procedures to allow media free travel within the 20-meter boom safety zones if they have followed simple procedures for credentialing, and provided they follow certain rules and guidelines.
“‘I have put out a direction that the press are to have clear, unfettered access to this event, with two exceptions – if there is a safety or security concern,’ said Allen.”
Critics wryly note that the military has become the primary arbiter of media access on this critical story, with a credentialing system not unlike that of press covering the wars overseas.
From The Raw Story, July 13:
“The only real difference between prior policy and the revised media requirements is a centralization of credentialing operations. Previously, reporters were told to ask local authorities for permission to enter the exclusion zone. Such requests have often been granted or denied on a whim, for reasons real or imagined. It would appear that could still be the case, except the determination is now to be made by Unified Command in New Orleans, instead of officers or security guards on the scene.”
The 9/11 terror attacks allowed for these military-style command structures to evolve into elaborate systems of exclusion and message control, all under the guise of “anti-terrorism,” “safety,” and “security.” One need only to look at the hundreds of millions of public dollars poured into “securing” the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to see how it works. Bovard said Allen’s reference to “safety zones,” reminded him of the “free speech zones” that proliferated under the Bush administration as a way to contain protesters at political events, particularly the national conventions. “This is one further step toward turning the entire country into a non-free speech zone,” he said.
Meanwhile, Americans generally don’t question the gratuitous military lingo applied to what is happening in the Gulf. Reporters covering the disaster are sometimes referred to as “embeds,” while pols and pundits unreflectively talk about the “war” against the oil spill, comparing it to a “terrorist invasion.” Writer Anne McClintock had it right when she said last month, “Calling the oil the ‘enemy’ helps us not to question who was culpable in the first place. Calling the response ‘a battle front’ helps us not ask who, other than the military, should be in charge.”
For nearly 10 years we have put the military “in charge.” Now as we face the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, a military culture, if not the military itself, is “in charge.” The federal government has thrown a perimeter around an entire region of the southeastern seaboard. The public – now seen as “the enemy” – is left in the dark, while BP and negligent federal regulators disguise the true nature of the devastation.
Think it will be any different if the country is hit by a bio-terror attack, or even a deadly pandemic? Think again. It will likely be much, much worse.