Back in the year 1985 an enthusiastic and well-meaning young woman gave me a copy of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, telling me that it was a “science fiction” book written 30 years earlier that predicted a bleak future for humanity. Since it was only a year “later” (than the title), I read the first few pages but as I was expecting something about spaceships and lasers, I soon put it down and forgot about it.
In my later years I’ve read the book several times and realize it’s more of a “literary dystopia” book than a Heinlein-style space opera. And as I’m sure you know, in Nineteen Eighty-Four the government is all-powerful, using its four “Ministries” to assert unchallenged control over the population.
The protagonist of the novel works at the Ministry of Truth and is employed to constantly rewrite history in order to further serve the government’s needs. Using so-called memory holes, any time a previously published piece of information in the public record conflicts with the current needs of the government, the protagonist is instructed to destroy the old record and re-write a new one in its place.
I nearly fell out of my chair yesterday when I saw that the non-fictional real American government tried to do the exact same thing as the “Ministry of Truth” in an actual court case. What’s even more surprising is that not a single “regular” media outlet covered this angle of the story and only one major blog mentioned it in passing.
There’s an ongoing court case in San Francisco involving a Malaysian woman named Dr. Ibrahim who had previously been put on the “no fly” list. I found several hundred mainstream media reports on the trial. But it was only via this single source that I found the shocking “Ministry of Truth” aspect of the cae:
Meanwhile in the courtroom in San Francisco, Judge Alsup took up a collection of disputes regarding which documents and witnesses would be admitted into evidence and which could be discussed in open court.
These questions are complicated not just because of the defendants’ Orwellian demands to have public information retroactively defined as secret and unmentionable, but also because Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers were provided with some information under protective orders or restrictions including those applicable to “covered persons” receiving documents defined by the TSA as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI). Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers have, for example, been given some information about why Dr. Ibrahim was put in the “Terrorist Screening Database” (TSDB), but are forbidden to share this information with their client Dr. Ibrahim herself.
Arguments and objections over information that the defendants believed could not be mentioned at all, or could not be mentioned in open court, continued throughout the day. There were line-by-line arguments, for example (for portions of which the courtroom was cleared of journalists and other spectators) over which entries on a timeline in a slide to be used in the plaintiff’s opening statement could be shown to the spectators, which could be shown to the court and used in argument but only if the courtroom was cleared, and which the government believed were entirely inadmissible.
Even after Judge Alsup’s preliminary rulings, the governments’ attorneys repeatedly interrupted Ms. Pipkin’s opening statement with more objections. Among the documents which the government objected to having read publicly, on the grounds that the TSA had subsequently determined that some of the information it contained was SSI, was a 2005 San Francisco Airport Police report that was not produced by or obtained from the DHS and which had been part of the public court docket since 2006.
Although this isn’t the language in which it was framed, the essence of the disputes over SSI was whether “Sensitive Security Information” is a category of information or a category of government documents and records. The government contends that SSI is a category of information, and that if the TSA designates some information as SSI, any documents or evidence concerning that information become SSI, regardless of their source, as do any statements concerning those factual matters.
Essentially the government’s lawyers were arguing that they can retroactively decide that any document can be designated SSI (Sensitive Security Information) and thus becomes effectively “classified” and cannot be disclosed to the public nor used in any public trial even though some of those documents were previously in the public domain, the literal embodiment of Orwell’s “memory holes”.
The good news is that Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the case, completely dismissed the government’s attempt to make public records “disappear”:
That’s ridiculous. Are you saying that if the president makes a speech, TSA can retroactively make it a secret what he said? It cannot be the law that something that is publicly known later becomes hidden…
Here’s my ruling: If it’s in a document that’s SSI, but it’s also available from some other publicly available source, it’s public information, and cannot be withheld from the public in this courtroom…. The government is taking such an unreasonable position on how to run a trial. If it’s been in the public domain for years, you’re barred from making the argument that the plaintiff’s counsel cannot “disclose” it….
Trials are important. Trials are supposed to be public.
Well that’s an important win for human rights in the United States! The case is still ongoing for Dr. Ibrahim but the reason I wanted to write about this here on a blog concerning all things Romanian is precisely because of Judge Alsup’s last statement, which I will repeat here again in bold because it’s that important:
“Trials are important. Trials are supposed to be public.”
Sadly, here in Romania there are no public trials. Although I’ve only written about this issue rarely, every single time I am speaking face-to-face with influential people in this country, I always push this issue. Every act of corruption, every act of large-scale thievery and embezzlement of public funds, every act of dishonesty and fraud is always hidden away and swept under the rug because trials in Romania are not public.
For instance, just about everyone knows that former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was tried and convicted for his role in the “Quality Trophy” case in which he illegally raised funds for an electoral campaign. Nastase then faked his own suicide (it’s now highly doubtful that a bullet was even fired at all) and delayed his sentence but ultimately was imprisoned for a short while.
But how does “everyone” know that he was convicted, and for what? We all know this fact because the media reported it. But the media wasn’t inside the courtroom and didn’t hear the evidence or read the trial transcripts. The media instead was waiting outside in the hallway and was told what happened by the various lawyers involved.
Even though that case is over and done with (and Nastase is once again a free man), you cannot go to the courthouse and get a copy of what happened in the trial. You cannot see exactly how he broke the law and who helped him do it. You can’t learn what he said in his own defense and evaluate the evidence for yourself nor can you read the judge’s sentencing declaration to learn how Nastase’s sentence was even calculated or decided. All you can do is rely on media reports – and the media rely on a handful of lawyers who were inside the courtroom. Thats it.
While the Romanian government isn’t sophisticated enough to constantly rewrite and delete formerly public records to serve its own propaganda needs (as the Conservative Party in England is doing), it really doesn’t have to. That’s because pretty much all “public” records in Romania are locked away and hidden forever from view.
It’s not just old Securitate (secret police) files which still remain hidden from public view in this country, it’s also such relatively innocuous things as Scinteia, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Unless you have a copy of those old editions in your house you’re going to be hard-pressed reading them in 2013 because they are not kept anywhere that’s accessible to the public. There is no library or museum or online website where you can read them.
While not “banned” or officially censored, a lack of public access to the government-funded newspaper archives is effectively the equivalent of dumping all of that information down a memory hole, a real shame since many of the current big players in Romanian politics today were prominent members of the Communist Party.
Public records, in effect, do not exist in Romania. There are no property rolls and so you do not know who owns the property next door to you, even if it turns out that it’s a well-established church that controls half of the valuable downtown real estate in your town and makes a ton of money by renting it out while simultaneously avoiding paying taxes (due to churches being exempt).
Nor can you find out what the salaries are for public officials, whether that’s the teacher at your child’s school, a politician sitting on your city council or a rogue police officer that refuses to identify himself or show you his badge. Billions of euros are spent every year on bugetari from university deans to street sweepers but absolutely nobody has any idea what kind of money is being paid for what position, and to which individuals.
And far more importantly, there are no public trials in Romania, not even when the case involves a public official of the highest rank. That’s good news for “Ministry of Truth” type lawyers, who have a much easier time of it than their American brethren because here in Romania you never have to worry about anything you do ever being becoming public record. But for the freedom-loving citizens of this country, we’ve got little to smile about I’m afraid.
And while I doubt they will ever read this, Judge Alsop, I salute you and thank you for bravely standing up to this kind of nonsense, and a further toast goes out to Edward Hasbrouck and the folks at the Identity Project, who have been doing wonderful work for years.
3 thoughts on “The Ministry of Truth”
Great thoughtful post. While the attempts of the US government to expand secrecy are frightening, your description of what a huge amount is secret in Romania makes me take less for granted here. For example, I think public property records probably forces some institutions and individuals to behave as better neighbors.
Are you by any chance talking about the public trial that was so public it says exactly so in this “copy of what happened in the trial” as you put it?
http://www.juridice.ro/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SPen-Sent.176-ianuarie-2012-dosar-514-1-2009.pdf – as found on google. (“Şedinţa PUBLICĂ din 30 ianuarie 2012”)
Every trial in Romania is public unless a judge declares it otherwise.
Both men in the picture are criminals, albeit W has a lot more blood on his hands. Public records or not they’re both free men…