The administration of President George W. Bush broke the law as it
resorted to illegal "covert propaganda" in trying to sell its key
education initiative to the public, US congressional investigators have found.
The finding, made public by the Government Accountability Office, added to
a plethora of big and small ethics scandals besetting the administration and
its top Republican allies and putting them on the defensive one year before
The investigation was ordered by Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy and Frank
Lautenberg earlier this year, in the wake of reports the Education Department
had paid newspaper columnist and television commentator Armstrong Williams thousands
of dollars to help promote the No Child Left Behind Law.
The 2002 bipartisan measure established new testing requirements for public
schools designed to ensure that students achieve an acceptable level of proficiency
in reading and mathematics.
But the law came in for strong criticism from local officials and teachers'
unions, who argued it did not provide sufficient funds to implement the reforms.
Under the deal, Williams produced a series of radio and television shows as
well as wrote newspaper columns under his own name highlighting what he saw
as the benefits of the law.
But in doing so, he failed to disclose the government paid him for these activities
186,000 dollars (150,000 euros) through Ketchum Inc., a public relations firm,
according to the GAO report.
"This qualifies as the production or distribution of covert propaganda,"
said the investigative arm of Congress. "In our view, the department violated
the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders... without
requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr Williams disclosed to his audiences his
relationship with the department."
Newspaper syndicate Tribune Media Services canceled Williams' column in January.
In addition, the department placed with the firm a total of 21 orders for producing
unattributed videos showcasing the education initiative that were made to look
like normal television reports and were slated for distribution to TV networks
as bona fide news stories.
There is no word if any of these clips actually made it to the air.
Congressional investigators pointed out that under US law, "an agency
must inform the viewing public that the government is the source of the information
The report also suggested the administration may have illegally shifted nearly
38,500 dollars within its budget to pay for its propaganda campaign.
In statements that followed the GAO report, Senator Kennedy and Lautenberg
demanded the misused money be returned to the government.
"The taxpayer funded propaganda coming from the White House is
another sign of the culture of corruption that pervades the White House and
Republican leadership," argued Kennedy.
The finding comes as the Republican establishment in Washington finds itself
embroiled in a series of scandals ranging from the indictment of House majority
leader Tom DeLay on charges related to his fundraising activities to allegations
of preferential treatment of contractors helping victims of Hurricanes Katrina
Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist is facing an investigation into
a questionable stock sale, while the probe into the illegal disclosure of the
name of CIA operative Valerie Plame took a new twist, after it was revealed
that Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Richard Cheney's chief
of staff, was one of the sources of information about her.
Plame's name was leaked to the press in 2003 after her husband publicly disputed
Bush's claim that Iraq sought to buy uranium ore from Niger as part of its drive
to build nuclear weapons.