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Pentagon Propaganda May Have Been Illegal

By April 21, 2008

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It was [the Pentagon] saying, "We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,” Robert S. Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News analyst told the NY Times.... [yet he] did not share any misgivings with the American public.

The Bush Administration does not have clean hands when it comes to propaganda, so this latest news about the Pentagon's manipulation of Iraq war news by spoon-feeding talking points to military officers who in turn regurgitate on TV "news" should be no real surprise.

The fact that many said officers also had a vested monetary interest in armaments and other war contracts should raise more than eyebrows. But it won't, at least not with this White House and this press corps.

A reminder: the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act prohibits domestic dissemination of US propaganda. What you and I may think of as propaganda may not be the law, however.

That law seems to have acted only as a speedbump for the Bush/Rumsfeld Pentagon. Rolling Stone reported in 2005 that in October 2003:

[Defense Secretary Rumsfeld personally authorized the Strategic Command] to engage in "military deception" -- defined as "presenting false information, images or statements." The seventy-four-page document, titled "Information Operations Roadmap," also calls for psychological operations to be launched over radio, television, cell phones and "emerging technologies" such as the Internet. In addition to being classified secret, the road map is also stamped noforn, meaning it cannot be shared even with our allies.

Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that in February 2005, the GAO felt the need to advise federal agencies that they must clearly identify, "for the television viewing audience," when an agency was the source of a video news release.

In March 2005, the GAO questioned as "covert propaganda" video news releases produced by Bush Administration that did not include a disclaimer that the material was prepared by the government. Comptroller General David Walker:

This is more than a legal issue. It's also an ethical issue and involves important good government principles, namely the need for openness in connection with government activities and expenditures. We should not just be seeking to do what's arguably legal. We should be doing what's right.... Congress may need to provide additional guidance with regard to their intent in this overall area.

In December 2005 the Pentagon confirmed that it had paid for "news" articles to be run in Iraqi papers and that all were not properly identified as paid advertisements.

This later action would clearly be illegal had it occurred domestically. But the Smith-Mundt Act only applies to domestic communication; foreign-placed propaganda is legal. (Never mind that the availability of "news" online muddles geographic borders.)

And in July 2006, the GAO stood firm in its indictment of the Department of Education's improper contractual relationship with Armstrong Williams: "This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda."

Sometimes It's Legal
The GAO has outlined when and how government propaganda is legal.

First, Congress must explicitly appropriate funds for publicity or propaganda. One assumes the Pentagon has such a line item.

Two, the courts have indicated that it is not illegal for government agencies to spend money to advocate their positions, even on controversial issues. See Joyner v. Whiting, 477 F.2d 456, 461 (4th Cir. 1973 Donaggio v. Arlington County, Virginia, 880 F. Supp. 446, 454-56 (E.D. Va. 1995) ; Arrington v. Taylor, 380 F. Supp. 1348, 1364 (M.D. N.C. 1974). [Footnote 329, GAO report]

Sometimes It's Not
"Covert" propaganda, however, is illegal. Covert propaganda is defined as "materials such as editorials or other articles prepared by an agency or its contractors at the behest of the agency and circulated as the ostensible position of parties outside the agency."

The reason I believe that at least part of the Pentagon-uses-military-officers mess is illegal is this prohibition against "covert" propaganda. And the NYT expose outlines one instance where it appears the line of legality was crossed, for the same reason that the video news releases were illegal:

Pentagon officials helped two Fox analysts, General McInerney and General Vallely, write an opinion article for The Wall Street Journal defending Mr. Rumsfeld.

The military "analysts" did not disclose to the networks, the papers or the public that they were parroting the Bush party line or working in their defense. Instead, they were presented as "experts" -- one assumes vetted for neutrality by the networks. We're only now finding out that they were in fact paid to appear on TV, which turns them into .... what, exactly? ... (no, not that) ... a consultant? And were they paid to write op-eds as well?

Whether any laws were broken, clearly the military officers operated in a place of moral disquiet -- from the appearance of conflicts of interest to admitted failure to disclose, even when they knew that they were "carrying water" or acting like puppets (the opening quote) for the White House.

Citizen Journalist Shows More Ethics
Contrast these acts of cowardice with the Barack Obama supporter who reported the "bitter" comment.

Ms. Fowler, who graduated from Vassar in 1968 and had dabbled in writing, became a “citizen journalist” last summer when the Huffington Post started OffTheBus.net...

“I was invited to the event, I had written on fund-raisers in the past, why wouldn’t I this time?” She said the Obama campaign had never objected before to her having written about fund-raisers...

The place was jammed with others using video cams and cell phone cameras. Among them, Ms. Fowler said, was a professor who was recording the event for his students. In fact, snippets of the speech have been posted on YouTube by others who were there.

Rather than immediately write about Obama's remarks ("For the first time, I realized he is an elitist."), Fowler sat on the story because she felt it "really might damage his campaign" ... and yet "despite the criticism, she is certain that she did the right thing" when she decided journalistic ethics compelled her to write.

If you think Fowler paid no price for her infamy, think again. Go read the comments on the story.

What price will these officers have to pay? What price will the networks have to pay?

Enough Blame To Go Around
In addition to the Pentagon and the military officers, the networks deserve a black eye -- as do the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and any other media organization soliciting op-eds from these guys.

Transparency has been not the name of the game in any of the mainstream coverage of the run-up to the war or in much of its ongoing coverage. Neither the government nor the mainstream media need any new examples of behavior that erodes public trust -- and yet here we have yet another.

Is it any wonder that average Americans don't trust politicians or the media?

GAO on Covert Propaganda
Military Admits Planting News
More News About Faux News

From Around The Web:
Major revelation: U.S. media deceitfully disseminates government propaganda
Pravda, Anyone?
The War Endures, But Where's The Media?
The Man Who Sold The War

Update 1: added Rolling Stone reference


April 21, 2008 at 7:52 am
(1) Alphast says:

This is just another illustration of my comment on your post below. Any basic journalism or political science student in Europe knows about things such as governmental bias, self interests, etc. How come that all media in the USA, without any exception, have forgotten some of the basic rules of journalism?

April 21, 2008 at 12:34 pm
(2) uspolitics says:

This one I chalk up to ratings and the “FOX-ification” of television “news.” (The second is a response to the first.)

I’m biased towards print (have been for 30 years) … but recognize that there is very VERY little “hard news” on TV. The Today Show, for example, is an analog to People magazine, not to The Economist. The FOX and CNN screaming heads are talk radio with pictures — not “news” (although they somehow get treated as such).

I repeat my lament about media literacy. :-/

Watch Network and weep.

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