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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Extant Amendments

Note: This is the third version of this post, which has thus far been killed by power surges twice. Thus the consequent shortness

The US Treasury Department has begun exercising a cold war power granted it to prevent proliferation of Soviet propaganda, but in order to stifle free speech in the United States. Under the terms of the policy, the "alteration or enhancement of informational materials" from embargoed countries is prohibited, and any individual who elects to violate this policy without specific license granted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is subject to a $500,000 fine, and up to ten years in prison. This, in and of itself, doesn't sound like the worst policy in the world, until you start considering the effects. If one takes a quick look at a partial list of countries the US currently embargoes, one sees a simple problem. Namely that, within those countries from which information is not allowed to diffuse, Iraq and Afghanistan number among them.

This is somewhat terrifying. This means that any first hand account of the US occupation of Iraq can only be published in the United States if the OFAC specifically licenses it. It also means, incidentally, that any information relating to WMD or terrorist programs in Iran can be kept out of the mainstream media, not by subterfuge, but by the 'legitimate' police powers of the current executive branch. What it amounts to is prior restraint of all intellectual works, all information, coming from any country who is a declared enemy of the United States - absent any compelling governmental interest, other than that they simply do not like it. There are no cases under which OFAC is compelled to grant license, so if something unfavorable comes up, they can simply block it from being reported. Changes of format or translations are also explicitly prohibited.

The undermining of the fundamental purpose of the first amendment notwithstanding, consider the effects on the embargoed countries themselves. The only outlet through which ideas contrary to these governments, who are specifically targeted in many cases because of their human rights abuses, can be published is defaulted at "off." If a Chinese dissident disagrees with Chinese human rights abuses, but also happens to mention that the United States is repugnant for espousing freedom while entering a longstanding alliance with Beijing, an bureaucrat within the OFAC gets to determine whether or not the marketplace of ideas can handle that. The policy, if enacted, could easily chill dissenting speech within countries where it is the most badly needed. Moreover, by barring collaboration of any sort, we shrink the intellectual community within these zones. By stifling the intellectuals within these communities, we just further entrench ideological wastelands where dictators can keep an iron fist around the collective windpipe of democracy.

Even if these horrific effects never come to pass, is it really rational to let information flow at the discrecion of an unelected government official, who never even has to report the existence of such information to the American public? Didn't we create an amendment specifically to prevent such informational control by the federal government? We already have laws which can prevent people from profiting from such collaborations, but commercial transactions aside, information is the lifeblood of a democratic population. If we can't even find out what the Iraqis think of our occupation, how can we make informed decisions about the invasion? Or is that the point?

cranked out at 5:27 PM | |

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