Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, April 26, 2007

  Do White House attacks on Sen. Reid violate the law?

The repeated and vociferous attacks upon Senator Harry Reid during the last month demonstrate, if nothing else, that the White House fears him and worries that Reid will succeed in fashioning a solid consensus in the Senate for limitations upon or a reversal of George Bush's nutty and unpopular Iraq policy.

Last week I happened upon what are, in a sense, the most outlandish attacks of all—because they are posted at the White House website. I wish more Americans knew about these. They put the back-and-forth between Reid and the White House in needed perspective. But even more, they suggest to me that the Bush administration has violated federal law in trying to demonize Harry Reid. That puts a much more serious cast on the face of the debate.


You're surely aware that the Bush administration has politicized virtually every aspect of governance, from gutting the Interior Department's enforcement of regulations, to suppressing scientific findings and doctoring publications, to spying upon peace-activists, to firing US Attorneys who dared to investigate Republicans.

"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," says [John] DiIulio. "What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Their world begins and ends with politics, where winning is everything and federal law counts as a weapon for, never as an impediment to, political success.

Today, for example, we learned that in the last three election years (2002, 2004, and 2006) political operatives working under Karl Rove in the Bush White House have given 20 briefings to federal agencies. These were attended by hundreds of federal employees. These appear to be part of a systematic violation of the Hatch Act by the Bush administration.

White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.

The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.

I can't say that it came as a surprise, then, to find that the Bush administration is carrying its political dispute with the Democrats in Congress to seemingly illegal extremes. The following are the facts, and I urge you to read the documents in their entirety. Also, if you've never done so, explore the White House "News" page and consider whether these documents really belong there amongst the other, actual, news items.


On three separate occasions during April, in an astonishing display of partisanship and outright nastiness, the White House website posted on its "News" page exceptionally sarcastic documents attacking Harry Reid's expressed views about Iraq.

(1) Most recently, there is this post from April 23:

Reid vs. Reid: A State Of Confusion

This document includes the frequent refrain: "IN CASE SEN. REID MISSED IT" In fact, that is the very title given to the document at the White House propaganda page, "Setting the Record Straight": "In Case Sen. Reid Missed It: Reid vs. Reid: A State Of Confusion"

The document begins by quoting Bush's spokeswoman, Dana Perino, commenting dismissively on Reid's views and implying that his political disagreements with the President amount to a mental defect:

"Sen. Reid seems to be in a state of confusion. Today, he said the President 'ignored' the Iraq Study Group by sending more troops to secure Baghdad when the Iraq Study Group report said it would support this step. Sen. Reid also called for a regional conference when one is already set to begin in days, called for emphasizing political reconciliation in Iraq when the Senate's own bill cuts $243 million vital for political reconciliation, and said his meetings with the President are unproductive despite characterizing his discussion with the President last Wednesday as a 'good exchange' minutes after the meeting concluded."

The rest of the document is devoted to cherry-picking evidence so as to suggest that Perino's statement is based upon fact, rather than a hyperbolic and selective (mis)interpretation of Reid's views. For example, it quotes the Iraq Study Group's statement that it could support a "short-term" surge in Iraq for a few purposes. It neglects to mention, however, that Bush has refused to state that the "surge" will be short-term; if anything, he's made it clear that he won't accept any terminal date. More could be said about the disingenuousness of the WH on this and other points it tries to score against Reid in this document, but the whole operation is pretty transparently flimsy.

The point of the document is either (taking the dripping sarcasm at face value) to demonstrate that Reid is ignorant of facts; or else to savage his reputation, undermine his political standing, or shatter Democratic unity on the issue of Iraq.

(2) Three days earlier, from April 20, this was posted:

Sen. Reid's Inconsistent And Conflicting Statements

This document, oddly, is excluded from the propaganda page, "Setting the Record Straight".

Anyhow, it too is grossly disingenuous. It again uses a statement by Perino as a pretext for savaging Reid:

"Yesterday, Sen. Reid said the war 'is lost.' Today, Sen. Reid has tried to back off from that egregious comment using smoke and mirrors. It's impossible to figure out where the Democrats stand and there's no telling what Sen. Reid will say tomorrow."

All three sentences are outlandish. The first sentence is deliberately misleading. Here is what Harry Reid actually said.

"The (Iraq) war can only be won diplomatically, politically and economically, and the president needs to come to that realization," Reid said in a news conference.

Later Thursday on the Senate floor, Reid said: "As long as we follow the president's path in Iraq, the war is lost. But there is still a chance to change course -- and we must change course." The war funding bill should contain a timeline to "reduce combat missions and refocus our efforts on the real threats to our security," he said.

The April 20 document nowhere quotes Reid's actual statement. Instead, it proceeds to attack Reid for allegedly stating that the war "is lost", as if the verb "is" were not conditional. (In languages other than English, the form of the verb would have made it clear that the verb is being used conditionally.)

Thus the charge in the second sentence from Perino is demonstrably false; Reid was not trying to "back off" from a statement he did not make.

Perino's third sentence is merely an opinion, and a sarcastic one that is predicated upon a deliberate distortion of what Reid said. And yet it is the theme that unifies the rest of the document presented on the WH "News" page. The document presents Reid as "inconsistent", in contrast to George Bush who we are told is "consistent".

Again, there is no "news" being presented here. The point of the document is to savage Reid's reputation, undermine his political standing, or shatter Democratic unity on the issue of Iraq.

(3) And there's this document from April 3:

Sen. Reid's Misleading Comments About Iraq Funding

This heavily politicized document is broadly similar to the other two already described. I'll highlight only the opening salvo from Perino, which provides the excuse for savaging Reid and the Congressional Democrats:

"Instead of listening to the Democratic Party's extreme fringe, Sen. Reid should listen to the Generals who have made clear the consequences facing our military if Democrats in Congress continue to play politics instead of passing an emergency troops funding bill the President can sign."

This, the first of the special attacks on Reid, is perhaps the most blatantly political. It's clear from this document in particular that these screeds are directed not merely at undermining Sen. Reid personally, but more generally at the Democratic opposition in Congress.


A few points about this flurry of attacks on Sen. Reid and the Democrats:

(a) Although this is not the first time the WH propaganda page has singled out Congressional Democrats for criticism, the frequency and the mocking hostility in these three attacks are nearly unprecedented. Except for a few ill-advised things posted in 2005, the WH propaganda page has (thankfully) steered clear of personal invective against members of Congress, concentrating instead on rebutting news reports, and demonizing reporters, the WH doesn't care for.

It has always been a foul and repulsive operation, reminiscent of Nixon at his worst. But this month, the WH propaganda page got that much worse.

Now, suddenly, it is being used to ridicule the Senate Majority Leader. This is grossly undignified and inappropriate. I think the American people would side even more readily with Sen. Reid in his standoff with Bush, if they knew that the WH has initiated a series of attacks upon him on line.

(b) These posts at the WH website appear to violate federal law, as well as common sense and decorum.

First of all, since 1952 Congress has attached riders to appropriation bills prohibiting any money from being spent on domestic publicity and propaganda. That is exactly what these three documents are, and since they are being hosted on a website paid for by taxpayers, every day that they remain on the site they are in violation of the "publicity and propaganda" provisions of appropriations bills.

These three documents are in no sense "news". They represent opinions that the WH wishes Americans to adopt. In so far as there are facts and quotations being conveyed in these posts, relatively few of them concern the activities of anybody in the Executive Branch. They are aimed at providing negative "publicity" to Sen. Reid and the Congressional Democrats.

Secondly, the documents in question might violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits inter alia the use of government resources, including computers, for political activities. As the Office of Special Counsel states, federal employees may not...

engage in political activity a government office

The three posts are nothing if not part of a political campaign by the White House, particularly given that this administration has transformed governance into a permanent political campaign.

To repeat, the documents do not convey "news" about the President or other members of the Executive Branch. Their purpose is clearly to undermine political support for Democrats and for the leader of the opposition in the Senate.

This is politicking, using the WH website. That, it seems to me, could well be a violation of the Hatch Act. I'm pretty sure that the American public would reject it.

crossposted from Unbossed

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