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Democrats Slam Bush On ‘Propaganda’ Efforts

Seek Accounting of Funds to Journalists

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and two Democratic colleagues asked President Bush on Friday to recoup the nearly $240,000 the Education Department paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams for promoting the administration’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind.

Citing current law and legal opinions that prohibit the government from engaging in “covert propaganda,” Reid and Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) contended that the Education Department’s contract with Williams might have been illegal.

Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and four other House Democrats wrote a letter to Bush asking him to “publicly renounce the use of covert propaganda to influence public opinion” and requesting that he direct all department and agencies to give Congress documentation on any similar efforts to promote the administration’s policies.

USA Today first reported Williams’ work for the Education Department on Friday. According to news reports, Williams was paid to promote No Child Left Behind on his syndicated television show and to recommend that other African-American journalists do the same.

The Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, is already looking into a $1 million contract the Education Department had with Ketchum, a public relations firm hired to promote the 2001 education law. Williams’ deal was part of that contract, according to reports.

A Lautenberg aide said Democrats plan to contact GAO to make sure that the investigation will include an analysis of whether Williams’ contract was legal.

The GAO’s investigation already includes a probe into Ketchum’s production of a video news release on No Child Left Behind and their compilation of a list of journalists ranked favorably or unfavorably based on their coverage of the law. The GAO only issues legal opinions and does not have the power to enforce laws.

In a separate case last year, GAO ruled that video news releases produced by the Health and Human Services Department to promote the Medicare prescription drug law violated an appropriations law that prohibits spending federal tax dollars on “publicity or propaganda.” The GAO, in various rulings, has interpreted the law to prohibit what it calls “covert propaganda.”

Reid, Kennedy and Lautenberg said in their letter to Bush that they believe Williams’ secret contract to promote No Child Left Behind clearly runs afoul of the law, because the GAO has ruled that any government-sponsored message that does not explicitly say it comes from the government is covert propaganda.

“In addition to recovering [the funds paid to Williams] we would urge you to disclose if any other journalists have been paid by your administration to skew their media reports in favor of your initiatives, proposals, or political messages,” the Senators wrote. “For example, have any journalists or media organizations been paid by your administration to promote your Social Security privatization plan or otherwise promote the idea of a ‘crisis’ in Social Security?”

The Senators also accused Bush of “bribing journalists” and compared the practice to tactics used in the former Soviet Union.

Pelosi’s letter — which was also signed by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), David Obey (D-Wis.), George Miller (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — said the Williams revelation appears to show that the Bush administration has engaged in a pattern of using of covert propaganda, including the HHS videos and newly discovered Office of National Drug Control Policy video news releases.

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