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Democrats Blast OMB Memos on ‘Propaganda’

Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) are asking the White House to repudiate administration memos released Friday that give Cabinet agencies the go-ahead to produce and publicize potentially misleading video news releases.

In a letter to President Bush on Monday, Kennedy and Lautenberg complained that, “These memoranda advise the heads of all Federal departments and agencies, as well as the general counsels of these entities, to continue to transmit covert messages to the public in the form of fake television stories.”

The Office of Management and Budget on Friday released a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel saying findings by the Government Accountability Office, which has declared VNRs illegal “propaganda,” do not govern executive department agencies. GAO is Congress’ independent investigative arm.

Though the OLC memo deals exclusively with the legality of VNRs, an accompanying OMB memo takes what appears to be a preemptory shot at a potential GAO ruling on the legality of hiring journalists to promote administration initiatives.

“Any questions concerning the circumstances in which a department or agency may enter into a specific contract with members of the news media, for consulting or other services, should be directed to the general counsel of that department or agency,” wrote OMB Director Joshua Bolton in the March 11 memo to heads of departments and agencies.

After a scandal erupted earlier this year over the fact that the Education Department paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill, GAO decided to look into whether paying journalists also violates the prohibition against using federal dollars for “publicity and propaganda.”

OMB’s advice to department heads appears to contradict Bush’s own stated goal of ending the practice of hiring journalists.

“I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward. There needs to be independence. And Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn’t know about this in the White House, and there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press,” Bush said at a Jan. 26 news briefing.

OMB spokesman Noam Neusner said the memo primarily relates to the issue of VNRs and the administration’s obligation to make information on government programs available to the public.

“What I think the president said is that the work of the government ought to stand on it’s own two feet,” said Neusner. “What the administration is making clear is that there’s a distinction between advocacy and information.”

Kennedy and Lautenberg were among those initially requesting that GAO look into both the Williams case and whether video news releases on the new Medicare drug benefit violated federal law prohibiting appropriations from being used for publicity or propaganda purposes. The GAO found that because some news organizations ran the VNRs without identifying the source as the government, the Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for disseminating “covert propaganda.”

“OLC does not agree with GAO that the ‘covert propaganda’ prohibition applies simply because an agency’s role in producing and disseminating information is undisclosed or ‘covert,’ regardless of whether the content of message is ‘propaganda,’” wrote Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general. “Our view is that the prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint, and therefore it does not apply to the legitimate provision of information concerning the programs administered by an agency.”

The OLC memo was written in response to a Feb. 15, 2005, memo from GAO Comptroller General David Walker that was distributed to executive agencies. The memo warned Cabinet and agency heads of “the constraints imposed by the publicity and propaganda prohibition on the use of prepackaged news stories and to advise vigilance to assure that agencies’ activities comply with the prohibition.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the administration’s decision to continue using video news releases Monday.

“Many federal agencies have used this for quite some time as an informational tool to provide factual information to the American people,” said McClellan at a news conference. “My understanding is that when these informational releases are sent out that it’s very clear to the TV stations where they are coming from.”

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