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The Department of Secret Propaganda

The Bush administration, apparently not satisfied with the usual methods of manipulating news coverage, has been caught paying a prominent journalist to support its views and sending out fake video news segments posing as real news.

On Jan. 8, The Washington Post described how the U.S. Department of Education paid prominent black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to promote the administration’s No Child Left Behind law. The contract called for Armstrong to comment favorably on the law in his broadcasts and to use his contacts with African-American news producers to get favorable coverage of the law.

Armstrong has his own radio show, "The Right Side," appears frequently on CNN and other TV outlets, and has (until recently) had a syndicated column carried by Chicago-based Tribune Media Services. But that company dropped his column when it learned that Armstrong had been paid by a federal agency to promote its agenda.

And on Jan. 7, The Post also revealed that the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy has been sending out video news releases that look like television news segments and which at least 300 local TV stations have used. The segments have an announcer posing as a journalist, and many stations are believed to have used them without ever identifying them as coming from the government.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, said the news releases were illegal "covert propaganda." This latest abuse comes after many similar incidents. Last spring, the GAO criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for putting out similar fake news reports promoting the government’s new Medicare drug benefit.

"What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment," explained GAO official Susan Poling.

 

Posted 01-10-2005 2:21 PM EDT

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Let's Not Talk About Missile Defense

Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan promised the nation a high-tech shield against missile attacks. The White House called the plan the Strategic Defense Initiative; critics called it Star Wars and said it was an impossible dream.

Twenty-two years later, America still has no missile shield and the U.S. Department of Defense is doing its best to keep the truth about it from the public. In 2000, the Pentagon’s Department of Operational Testing and Evaluation put out a report that was highly critical of U.S. efforts to assemble a national missile defense system. The report was discussed in public hearings and reported on in the media.

Three years later, the DoD classified the document, without offering any justification - even though the substance of it was well known. The Washington watchdog organization, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), is doing its best to fight the Pentagon’s retroactive classification. It is asking people to write Rumsfeld protesting the classification, and has posted details on how to do that. POGO states that the secrecy move is most likely an attempt to stifle debate on the expensive missile defense program, which had another test failure Dec. 15.

 

 

 

Posted 12-27-2004 5:39 PM EDT

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A Ray of Sunshine on Classified Documents?

The National Intelligence Reform Act passed by Congress on Dec. 8 does create a new "director of national intelligence" position - and that’s what has gotten most of the media attention. But it does other things as well.

From the perspective of Americans worried about too much government secrecy, the law also contains a bit of good news: It creates a Public Interest Declassification Board, a body members of Congress can appeal to when they feel federal agencies are classifying too much information in the name of national security.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pushed for the new board, partly as a response to a controversy over how much of a scathing congressional report on CIA assessments of Iraq could be made public. The CIA wanted to classify more than half of the report, but members of Congress got that down to 20 percent.

Last year alone, the U.S. government spent $6.5 billion creating 14.3 million new classified documents, according to a statement from Wyden’s office

The board will have nine members - five appointed by the president and four appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress. The Associated Press report on creation of the board is based on Wyden’s statement.

The intelligence act also tries to inject a bit of civil liberties awareness into the Department of Homeland Security. It adds the protection of civil liberties and civil rights to the department’s mission statement, and creates a new position to protect civil liberties and civil rights in the DHS office of the inspector general.

 

Posted 12-13-2004 12:22 PM EDT

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How to Say "No to Secrecy" in Indonesian

Fred Burks, a valued State Department interpreter for 18 years, has quit his job rather than sign a secrecy agreement. Burks, who has interpreted for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post he had quit in protest over growing government secrecy demands.

A contract interpreter, Burks had never been required to sign a secrecy agreement until last month. When the State Department told him he would have to sign a new contract in which he would promise not to reveal any information he learned in his government service, he just refused. And since he never did sign such an agreement, he has been able to tell his story to any media that will listen.

Burks was valued by the State Department because he was qualified in two difficult languages, Mandarin and Indonesian. He says he is one of three American interpreters qualified at the highest level in Indonesian.

An interesting side note: When Burks interpreted for Bush at a 2001 meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarno, he told The Post, "Bush displayed such a detailed grasp of Indonesian issues at the meeting that he came away thinking the president must have been fed information through a hidden earpiece." Reminds us of a presidential debate we watched not long ago . . . .

Posted 12-09-2004 6:24 PM EDT

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Compromise Proposed on Cheney Energy Task Force

Open-government advocates launched a new initiative Nov. 30 in the long-running battle legal battle over Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. The nonprofit National Security Archive, along with several library, journalist and public interest organizations, filed a brief that points to a compromise solution that would reveal some information about the task force but allow the task force records to remain confidential.

The task force was one of the earliest, and most hotly contested, secrecy moves of the Bush administration. Assembled shortly after Bush and Cheney took office in 2001, the task force met secretly with industry lobbyists and executives to formulate a national energy strategy that was very friendly to business and ignored environmental concerns.

For more than two years, the conservative group Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club have been trying to gain access to the task force records. They believe that keeping the records secret violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Critics also believe that the task force met with energy industry lobbyists while excluding environmental, consumer and public interest input - which biased the task force’s recommendations.

While the Bush administration has lost several rounds in the courts, it has kept filing appeals. One result: The records were still locked up during the fall presidential campaign. The case is now awaiting a second hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The controversy has been covered extensively in this blog.

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit that makes public previously secret government materials, and its allies have filed an amicus curiae brief in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. They recommend that the parties work out a compromise that would accommodate the competing interests in the case. The compromise would set up a "Cheney log" providing enough information so that outsiders could tell whether non-government persons participated in the task force. That in turn determines whether the Federal Advisory Committee Act applies.

Posted 12-03-2004 11:16 AM EDT

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