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American watchdog reporting roundup

SHOWCASE | August 04, 2006

Exposing the hidden history of racial expulsions, questionable policies at the Federal Air Marshal Service and organic food standards

By Nick Schwellenbach

The Investigative Reporters and Editors Web site features some of the best watchdog stories around the country on a regular basis in its Extra! Extra! section. Here’s a distilled digest of Extra!Extra! items for July.

Exposing America’s history of racial expulsions 

In an over a year-long Cox News Service investigation, reporter Eliot Jaspin reported that thousands of blacks were purged, often violently, from dozens of counties and towns from 1864, during the Civil War, through 1923. The Cox investigation narrows in on about a dozen of the most extreme cases in a number of states that stretch beyond the South. 

Today many of the communities remain lily-white. Jaspin wrote that “one of the physical legacies of these attacks is an archipelago of white or virtually all-white counties along the Mason-Dixon Line and into the Midwest. Blacks remain all but absent from these counties, even when neighboring counties have sizable black populations.”

Cox analyzed census data dating back to the 1800s to identify “about 200 counties, most in states along the Mason-Dixon Line, where black populations of 75 people or more seemed to vanish from one decade to the next.”

Though some of the declines can be adequately explained by migration in search of better employment opportunities, there were indications of intentional white efforts to purge blacks in 103 cases.

The Cox report noted that there was no evidence these efforts were part of a national campaign coordinated by the Ku Klux Klan or by government officials.

However, “[d]espite a long trail of murders, torture and theft, the investigation found only three instances in the 14 countywide expulsions examined closely in which any of the white vigilantes were arrested or convicted of a crime. In at least one of the 14 counties — Forsyth County, Ga. — an examination of county tax records and land deeds suggests that some black-owned land was appropriated by whites after the expulsion and never returned.”

Air marshals blow the whistle

Tony Kovaleski of Denver’s 7News pulled off a hard-hitting investigative series that featured 17 federal air marshals from four states blowing the whistle on their agency’s policies. Among these policies are ones they claim threaten their anonymity—thus allowing terrorists to identity and neutralize them on planes—and one that encourages air marshals to put innocent people on terrorists watch lists to meet quotas tied to employment incentives. The series aired in Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Dallas.

The air marshals have to display their credentials numerous times in public locations—“as they bypass security at the checkpoint, again to the gate agent and finally to the pilot in the cockpit”—making them easy for trained terrorists to spot.  One marshal said, "Children can identify us."

According to the Las Vegas field office air marshals, they must file at least one report a month on the suspicious activities of passengers or face the prospect of “no raise, no bonus, no awards and no special assignments.” These secret government reports are called Surveillance Detection Reports, which are defined in an internal Homeland Security document “as a report designed to identify terrorist surveillance activity.”

Innocent persons identified by SDRs could end up on government watchlists or databases intended to snare terrorists or focus attention on suspicious passengers.

One management memo, dated July 2004, told air marshals, "There may come an occasion when you just don't see anything out of the ordinary for a month at a time, but I'm sure that if you are looking for it, you'll see something."

Kovaleski asked one Vegas air marshal, "Have marshals in the Las Vegas office, I don't want to say fabricated, but 'created' reports?"

"Creative writing — stretching a long ways the truth, yes," the air marshal replied.

Weak oversight of organic food standards

The U.S. Department of Agriculture often does not have any clue when its organic rules are broken and does not consistently take action against violations, Paula Lavigne of The Dallas Morning News discovered.

So far no one has been fined for the misuse of the organic label, which consumers pay a premium price for, admitted Barbara Robinson, the USDA executive who oversees the National Organic Program. 

Robinson also told the Dallas Morning News that her small staff—she mentions “eight or nine people”—struggles to monitor the “at least 20,000 organic growers, ranchers, processing plants and others worldwide.”

Reasons to doubt the USDA organic label, according to Lavigne:

•“A review of 216 internal USDA audits shows several examples of violations at organic farms and production plants. However, reports about problems that are supposed to filter up to the agency from on-the-ground monitors are incomplete.”

•“Much organic food is produced overseas, where there is even less oversight. Inspectors in China, for example, describe obvious violations that are not well-tracked or known by the agency.”

•“Vague rules leave much to interpretation, especially when it comes to treatment of animals.”

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