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March 1-7, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Tune in, Please

By Peter Byrne


Information science tells us that the measure of communication is our ability to distinguish a signal from random noise. The resulting information is nicely defined by sociobiologist E. O.Wilson: "Communication is neither the signal by itself nor the response; it is instead the relation between the two." Real communication, he says, changes the behavior of the listener.

The best way to reduce the noise factor is to repeat a signal, but repetition, of course, does not make a message true. But signal redundancy does make a message—such as "The terrorists are coming!"—stand out from the cacophony of less echoed signals. Our daily behavior is governed by a barrage of simple, reinforced messages, whether or not they can be shown to be true.

"It is possible to project an endless number of unreal images: fiction or lies, speculation or fraud, idealism or demagoguery, the definition depending on whether or not the communicator informs the listener of his intention to speak falsely," says Wilson. Demagogues, naturally, seldom tell you they are lying. As a defense against official prevarication, it is possible to conceive of a free press whose duty it is to amplify and repeat signals that contradict falsehoods.

On the other hand, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest has just received the prestigious Polk Award for reporting that the Bush government secretly imprisons kidnapped people in Europe. But the Post declined to name which countries host the American gulag (Human Rights Watch cites Poland and Romania), because the White House asked it not to. And for a whole year, the New York Times sat on information that President Bush had illegally ordered the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens. The Times ran the story a few days before its censored reporter James Risen published a book revealing the secret crime.

Curtsying to power, these "news" corporations affect the behavior of millions of people. The decisions to not transmit information about "extraordinary rendition" and NSA spying were themselves signals, messages conveyed in absentia that sanctioned horrendous behavior. We already know that the journalistic signal sellers insert known falsehoods into "reporting." Now we can wonder how many signals are erased for political reasons.

A case in point is a Feb. 15 speech by West Virginia senator Robert Byrd that did not merit acknowledgement in the Times- and Post-dominated media. While California's two "liberal" senators joined a political stampede to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Byrd remonstrated on the floor of the Senate: "In the name of 'fighting terror,' are we to sacrifice every freedom to a president's demand? How far are we to go? Can a president order warrantless, house-to-house searches of a neighborhood where he suspects a terrorist may be hiding? Can he impose new restrictions on what can be printed, what can be broadcast, what can be uttered privately because of some perceived threat—perceived by him—to national security? Laughable thoughts? I think not."

Another case in point: On Feb. 16, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declined to investigate the National Security Agency's ongoing, largely illegal snooping on domestic telecommunications and cyberspace. Instead of indicting Bush, Congress is poised to retroactively approve his clearly criminal action. These are the same "people's representatives" who are waging an unjust war begotten by false information that was widely known to be untrue, while contradictory signals were submerged in background noise and overwhelmed by a multiplicity of "Saddam Bombed the World Trade Center" signals.

Here is a signal for you: If the "war on terror" were intended to bring al Qaida to justice, Osama would be dead, dead, dead. Instead, this is purely a war of pillage made possible by the science of public relations and information theory.

And that is why I could not find a single newspaper report on Byrd's Feb. 17 speech decrying the Senate intelligence committee's "jettisoning [of] its constitutional responsibility to make certain [that] our revered Constitution remain in force.

"I plead with the American public to tune in to what is happening in this country," Byrd said. "Please forget the political party with which you may usually be associated and, instead, think about the right of due process, the presumption of innocence and the right to a private life."

Byrd quoted James Madison: "[T]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly pronounce the very definition of tyranny."

That is right: He used the t-word.


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