‘Troubled Lands: West Bank Settlements’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors: The Freedom of Information Act’

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This 2002 episode of NOW With Bill Moyers focused on ground zero for Palestinians and Jews: The West Bank. Both claim this land as theirs, and there are parts where they can see each other from their kitchen windows. Arabs lost the land to Israel after the Six-Day War. And Israel has been encouraging Jewish settlers to move here for decades. NOW went to the West Bank to understand why settlements have become the tinderbox of war. And in an essay, Moyers talks about the birth of the Freedom of Information Act and what has come of it under President Bush.



Moyers: Welcome to NOW.

Sad, angry and scared, that’s how many people are reacting to the news from the Middle East. Sad because the killing goes on. Angry that both sides are unyielding. Scared because it only takes a small powder keg to ignite a world war.

In the course of this day, 35 Palestinians have been killed in fierce fighting with the Israeli army, whose tanks closed off one West Bank town after another.

From his ranch in Texas, President Bush said there can be peace without Yasser Arafat. He went on to say that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein needs to go.

These events in the Middle East brought thousands of protesters to the streets today, from Greece to Indonesia, to Syria, to Patterson, New Jersey, pledging solidarity with Arafat and the Palestinians. Here in America, people are uneasy, wondering if all this means more human bombers.

Our focus right now is ground zero for the Jews and Palestinians. It’s called the West Bank, a piece of land so tiny, less than 40 miles wide, you can drive across it in less than an hour.

There are places here where Palestinians and Israelis can see each other from their kitchen windows.

Both claim this postage stamp of land as their own. Arabs lost control of it after Israel captured it in 1967 after what is known as the Six-Day War.

Israel says it won’t relinquish control of the territory to the Palestinians because the West Bank is now a buffer against Arab attacks.

Furthermore, some Jews say this land was promised them in sacred scripture, promised by God. To hold on to it, Israel has been encouraging Jewish settlers to move here permanently, no matter that Palestinians see the same land as their home.

Convinced these settlements are key to understanding the conflict, producer Bob Abeshouse went to the West Bank recently to learn more.

Bob Abeshouse (Producer): I started out from this checkpoint on the Greenline, where Israeli territory ends and the West Bank begins, to find out what it’s like for expatriate American Jews who have settled in one of the most contested areas in the world.

David Rubin was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He worked as an elementary school teacher before moving to Shilo 10 years ago to fulfill his dream of living in the holy land.

His wife Lisa, also an Orthodox Jew, lived in New York and Florida before she came to the West Bank on a religious mission.

David Rubin (Settler): We believe that it’s very important in the Zionist tradition to settle the land of Israel. To settle areas that haven’t been greatly populated to that point.

Abeshouse: The Rubins were drawn here by the nearby ruins of ancient Shilo, the Jews first capitol after the exodus from Egypt 3000 years ago.

Lisa Rubin (Settler): You really feel divine presence. At least I feel it when I’m down there.

David Rubin: That’s one reason, and of course a second reason is quality of life where you can buy a house for a relatively inexpensive price.

Abeshouse: The comfortable homes in Shilo were a real bargain because of Israeli government subsidies to encourage the settlements. The Rubins also liked the environment for raising children, but that was before Palestinian gunmen stepped up their attacks on Jewish soldiers and settlers alike.

Lisa Rubin: We really, for the first time are at unease about everything that has been going on around here. But we have to hold onto it. So we are holding on.

Abeshouse: Shilo is surrounded by Arab villages, and is located between two Palestinian cities, Ramallah and Nablus. It’s smack in the middle of territory needed to connect them in a Palestinian state.

Mark (Shilo Security Chief): Well, this stretch of road leading southward been approximately 25, 30 terrorist attacks, mostly shootings, cars, school buses

Abeshouse: Mark is the chief of security for Shilo. He was raised in Philadelphia and came with his family to Israel when he was 15. He and his wife have four children.

Mark: Constantly on high alert in this area due to these, these villages around us. They’re filled with uh, Palestinian terrorists. Palestinian policemen. We’ve known that there’s no difference anymore.

Abeshouse: About 17 percent of the West Bank is called Area A, where — up until last week — Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was in full control. In Area B — slightly larger — Palestinians have civil authority but the Israelis control security. These two areas contain almost all of the territory’s 2 million Palestinians. Area C is fully controlled by the Israelis. Sixty percent of the West Bank land, it contains about 200,000 people in 200 settlements.

Mark: If we look at the top over here, the top of the mountain, that’s area A, controlled by the Palestinian authority. Further down the village itself is Area B. You look at the road going to Jerusalem. This is the village of Tarrobasia. Shilo’s on the other side with another one of our villages further west.

Abeshouse: Palestinians regard all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as a violation of UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention against settlement in occupied territory. In size, the West Bank settlements range from a few large ones with a thousand families or more, to just a few trailers like this one over the hill from Shilo. It’s one of more than 30 new settlements that have sprung up on the West Bank in the last year to stake out land.

Mark: Any time you have a smaller community the risks are greater.

Abeshouse: Mark has his hands full responding to incidents and infiltrations in the area. One of his biggest challenges is protecting the children who are bused into Shilo each day for school.

Mark: All the children around the region are bused to school in armored buses. One of the favorite targets of the terrorists in the area have been school buses.

Abeshouse: A father myself, I had a hard time understanding how anyone could expose children to such danger.

Mark: A man has to make a decision sometimes. Where is his line? My line is here. I’ve built my house here. I’ve raised my family here. I will not leave.

Abeshouse: Supporting a family is not easy in the settlements. In fact, many settlers must commute across the Green Line back into Israel to work, buy goods, and secure services. Last December, David Rubin was returning from a trip to a dentist in Jerusalem when he barely dodged the bullets.

David Rubin: We were halfway home on a very dark road. And all of a sudden there was a massive shooting attack on the car.

Abeshouse: Rubin, who teaches high school English, was driving with his three-year-old son Ruby on this road just outside Ramallah when they were ambushed by gunmen hiding on the ridge.

David Rubin: There was a hail of bullets with tracers on them, so I saw four bullets in front of my eyes. I had a three year old sitting behind me and I looked at him and he didn’t respond. I was in a state of panic

Abeshouse: Ruby had been hit by a bullet in the back of the head. It chipped some of his skull and left a nasty scar,but luckily there was little other damage.

Lisa Rubin: The bullet must have gone right through the hood and it went right over here and went up and out. and the doctor said it was um – a real miracle. It missed his brain stem by a millimeter. So I’m just so thankful for such a miracle. And I thank God every day that they are ok.

Abeshouse: How can you subject yourself to that kind of situation where your husband and your children are exposed to this kind of risk and danger?

Lisa Rubin: This land belongs to us. And there is proof all through the Bible. And I feel that if, um whether you know, if people start leaving, whether it’s Shilo or Israel in general, we’re just giving it away.

David Rubin: It makes my commitment that much stronger to be in Israel. And I say that without hesitation.

Lisa Rubin: I believe God is watching over us — not only us, but other families as well. All of Israel. This is where we have to be.

Era Rapaport (Settler): This is where Judaism in Israel started. You can’t go back earlier than this.

Abeshouse: Era Rapaport came 24 years ago to found Shilo with eight other families. There was little but barren land next to Arab villages.

Rapaport: This wall is the wall of the ancient city of Shilo. At least 3,300 years old. At least. That’s the time when Joshua came into Israel and made this the first capital.

Abeshouse: Era was born in Brooklyn and moved to Israel where he was a medic during the 1967 Six Day War. He and others viewed Israel’s success in the war as a sign of divine intervention, and devoted themselves to settling the captured lands so they would remain part of a greater land of Israel.

Rapaport: For 369 years, four times a year, millions of Jews came here. Just here. The only place — in fact this path is one of the oldest roads in the world.

Abeshouse: The settlement by Era and the others in Shilo was done under the pretext of being part of an archaeological excavation, but when the dig was over, Era and the other settlers refused to go. They were backed by Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Agriculture, now Prime Minister, whose government is committed to the settlements survival. But the settlements are seen as a major problem by Israeli opposition parties. One of the opposition leaders, Yossi Beilin, sees settlements as a festering wound, especially settlements like Shilo.

Yossi Beilin (Former Israeli Justice Minister): It is one of the settlements which are stuck in a very densely populated Palestinian area, and there is no justification in the world to keep something like that out there.

Abeshouse: Beilin was an architect of the Oslo accords, the 1993 agreement signed by Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Prior to Oslo all Israeli administrations since 1967 had invested heavily in settlements and bypass roads.

Beilin: One of the main issues is that so much money was invested in the settlements. It is something around $50 billion since ’67.

Abeshouse: The strategy, Beilin said, was to make it easier to annex the land for Israel’s defense.

Beilin: The orginal idea was that the settlements would become a kind of buffer zone, that they will defend Israel. This is a joke, a sad joke because they became the biggest impediment for security and the investment in defending them is such a huge one.

Rapaport: I’m not here for security. That is a byproduct. I’m here because I am wearing this skullcap on my head which basically means that I am connected to the Bible, to the good lord who gave me the right to be here and more than the right. He gave me the charge, the commandment to do so.

Abeshouse: That kind of talk has Palestinian leaders worried. Ziad Abu-Zayyad, the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs for Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, says there is an obvious solution.

Ziad Abu-Zayyad: We have to remove these settlements in order to allow a territorial linkage between the different Arab cities and towns. And to enable the Palestinians to have one entity with their kind of claim on that entity, that it is their country, it is their state.

Abeshouse: Driving on the West Bank, you continually pass military vehicles and checkpoints. Tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers are stationed in the West Bank and Gaza, and thousands of reserve troops are rotated in and out on a regular basis. In Israel all men under 45 are expected to do reserve duty for a month each year. One of their main responsibilities is to protect the settlers.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Ishai: Our job was to secure roads that only settlers drive through; our job was to protect the settlements.

Abeshouse: These reserve combat officers and soldiers are part of a group that has taken a stand against serving to defend the settlers. The group insists that occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is itself a threat to Israel’s long term security and the moral standing of the nation’s military.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Yaniv: When you are inside occupation you cannot be moral. There’s no such thing as being a good occupier, a moral occupier.

Abeshouse: In this video shot earlier this year, but never seen in the United States, the reservists denounce as immoral the orders they received while serving in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Ishai: During the first two weeks, the open fire orders we received were – whoever picks up a stone, shoot him, period.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, David: No one can ask you to do such things – to shoot people, to hold ambulances from going, to destroy houses without even knowing who lives there.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Yaniv: You prevent people from passing, you surround them in their own villages, you prevent them from going to work, you make them stand for hours and hours in traffic. Only the disturbance you cause to the normal life of innocent people is in and of itself cruel occupation.

Abeshouse: This reserve artillery officer said there are different standards applied to Arabs and settlers in the West Bank.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Ishai: There are two kinds of people. There are white people who speak Hebrew and there are dark people who speak Arabic. One kind you are not allowed to touch because they are citizens of Israel, and its sacred, and the other kind you can just do whatever you want to them and its OK, because they are Arabs.

Abeshouse: The group issued a declaration against fighting in a war to preserve the settlements.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, David (Reading from statement): We who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israeli defense forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose, and we shall take no part in them.

Abeshouse: 30,000 reservists were called up for the current Israeli offensive. Most reported, but the number of so-called “refuseniks” signing the declaration continues to grow. There are 390 today. 12 have already been sent to prison.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Yaniv: This is where you need all of your courage; this is the hardest battle.

Abeshouse: The refuseniks say they are patriotic Zionists, but they are worried about Israel’s future. It’s estimated that by the year 2010, there will be more Palestinians than Jews in the combined area of Israel and the West Bank. Unless the Israelis give the West Bank back, they will have to rule as a minority dominating a majority.

Israeli Reserve Soldier, Noam: In my opinion, in 10, 20 years, people will look back, and they will grab their heads, and say ‘what have we done, what have we wrought, what happened here in Israel?

Abeshouse: The refuseniks and the settlers are polar opposites, with two competing views of Zionism. The refuseniks, like many Israelis, regard the lands captured in the 1967 war as bargaining chips for peace. Most settlers regard the West Bank as a god-given inheritance that cannot be traded away. The settlers’ political leader Benjamin Elon is scornful of the refuseniks.

Benjamin Elon (Former tourism minister): It’s a shame that we have uh, in Israel uh a few that are without roots. And they don’t know our tradition and they don’t know the Bible. And they don’t know what is the meaning land of Israel.

Abeshouse: Elon, a member of Parliament, resigned as a minister in the Sharon government because he wanted an even tougher policy towards Arafat.

Elon: We have to fight back. We are here forever and no one will uproot us from this land.

Abeshouse: Elon lives in a barbed-wire enclosed settlement next to an Israeli army camp in Ramallah. When I went there, it had the feel of a place under seige.

Abeshouse: Can you envision any situation where some settlements will be removed to achieve peace?

Elon: Some Arab settlements maybe. If they want to do it in order to achieve peace. And they want to move themselves with some kind of agreement with me to the east bank of the Jordan, we can negotiate it. But the children of Israel that return to the land of Israel will be removed by Jewish government ….can you imagine some nonsense…some tragic scenario like this? Never. Never.

Abeshouse: But many Israelis view Elon as an extremist. I watched this demonstration in which 20,000 participated, protesting against occupation and the settlements.

Israeli Young Man: It creates all the ill will between Palestinians and Jews because we are actually taking over more and more of their land.

Israeli Man: Unfortunately Sharon is the Prime Minister not of the Israeli state but of a settlement state.

Israeli Woman: I’m also in love with the Bible and in love with the text, but I think that they are causing problems for our security.

Israeli Citizen: It’s the main problem in Israel. The settlements will keep the war between us and the Palestinians forever.

Abeshouse: I saw how the cycle of blood and vengeance works up close. At a settlement I visited, a 19-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a pizza parlor, wounding 25, seven critically, and killing three teenagers.

Thousands of settlers and Israelis from the other side of the Greenline came to the funeral.

It felt tragic and senseless, teenagers killing teenagers — yet another generation lost in an endless struggle over land.

Ziad Abu-Zayyad: If they settle in the West Bank and Gaza there will be no room for a Palestinian state. And in this case we will have no homeland.

Abeshouse: Abu-Zayyad believes that negotiations are the key to stopping the violence.

Ziad Abu-Zayyad: I believe that the shooting and the suicide bombers are something which has to stop. And it cannot stop without the resumption of negotiations and without giving hope again to the Palestinian people.

Abeshouse: But the settlers don’t want negotiations. Many want the Arabs gone altogether, removed by force if necessary. They call it transfer.

Rapaport: If they continue battling me and the government of Israel, and rightly, doesn’t want to go ahead and kill Arabs, then the other choice is to leave. They have to leave. They have to leave if its 10, if it’s a million, if it’s 2 million.

David Rubin: Ultimately it is impossible for two hostile peoples to live in the same land. There is already a Palestinian state to the east of the Jordan river, uh it’s known as Jordan. There are 22 Arab states surrounding Israel and the solution can be found in the resettlement of the Arabs in their countries.

Lisa Rubin: Arabs can choose from many other places to live. And I think they just want it cause they hate the Jews. And I don’t think they will ever make peace with us. And we just have to do what we need to do.

Moyers: The radical solution proposed by those settlers — they say it’s even quiet where they live. The radical solution they propose, by those settlers — expelling all the Palestinians from the West Bank — is gaining wider support among Israelis. (Read more about Israeli Settlements.)

A poll taken after the wave of suicide bombings reports that 46% of Israelis now favor expulsion.

What does that mean for peace in the Middle East? Mark Tessler has spent much of his career studying just that question.

He’s a political scientist and the author of A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Democracy, War and Peace in the Middle East.

In his visits to the Middle East, Mark Tessler has avoided taking sides in the conflict. As a scholar, in fact, he’s advised both the Association for Israeli Studies and the Palestinian American Research Center.

Thank you for joining us.

Tessler: My pleasure.

Moyers: We’ve just seen how dangerous and controversial those settlements are, and yet they’re still there. Why are they still there?

Tessler: Well, they’re still there because a lot of it has to do with the nature of the Israeli political system. They’ve got a constituency that’s strong enough to win votes in the elections and be an important partner in coalition politics.

They’re there because in the larger sense, the conflict is unresolved…there’s certainly a majority, and depending on how you ask the question, a substantial majority that would support giving the territories to the Palestinians in the context of the peace process and with moving the settlements if necessary to achieve that.

Moyers: Is this… you say a majority of Israelis seem to support returning the settlements?

Tessler: Absolutely.

Moyers: And yet we saw the other poll, 46 percent now favor some kind of expulsion? I mean, is there a battle going on for the soul of Israel?

Tessler: Well, there is a battle going on. The country has been divided for some time between those who favor territorial compromise and those who favor greater Israel. But the current polls really reflect the insecurity and uncertainty that Israelis feel.

They’re not convinced that the Palestinians really would accept the two states solution, and “Why should we give this territory back if we’re not going to get peace in return?” Israelis need to be convinced that they will get peace.

And the Palestinians and the Saudis, for example, are trying to tell them that, “Yes, there is an alternative, we would embrace a two-state solution.” After an agreement was reached in Oslo and there was a peace process, that support virtually disappeared. It was much, much smaller. There was broad support for a two-state solution.

So conditions make a lot… This doesn’t tell you something about inevitable Israeli opinion. It tells you about a response to the particular situation we’re in.

Moyers: This is the most…probably the most delicate and difficult issue I’ve ever treated as a journalist.

I mean, to so many Jews, the very survival of Israel as a Jewish state is at stake, and they say the West Bank is essential as a buffer to their security. The Palestinians say their intifada is because they’re so frustrated because this land they must have for their own homeland. Are we dealing with land here, or history?

Tessler: No, land is the central issue.

Majorities in Israeli would agree with your premise, but say the conclusions that you’ve identified don’t follow. And that’s the argument that some people make: “we can’t be a Jewish state unless we have this territory because it’s part of the historic land of Israel. And we can’t be a Jewish state if we don’t have this territory because we need it for security.”

That is not the position of most Israelis. Most Israelis say that if we have this territory, if we’re going to have large numbers of Palestinians inside our country, either we won’t be a democratic state anymore because we’ll be ruling over them and not giving them citizens, as the Arabs and Palestinians inside Israel are citizens, or we will make them citizens and they’ll simply demographically vote the Jewish state out of existence.

So the argument of those in favor of territorial compromise, which I think is the position that would carry in the polls, is that the Jewish character of the state is actually undermined by holding these territories.

There’s a similar debate with respect to security. While some people argue that this territory is needed for security purposes— it’s a narrow country, hostile air bombings could enter very easily.

I mean during the first intifada, substantial majorities of people in the military as well as the Israeli public felt that the country would actually be safer to give up the territories if that would bring peace with the Palestinians.

Moyers: But you saw one of the settlement leaders in our report say, “Can you imagine Arial Sharon or any government of Israel ever forcing us, the Jewish settlers, out of our Holy Land?”

Tessler: Well…

Moyers: I mean, are extremists driving current events on both sides?

Tessler: Sure, and this cycle of violence works to the advantage of both sides. I mean, it undermines the prospects of compromise. And to the extent there are minorities on both sides that don’t want compromise, it serves their purposes.

They might say it’s tragic that people are dying, or maybe they wouldn’t even say that. But in the political sense, sure. All the focus is on security. There’s no political process. And trust is breaking down. There’s no confidence, and neither side trusts the other. Each side feels it has no alternative except to circle the wagons.

And to the extent that people don’t want a bridge to be built, which I think the evidence is pretty clear most people on both sides do, but this situation serves the interests of those minorities on both sides.

Moyers: What in your time and mine has brought us to this point of such inhumanity and violence over this postage stamp of land?

Tessler: I would say that it would be instructive to look at what it was that brought the parties together at Oslo.

Moyers: Which was in 199…

Tessler: 1993, September of ’93. Of course, the Norwegians played a critical role. That’s why it’s called Oslo. The Americans played an important role. But it was essentially the dynamics on the ground that forced each side to compromise. There’s no reason why we can’t have those dynamics again.

Moyers: Those dynamics being…?

Tessler: Essentially each side coming to the conclusion that it had to compromise.

The intifada, I think, sent that signal to the Israelis, that the Palestinians were not going to accept occupation. If you insist upon holding these territories, you’re going to have a fight on your hands. And we’ll use whatever weapons are available to us.

This is what brought people to Oslo, at least on the Israeli side, and out of that came progress for a few years.

The other thing is why did Oslo fail. Basically the kinds of things that your piece is emphasizing contain the nucleus of an answer to that question. They failed because the occupation continues, settlements continued to expand, Palestinian areas, although they were autonomous, they were separate and cut off from one another.

And it was kind of a loss of faith in the process. We’ve got to try to restore that faith.

Moyers: Ariel Sharon said that there would be no new settlements when he became Prime Minister, and yet there had been 34…

Tessler: Yes.

Moyers:…Since February of 2001…

Tessler: Sure, sure.

Moyers: Is he deliberately provoking the Palestinians?

Tessler: He’s not delib… Well, bascialy his interest is in Israel’s permanent retention of the territories. He’s not out of the religious movement so he probably doesn’t see this as some sort of Biblical prophecy. It’s his notion of Jewish national destiny and historic rights.

And the Palestinians they can live there in autonomous communities and have the right to their affairs, go to Jordan and run their state.

But to the extent he wants the cease-fire or that he’s got a plan for the West Bank and Gaza, it’s a plan to have them be a permanent part of Israel.

As your piece pointed out, he was Minister of Agriculture with primary responsibility, probably more than any other individual, for the establishment of the settlements in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Moyers: Much of the world loves to hate the Jews. And the settlements and the recent invasions have given them reasons to vent that hate. There have been demonstrations overnight…

Tessler: Yes.

Moyers: …in capitals around the world.

Tessler: Yes.

Moyers: Arafat walked away from the Oslo talks. One could say that, that he walked away from the offer Barak gave him. Why is he such a hero when he’s a… he commissions terrorism, he supports the human bombers.

Tessler: Well, there are a couple of parts to make there. One is Palestinians have a slightly different interpretation of what happened at Camp David, and then the follow-up negotiations at Itaba. They don’t accept… they would say significant progress was made.

They would acknowledge that Barak put some important things on the table that Israel hadn’t done before, and he deserves credit for that.

But they would say that the offer wasn’t nearly as generous as supporters of Israel present it as, and more importantly that arafat didn’t reject it; he rejected… What he called for and what he was, in fact, participating in and thought would continue was an ongoing bargaining process.

It wasn’t that he said no to…no to peace, no to compromise, “we’ll only accept the right of return, the Jews have to leave.” That wasn’t… that was never his position. His position was, “This is an important offer, but we’ve got a way to go. Let’s continue to talk.” And they did continue to talk.

That would be one part of the response. The other part of the response would be that Arafat’s prestige was going down consistently.

It was high in the early period after the Oslo agreement when things seemed to be going well, as the process did not even slow, let alone stop settlements, and all of the things that your piece pointed out about checkpoints and humiliation and so forth.

That being the case, Arafat’s popularity went way down. He’s not been healed… His support now is not based on being, you know, encouraging terrorism. It’s based on the fact that people are rallying around him when they’re under attack and that he symbolizes the goal that all Palestinians share.

Moyers: Do either side concede the other has a legitimate aspiration?

Tessler: That’s what was so important and so promising about Oslo.

Moyers: But they don’t, do they?

Tessler: They have. They’re on record. Majorities on both sides do. Each side feels it maybe has some historic rights that have been violated and that compromise won’t respect.

But each side says they recognize the other side has rights as well, and they’re willing to go on from here. That was enshrined at Oslo. It was widely supported on both sides.

I think in the context of a meaningful political process, that sets up a path for…toward a two-state solution in the future. You’ll get agreement on that as well today.

Moyers: Last question. You explained well what you think is Sharon’s motive. What is Arafat’s motive now? He won’t quit. He won’t call off the human bombers.

Tessler: Well, I really don’t want to be in the position of defending Arafat. I think he hasn’t done a good job of negotiating on behalf of his people even though I think some of the allegations against him are a little bit one-sided and distorted.

In general, he has not been particularly effective. He hasn’t run a very good regime. He’s been widely disliked until the last couple of years for the kind of governance that he set up in the West Bank and Gaza.

Moyers: Are the Israelis building him up?

Tessler: What he… I think he’s… in a way, it’s wrong to focus on him. And that’s something that serves the interests of the settlers.

The notion is that the real opposition, the real problem, is Arafat and his henchmen. If we could just get rid of them, things would be on track, there wouldn’t be a lot of opposition to settlements, the Palestinians might grumble, but they’d kind of calm down and we could handle our way. So it’s really wrong to focus on Arafat.

Having said that — to the extent that question comes up all the time — one, I think we need a more nuanced view, but two, we certainly have plenty of grounds for being critical of him, and Palestinians under other circumstances would be far ahead of us in being critical of him.

But finally, he represents what the Palestinians say is inalienable and non-negotiable, some sort of a political state for them on the meaningful portion of Palestine, without Jewish settlers and roads and roadblocks in the middle.

And he’s committed to that vision, and he will stay the course regardless of whatever his flaws might be, until it no longer becomes possible or until it’s realized.

Moyers: You’ve just articulated what to so many of us seems to be the heart of the issue.

Thank you for being here and thank you Mark Tessler for your book, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Tessler: Thank you.

Narrator: Now a look al stories coming up on NPR radio this weekend.

Reporter: Coming up on Weekend Edition Sunday, the street kids of Bombay.

We’ll attend an impromptu jam session at a night shelter, and meet two adults who are working to improve the children’s lives in some unconventional ways.

Also, a visit with Sarah Shannon, formerly with the pop group Velocity Girl. She’s gone solo with a more mellow CD of her own.

And the latest military and diplomatic maneuvers in the Middle East.

Find your local public radio station on our web site, npr.org, and tune in.

Moyers: As we reported last week, public interest lawsuits have torn a small hole in the veil of secrecy surrounding Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force.

But secrecy remains the order of the day in Washington. It’s been 40 years since Congress passed the landmark Freedom of Information Act, opening the public’s business to public scrutiny. Now, producer Sherry Jones finds a disturbing pattern in the way our government has interpreted that law.

Moyers: Eileen Welsome learned just how hard it is to find out what government doesn’t want us to know. She won a Pulitzer Prize for searching out secrets dating back 50 years, to the dawn of the atomic age.

Eileen Welsome (Author, The Plutonium Files): I had come across a footnote in a scientific report describing 18 humans who had been injected with plutonium during the Manhattan Project.

Moyers: The Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb. To study the effects of radiation on human beings, scientists working on the bomb injected unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. It was all top secret.

Welsome: The names of the scientists and the names of the patients were blacked out. And I was simply horrified. I wanted to find out who they were, why were they injected, did they develop cancer, did they have pain? What happened to them and why was it done?

Moyers: She started her search in 1987. But the patients were identified only by number. Welsome wanted their names. So she turned to a law passed by Congress 20 years earlier to safeguard the public’s right to know. It’s called the Freedom of Information Act…also known as FOIA.

Welsome: All of these individuals were found with the help of scraps of information that came from the FOIA request that I filed.

Moyers: She found that, with one exception, none of the patients had any idea what had been done to them. And none of their relatives knew for 50 years.

Welsome: …If the Freedom of Information Act means anything, it ought to mean that I should get documents on these 18 forgotten people.

Moyers: Over many years, using the Freedom of Information Act, she forced the Department of Energy to release thousands of documents — a shocking story of half a century of official deceit and dangerous science.

Welsome: We were able to take these people who had lost their humanity and had been reduced to numbers by the federal government and restore to them their names.

Moyers: Her reporting brought an official apology from the government and a condemnation of the secret experiments.

Jane Kirtley (Professor of Media Ethics & Law, University of Minnesota): Government does make mistakes. And I don’t think the public demands infallibility from its government. I certainly don’t. Accountability is what we demand. And we should have the tools that make it possible for us to compel the government to tell us what it’s up to, how it’s carrying out our business and to instruct the government to take corrective steps when mistakes are made. Ultimately what we’re really talking about is not so much looking back, but looking forward to make sure that the mistakes that have been made in the past are not repeated.

Moyers: There have been other hard-won battles to open government archives in the almost 40 years since the Freedom of Information Act became law. We have learned about Medicare fraud, CIA assassination manuals, the My Lai massacre. We have learned about underage children forced to work in factories, and how wealthy corporate farms pocket taxpaper subsides.

Thomas Susman (Freedom of Information Act expert): Agencies have never thought it a very good idea to make information public. Surprise! It’s more work. It may, in fact, reveal something that you don’t want known about your decision-making. And it’s always a lot easier to operate in the shadows.

Moyers: President Richard Nixon knew all about operating in the shadows, as we learned from tapes he recorded in secret.

Nixon tapes:

President Nixon: “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”

Moyers: The President of the United States is about to give his aides an extraordinary order. He is instructing them to break into a respected Washington think tank.

Nixon tapes:

President Nixon: “Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute’s safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that it makes somebody else look bad.”

Moyers: If Richard Nixon had had his way, we might never have heard him ordering that illegal break-in. He claimed the tapes belonged to him and would not be made public.

Kutler: He made his decision on the 6th to resign – and he leaves on the 9th. And there really wasn’t much chance to pack up everything, but things were being packed up and were going to be shipped to California.

And on Sept. 10th, there is an agreement between the Ford Administration – the General Services Administration and Nixon – for the disposal of this material that would have him allowed him to even to destroy it.

Moyers: But Congress stepped in with emergency legislation and declared the tapes to be public property. The act would eventually be broadened to set a new standard of openness for the records of all future Presidents.

Kutler: For 12 years after he leaves office, the President has exclusive access to his papers. In other words, Presidents then are free to peddle their memoirs, use their papers for money. The recent President of the United States has sold his memoirs for $9 million. At the end of 12 years, however, those papers — which were generated with public funds, by public servants, belong to the public.

There was a wonderful consensus that we owe something to our history and to ourselves as a people, to understand what happened. History that’s made up is the endeavor of a totalitarian state — not this state.

Moyers: Gerald Ford was sworn in as president three minutes after Nixon resigned. Ford swiftly signed the legislation declaring Nixon’s presidential records public property.

But when Congress – in another reaction to the Nixon scandals — moved to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Ford administration resisted.

Moyers: The year was 1974. President Ford’s chief of staff at the time was a young man named Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s deputy was another young man named Dick Cheney.

Thomas Blanton (Executive Director, National Security Archive): President Ford vetoed the Freedom of Information Act as we know it today. And he vetoed it because he and Rumsfeld and Cheney believed that it took away too much presidential power. It allowed courts to order the release of documents even when the president said they shouldn’t be released. Then, these guys fought it tooth and nail and lost. Now – these guys are re-opening those battles, and with ninety percent approval ratings, they think they can win.

Moyers: Back then, Congress overrode Ford’s veto of the Freedom of Information Act.

Today, Dick Cheney is the vice president of the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense.

Kirtley: President Bush, it’s hard to say what his personal views are, but he has included people in his administration who have indicated in the past their predilection towards secrecy and what I would characterize as their outright contempt for the public right to know.

Moyers: Soon after he took office, George W. Bush made his own feelings known.

Question from Audience (press conference tape): Would you take this moment to articulate your own view of First Amendment freedoms and give us a sense of the fundamental message that you will send to your Administration as it makes decisions on whether to open or close access to government information?

President Bush (from tape): Yeah. I – uh – heh – yes. There needs to be balance when it comes to freedom of information laws. There are some things that when I discuss in the privacy of the Oval Office – or national security matters – that should just not be in the national arena. I’ll give you one area, though, where I’m very cautious and that’s about emailing. I used to be an avid e-mailer. And I emailed to my daughters or emailed to my father. And I don’t want those emails to be in the public domain. So I don’t email any more. Out of concern for freedom of information laws, but also concern for my privacy. And, uh, but we’ll cooperate with the press unless we think it’s a matter of national security or something that’s entirely private.

Susman: The President sets the tone for the executive branch. When the President says, “I’ve stopped using e-mail because of the Freedom of Information Act”, you know, I think that that sends the wrong message to those government employees who generate documents on e-mail that constitute official public records. And so to somehow inhibit the generation of records that constitute our nation’s history, is setting the wrong tone.

Moyers: Once the tone was set, the policy followed. On November 1st of last year, President Bush quietly issued a sweeping Executive Order that — despite its title — effectively repealed the Presidential Records Act. Even some of his strongest supporters were taken aback.

Rep. Burton: We’re talking about things that are not national security issues. We’re talking about other issues that need to be explored and looked at very thoroughly.

Moyers: Republican Dan Burton had fought to impeach Bill Clinton over White House secrets. Now, it is the President from his own party whose secrecy alarms him.

Rep. Burton: The Executive Order very simply says that unless the previous President or the President want those documents from the archives released, they cannot be released unless whoever wants them goes to court to get them.

Moyers: In other words, if a scholar, historian, teacher, or any citizen wants access to records of previous Presidents, a lawsuit is the only way to get it.

Stanley Kutler (presidential historian): And more than that — more than that — it’s wonderful the kind of guarantees that are built in here. If, for example, some obscure history professor somewhere wishes to challenge a former president’s refusal to release his materials and takes him to court, this Executive Order provides that the Department of Justice will defend the former president. You know, Richard Nixon spent a young fortune on lawyers for the better part of 20 years, much of which was spent resisting this kind of thing. Now, Richard Nixon had to pay for that himself, which explains why he wrote so many books to pay for these things. But it’s true. It’s true. Now, here though, President Bush is giving legal cover to his predecessors.

Blanton: Not only could the former president veto, the former president’s kids, and representatives — and former vice presidents. This Executive Order is the first time that vice presidents have ever been given their own executive privilege, separate from the president. And I don’t think it’s exactly coincidence that the first vice president who gets to use this new privilege is George W. Bush’s father, from his tenure under Reagan.

President Reagan (from tape): “To eliminate the widespread but mistaken perception that we have been exchanging arms for hostages, I have directed that no further sales of arms of any kind be sent to Iran.”

Reporter (from tape): Vice President Bush, did you know about the Contra aid, or not, sir?

Moyers: Under the Presidential Records Act, tens of thousands of pages from the Reagan administration had been readied for release in January 2001. That very month, George W. Bush, the son of Reagan’s vice president, was sworn in as president.

Not only are his own father’s papers now protected by the executive order, he will be able under the order to deny future scrutiny of his own administration.

Kutler: I knew at the beginning of President Bush’s term that the law was in some trouble because one of his aides said, well, 12 years may not be enough time. And I asked whether what do you need? Fifteen, 20, 25, 100? Or is any too many? And I think that’s it. Any is too many.

Kutler: And then Sept. 11 happened. An Executive Order that I’m sure had long been in the works came down. And it was justified in the name of national security, and in effect Sept. 11. And it has nothing to do with Sept. 11.

Moyers: It wasn’t only the Presidential Records Act the current Bush administration set out to cripple. In a directive also drafted before Sept. 11, Attorney General John Aschroft encouraged federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information requests.

Blanton: On Oct. 12, Attorney General Ashcroft sent around a memo to all the agencies. And the memo simply said, If you can find any good reason, legal reason – the exact phrase was “sound legal basis” – for withholding information, we’ll back you up.

Kirtley: What he’s saying is, the deliberations of the agencies, the information that they obtain and exchange, the whole, how we get to where we are in our governmental policy is not gonna be something that will be readily available to the public. That’s not democracy in my view. It may be an efficient way for a government to operate, but I don’t think we can call it a democracy.

Blanton: The Ashcroft message is cover your rear, cover our rear. Don’t let information out. And get technical, get legal and damn the torpedoes. We’ll deal with the litigation when it comes.

Susman: Unlike constitutional principles that will survive one Congress after another, one administration after another, the Freedom of Information Act is more fragile. It’s something that I think we all take for granted.

Blanton: The people’s right to know is on the run right now. We have an administration in Washington that – they see their job in Washington to recoup all the ground that the people’s right to know has gained over the last 30 years. We gained that ground for the people’s right to know in order to prevent another Vietnam or another Watergate or a kind of unaccountable Washington that we used to have.

Rep. Burton (R-IN): I’m a Republican and George W. Bush is one of my heroes. He’s a Republican. I think he’s doing a fine job in the war and the economy. But this flies in the face of openness in government. And while I understand every President wants to protect their turf and keep people from overseeing what they’re doing, it’s the responsibility of Congress to do just that. I believe a veil of secrecy has descended around the administration and I think that’s unseemly.

Moyers: America is at war and Washington is in a state of high alert. In the name of national security, the White House has denied Congress information it has sought, restricted reporters in their coverage, decreed secret military tribunals, and sealed off thousands of pages of public records.

Kirtley: Security and secrecy are not synonymous, but the Bush administration acts as if they are. What’s happening here is that the Bush administration, I feel, is exploiting the public’s legitimate concern about national security and turning that into carte blanche to say, anything we decide we don’t want to share with the public we will withhold on grounds of secrecy.

The irony of all of this is that at the very time when I think the actions of government need to be scrutinized very closely, the roadblocks that have been set up by the Bush administration are going to make it very difficult for the public, for Congress, really for anybody who has an interest in the outcome, which is all of us, to find out what’s going on. And the attitude of the Bush administration, frankly, seems to me to be that it’s none of our business.

Moyers: But the accountability of power is the public’s business. Just ask Eileen Welsome. Without the Freedom of Information act, what the government did to its own citizens — secretly injecting them with radioactive plutonium — might never have been known. And Elmer Allen might have remained…just a number in a filing cabinet.

Welsome: I went back to Elmer’s grave and his family had put up a beautiful new headstone. Elmer Allen, the tombstone said, “One of America’s human nuclear guinea pigs.” He had been a human being up until he was injected with plutonium and from that date in 1947 until the day he died, he was a number.

Welsome: What are reporters gonna be finding out 50 years from now about what is going on right now in the post-Sept. 11 period. I mean are we gonna find out horrendous things in 50 years about what’s been happening in the last four months? And is it going to take 50 years to find out this information?

Moyers: In the interest of full disclosure you should know that the “Freedom of Information Act” was passed when Lyndon Johnson was President and I was his press secretary. He signed it on July 4, 1966; signed it with language that was almost lyrical; signed it, he said, “With a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”

Well, yes, but what few people knew at the time is that LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets; hated them challenging the official view of reality. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House. Only the courage and political skill of a congressman named John Moss got the bill passed at all, and that was after a 12-year battle against his elders in Congress who blinked every time the sun shined in the dark corridors of power. They managed to cripple the bill Moss had drafted. And even then, only some last-minute calls to LBJ from a handful of newspaper editors overcame the president’s reluctance; he signed “the damned thing,” as he called it (only I’m paraphrasing, out of respect for PBS standards); he signed it, and then went out to claim credit for it.

It’s always a fight, to find out what the government doesn’t want us to know. It’s a fight we’re once again losing. Not only has George W. Bush eviscerated the Presidential Records Act and FOIA, he has clamped a lid on public access across the board. It’s not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it’s Congress… and it’s you, the public and your representatives.

We’re told it’s all about national security, but that’s not so. Keeping us from finding out about the possibility of accidents at chemical plants is not about national security; it’s about covering up an industry’s indiscretions. Locking up the secrets of those meetings with energy executives is not about national security; it’s about hiding the confidential memorandum sent to the White House by Exxon Mobil showing the influence of oil companies on the administration’s policy on global warming. We only learned about that memo this week, by the way, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. May it rest in peace.

Moyers: That’s our broadcast this week.

Let us know what you think.

Go to pbs.org.

For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.


This transcript was entered on April 3, 2015.

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