Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Fleecing and Flogging of Americans

Your tax dollars at work
The Cold Warriors of old were seasoned practitioners of the fine art of propaganda. But their overblown manipulation and intimidation of the media would never pass muster in today's hyper-clogged information age.

Don't get me wrong; manipulation and intimidation still occur. They just take on more subtle -- and, as a result, more insidious -- appearances.

This White House is a new master of the form, and they have found a way to pay for their deception. They are quietly picking the back pockets of U.S. taxpayers to turn around and sell Bush’s political product back to . . . U.S. taxpayers.

The tab for the fleecing and flogging of Americans comes to at least $1.6 billion. That's the amount seven Bush administration agencies spent from 2003 through mid-2005 on hundreds of contracts with advertising agencies, PR firms, and individuals, according to a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday.

The GAO report carefully itemizes this administration’s preference for pre-packaged reporting at the expense of real news and information – in a scheme to make U.S. taxpayers pay for their own deception.

The report found that White House public relations spending goes well beyond the practices of any prior administration. The contracts included $2.5 million to present the Army's strategy in the global war on terrorism; $86 million to explain the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in a bilingual ad campaign; and a $6.3 million agreement to help the Department of Homeland Security educate Americans about how to respond to terrorist attacks.

Fixing the Facts

This is not the first we’ve heard about this. Last September, GAO auditors scolded the White House for squandering American tax dollars to hire fake news reporters and unleash a pre-packaged news blitz in advance of the 2004 elections. That GAO report found the White House violated the law by hiring pundit Armstrong Williams to appear before the cameras and tout Bush’s education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, while interviewing administration officials on the air.

Your tax dollars at work
The White House continues to deny that the government's practice of feeding TV stations prepackaged fake news, which don’t disclose the government as the source, amounted to "covert propaganda."

Yesterday’s GAO finding shoots down that sophistry. "No amount of money will successfully sell the Bush Administration’s failed policies, from the war in Iraq, to its disastrous energy policy, to its confusing Medicare prescription drug benefits," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said following the release of the report. "The American people know the Bush Administration is on the wrong track and the White House PR machine won’t change that fact."

Propaganda Track Record

The question now before Congress and the Department of Justice is whether this spending merits the enforcement of long standing prohibitions against "covert propaganda." The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." The GAO has already found at least four separate occasions that Bush administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions.

A recently inserted provision into an annual spending bill would require federal agencies to include a "clear notification" within any prepackaged news story that was paid for by the government. Though this new legislation still floats somewhere between a Senate committee and the floor.

Given its track record, it’s more than likely that the White House has set other illegal propaganda efforts loose in the media mainstream. We just don’t know about them yet.

The Public Eye and Prosecutor's Sword

While the compounding evidence is damning, the GAO lacks the teeth to enforce laws against the ongoing abuse. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has final say over executive branch legal matters. And GAO and Justice Still don’t see eye to eye on covert propaganda, specifically on the issue of unidentified video news releases.

Much of this has been left to the public to do what our elected and appointed officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to stop using our money on propaganda. In October, Free Press unleashed a public campaign to do just that. In less than a month, nearly 40,000 concerned citizens signed letters to Congress and the Justice Department, urging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law."

Justice should never be delivered by popular fiat – but it's essential that our elected officials and their appointees understand that the public is watching. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to raid the public till, manipulate the Fourth Estate and turn the electorate in favor of an unpopular president.

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