When a government report on working conditions in Central America disagreed with official Bush Administration talking points, the administration was faced with a tough choice.
Should it re-evaluate its talking points, even if it hurt the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)? Or should it squash the report, discredit its findings and push forward with the agreement — facts be damned.
If you’re a regular reader of JABBS, you already know the answer. This administration has never let the facts get in the way of a good talking point.
The Labor Department hired International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) in 2002 to report on working conditions in Central America. ILRF concluded that countries proposed for free-trade status have poor working environments and fail to protect workers’ rights.
“In practice, labor laws on the books in Central America are not sufficient to deter employers from violations, as actual sanctions for violations of the law are weak or nonexistent,” the ILRF concluded.
But that didn’t fit in with the official White House spin. So the Labor Department kept the reports a secret for more than a year, and when they became known, dismissed the conclusions as inaccurate and biased.
The Senate Finance Committee, which approved the agreement by a voice vote June 29, sent it to the full Senate for consideration today. The committee was not given full access to the final version of the ILRF reports.
According to the Associated Press, beginning in the spring of 2004, the department moved to block public release of reports for the countries covered by CAFTA — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
ILRF briefly posted its reports on its Internet site, before the department instructed it to remove the reports, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told the contractor it could not discuss the studies with outsiders.
Shortly after that incident, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), began a yearlong effort to pry the studies from the department through a Freedom of Information Act request. The department rejected his request until two months ago, when Levin received — and released — early drafts of the reports.
After information about the reports surfaced last year, the Bush Administration began a pre-emptive campaign to undercut the study’s conclusions.
Used as talking points by trade-pact supporters, a Labor Department document uncovered by the AP accuses the contractor of writing a report filled with “unsubstantiated” statements and “biased attacks, not the facts.”
The department also demanded a partial refund — $250,000 of a $937,000 contract — from ILRF, serving to further discredit the group.
One lawmaker said he was shocked that a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of Americans workers would go to such lengths to block the public from seeing its own contractor’s concerns before Congress votes on the agreement.
“You would think if any agency in our government would care about this, it would be the Labor Department,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) told the AP.
Is the report “unsubstantiated” and “biased attacks, not the facts”? Who knows. But what the administration did is nothing short of propaganda. Congress should have had access to the reports before voting on CAFTA. Let ILRF defend itself against blistering attacks from CAFTA supporters. Let a true debate take place.
Instead, it’s typical “my way or the highway,” for the Bush Administration. Are working conditions in Central America sufficient to allow for CAFTA. The Bush Administration says yes, and it’s not interested in anyone who says no. That’s not the way to run a government.
This article first appeared on Journalists Against Bush’s B.S. (JABBS)Powered by Sidelines