Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, will release a report today that claims that the Obama administration has created propaganda using federal funds to promote the agenda of Barack Obama and the Democrats. The charges would violate laws intended to separate politics from governance, which if substantiated would create a big problem for President Obama — assuming Congress wants to take this up as an issue. The report’s summary lays out the charges clearly:
Since the beginning of the Obama Administration on January 20, 2009, ordinary Americans have financed and been exposed to an unprecedented number of public relations and propaganda efforts. Federal spending for public relations contracts rose to historically-high levels during the Bush Administration. Under one-party rule in 2009, the White House used the machinery of the Obama campaign to tout the President’s agenda through inappropriate and sometimes unlawful public relations and propaganda initiatives. Congress buoyed the Administration’s propaganda efforts by increasing federal spending on public relations for the first time since 2005.
The Obama Administration frequently used federal resources to promote the President’s agenda. In many cases, the Administration relied on the reach and resources of federal agencies and their personnel to promote certain of the President’s favorite programs. The White House also leveraged ties to the arts and entertainment community to embed propaganda in the content of television programming and artwork. These propaganda efforts violated appropriations riders and federal law prohibiting the use of appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda purposes.
The White House also used its inherent visibility advantages to multiply the effectiveness of websites containing misleading and controversial information. The White House used its resources to push visitors to websites that urge grassroots activism based on false and misleading information. The President’s right to sell his policy recommendations to Congress and the public is not disputed; however, using the resources of the federal government to activate a sophisticated propaganda and lobbying campaign is an abuse of office and a betrayal of the President’s pledge to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”
Instead of facilitating openness, the public relations and propaganda activities of the White House have had precisely the opposite effect. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has historically deemed activities involving “covert propaganda” to be unlawful. In those cases, the source of the public relations or propaganda materials did not disclose his or her identity as a federal employee or contractor. Many of the Obama Administration’s propaganda activities are unlawful because they are covert. Furthermore, several programs closely resemble those decried by Democrats and ruled unlawful by GAO during the Bush Administration.
This report examines several of the most visible public relations and propaganda efforts during the first year of the Obama Administration. Viewed collectively, these activities reveal an Administration better suited to campaign-style self-promotion than to providing transparent and honest leadership.
Issa’s report looks at past propaganda from Republican and Democratic administrations, including those of Ronald Reagan, FDR, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and concludes that the scope of Obama’s efforts far outstrip anything seen in modern administrations. He starts with the NEA controversy, which blew up last year and ended with Yosi Sargent’s resignation as NEA Communications Director. But Issa doesn’t stop there; he also specifies charges of propaganda from the Department of Justice:
In October 2008, the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) added Tracy Russo to direct the Department’s “new media efforts.” Russo, the Chief Blogger and Deputy Director of Online Communications for the John Edwards for President Campaign,58 was given the title “New Media Specialist.”59 Since October, Russo has served as the author of the Justice Department’s official blog.60
Shortly after Russo was hired, reports surfaced that indicated she was covertly attempting to shape public opinion by searching online for articles, blogs or other entries critical of the Administration and then anonymously, or through the use of a pseudonym, posting comments to those sites attacking the author or contents.61
The blogging and campaign communities refer to this propaganda tactic as “astroturfing.”62 Astroturfing is the action of using fake and anonymous postings on message boards and blogs to push a point of view or to create the appearance of grassroots support for a particular agenda.63
On that score, the problem may be more of a waste of taxpayer funds than propaganda, although clearly this would qualify as both. Bloggers and blog readers know what a ridiculous exercise this would be in any event. It would have been better to build relationships with sympathetic bloggers and feed them information for rebuttals rather than spend time entering comments that front-page-only readers would be unlikely to ever read.
Issa also specifies an effort at the Department of Education to turn DoE workers into shills for the White House:
On the morning of April 24, 2009, U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch distributed an e-mail to colleagues notifying them of President Obama’s intention to promote his Direct Loan student financial aid program during a meeting later that day. Ritsch explained the rationale for the President’s timing by noting that Congress was beginning to work to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the Fiscal Year 2010 Concurrent Budget Resolution.
The stated purpose of the e-mail was to help recipients “communicate the merits of the President’s proposal with your members and other audiences….” To help recipients do so, Ritsch attached a two-page white paper to the body of the e-mail message. The document included promotional information highlighting DoEd’s reasons for supporting the President’s plan.
Ritsch’s “colleagues,” to whom the message was sent, are not identified. The information provided to them by Ritsch includes eight bullet points, each touting the President’s direct federal student loan plan. Ritsch tells recipients to tell their “members and other audiences” that the President is “trying to eliminate a wasteful program that only benefits the banking industry” and that the President’s plan “will help the middle class, stimulate our economy over the long term and provide an appropriately trained workforce for essential public-service industries.”
That wasn’t entirely unusual for this administration, Issa claims, because the Obama White House has repeatedly attempted to use its connection to the federal bureaucracy in an attempt to transform them into political activists for Obama’s big-government agenda:
In March 2010, media reports surfaced that revealed White House Office for Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle sent overtly partisan, unsolicited health reform e-mails to career civil servants in Executive Branch agencies. The DeParle e-mails were not transmitted by the ordinary official White House staff e-mail handle “who.eop.gov” but through the mass mailing handle “messages.whitehouse.gov.”
At least three emails were objectionable: 1) an e-mail dated March 11, 2010 that begins with the line: “625 – that’s the number who lost health insurance every hour in 2009;” 2) an e-mail dated March 12, 2010 railing against the perils of “do[ing] nothing to reform our broken health care system;” and 3) a March 16, 2010, e-mail subject line: “There but for the grace of God go any one of us.”66
These e-mails implored recipients to “help raise awareness by sharing this e-mail with your friends, family and online networks.”67 According to one report posted online by CBS News.com, several career federal employees at the U.S. Department of State received these e-mails and believed they required them to take some sort of action to further the President’s agenda.68 DeParle’s e-mails featured raw partisan rhetoric in an apparent attempt to stoke the fears of recipients.
Bob Owens at Pajamas Media notes that the worst of it comes from the use of Obama’s campaign website for official business:
The worst abuse of propaganda is directly connected to the White House. BarackObama.com, run by the Democratic National Committee, has been featured during the president’s speeches. It has been used by the administration and the DNC as a mechanism to lobby Congress, again apparently illegally, and to use the president’s high profile to solicit funds for the DNC as part of what has been mocked by some as the president’s “permanent campaign.” Additional efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama, detailed in the report’s reporting on the “iParticipate” initiative, find that the administration skirted the Hatch Act and and federal anti-lobbying laws by using Mrs. Obama to support the presidents social and health care agendas with $240 million worth of free advertising.
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s report contains enough information to warrant an official investigation of inappropriate and sometimes unlawful use of propaganda by the Obama administration. A committee spokesman indicates that they will be requesting a GAO investigation of the report’s findings.
Democrats could block that request — but probably not for long. If the Democrats lose control of the House, Issa will hold the chair of the Oversight Committee and will have subpoena power. He then will also have the ability to ask for a formal GAO investigation of the White House’s activities in politicking rather than governing, and that will put a dent in Obama’s allegedly-illegal reach for his re-election campaign. It’s one of the ways that losing these midterms will mean difficult days ahead for this administration, which will be entirely self-inflicted.