Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, November 22, 2008

  Yet another White House domestic propaganda scandal

Over and over the Bush administration has been caught engaging in illegal domestic propaganda. To generate public support for the invasion of Iraq, they paid retired military officers to repeat administration talking points as pundits on TV. They paid newspaper columnists to parrot administration policy positions. They distributed free fake "news reports" to local TV and radio stations. All of it covert domestic propaganda, all of it patently illegal however much the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel doth protest.

Now we learn of another element in this propaganda machine. A former program manager at a right-wing talk radio station in Milwaukee, Dan Shelley, reveals that the Bush White House sent out propaganda daily to talk-radio contacts. That's entirely and sadly predictable, as well as illegal.

Here Shelley is speaking of two of the talk show hosts, Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner, whose programs he managed at WTMJ until he left the station in 2006. His larger point is that these conservative radio hosts rarely criticize Bush or the Republicans on air - and then only strategically (in order to maintain the appearance of independent thinking) "without appreciably harming the president or party".

Yet while talk show audiences aren’t being led like lemmings to a certain conclusion, they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.


The production and dissemination of these talking points for conservative talk radio, centralized for long periods at the White House, almost certainly used taxpayer funds and government property. Hence Bush's propaganda central would at a minimum be in violation of the Congressional prohibition against using appropriated funds for unauthorized domestic "publicity and propaganda". Since 1951, the prohibition has been attached annually as a rider to the Consolidated Appropriations Act.

"No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress."


Can there be any doubt that this is just another aspect of a broad effort by the Bush administration to use the resources of government to propagandize the American public? Even if the rider leaves some room for interpretation, the general boundaries of prohibited behavior are clear.

As explained in a March 21, 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, "publicity or propaganda" is defined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to mean either (1) self-aggrandizement by public officials, (2) purely partisan activity, or (3) "covert propaganda." By covert propaganda, GAO means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.


The dissemination of Bush administration talking points secretly to Republican talk show hosts, in the expectation that the hosts would repeat those arguments as if they were their own, meets all three GAO criteria for prohibited "publicity or propaganda". They promoted George Bush and his political views. They were an integral part of the Republican partisan machinery. And they did these things covertly rather than openly.

It is the covertness of the talking-points operation that shows most conclusively that the White House knew it was engaged in domestic propaganda. Indeed in a 2005 memo the Office of Legal Counsel noted that in 1988 it had determined that "covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties" violated the prohibition against using appropriated funds for "propaganda".

The 1988 OLC memo arose in connection to the controversy over the Reagan administration's backing of the Contras. The memo described what kind of information the government was permitted to disseminate:

[It] "can make available to private groups, upon request, printed materials that explain and justify the Administration's position on Contra aid. These materials must be items that were created in the normal course of business and not specifically produced for use by these private groups."


The OLC memo went on:

It would be unwise, however, for the Administration to solicit the media to print articles by or interviews with anyone not serving in the government. And, of course, the Administration cannot assist in the preparation of any articles or statements by private sector supporters, other than through the provision of informational materials as described in the preceding paragraph.


In supplying talking points written not in the course of normal business, but specifically to influence statements made by private-sector supporters in the media, the Bush administration has done exactly what the OLC in 1988 determined that the president may not legally do. It couldn't be clearer that the White House has engaged in illegal domestic propaganda.

For that matter, I don't believe it was only the White House that engaged in sending talking points to right-wing talk radio hosts during the last 8 years. Long time readers of Inconvenient News may recall that in July 2006 I demonstrated that Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon was sending out talking points to conservative radio talk show hosts. Specifically, I thought I could prove with a high degree of probability that the DoD was sending lists of questions/issues that the hosts should ask Rumsfeld about in upcoming on-air interviews. These included, in particular, the information that Rumsfeld wanted to be asked about a thoroughly cynical, feel-good website he'd created, AmericaSupportsYou.mil.

The Pentagon operation was a part of the Bush administration's domestic propaganda network, I was sure of it. It's no surprise, then, to find a radio talk show manager confirming that Republican hosts regularly received such guidance direct from Washington about the issues the Republican officials wanted discussed on air.

crossposted at unbossed.com

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