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Darrell Issa Blasts the Propaganda Presidency, Accuses Administration of Abuse of Office

Darrell Issa (R-CA), ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Judiciary Committee, has issued a 37-page report (PDF) that accuses the White House of “an unprecedented number of public relations and propaganda efforts,” including efforts that the committee found to be inappropriate or illegal.

Executive branch agencies cited in the propaganda efforts include the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of Transportation, and the White House itself. The report also criticizes the White House for using the reach of the executive branch to funnel citizens to a website owned and operated by the Democratic National Committee.

According to the executive summary of the report:

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.”

Formally titled “Analysis of the First Year of the Obama Administration: Public Relations and Propaganda Initiatives,” the report accuses the administration of two basic types of propaganda to push the president’s agenda:

  • Misusing the resources of federal agencies to publicize the president’s agenda; and,
  • Multiplying traffic to websites containing propaganda by capitalizing on the visibility of the president and pre-existing campaign relationships.

One of the more shocking abuses listed in the report is the Department of Justice’s hiring of a liberal blogger, apparently with the express intention of attacking conservative bloggers.

Tracy Russo, former campaign blogger for John Edwards, was hired by the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) to direct its “new media efforts.” The report notes that these efforts include Russo searching online for news items and blog entries critical of the president’s agenda, and then attacking the author or contents either anonymously or through a pseudonym. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Ranking Member Issa and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith sent a letter in October of 2009 to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation of Russo’s apparently unlawful actions. Neither Holder nor the Department of Justice has responded to the congressional inquiry. Russo continues to post on the DOJ’s official blog. It is not known if she still continues to anonymously “troll” blogs and articles critical of the administration on the taxpayers’ payroll.

Some of the report’s other findings mention other administration actions that previously have been criticized, such as the White House’s attempt to leverage artists who receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) into creating propaganda to serve the president’s “United We Serve” agenda. The report states that using taxpayer dollars and federal employees to turn the NEA into a “de facto strategic communications firm” to forward the president’s agenda is unlawful. Though contacted by the committee for comment in September of last year, the White House has not responded to queries about how and why the conference calls organizing the effort came about.

Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch is accused of using an email blast to generate “astroturfed” support for the president’s direct student loan program in an illegal attempt to influence congressional voting.

In March of this year, White House Office Director of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle sent at least three partisan emails through the “messages.whitehouse.gov” mail handler to federal employees touting ObamaCare. This created the appearance that the White House expected career federal employees to push the president’s partisan agenda. Once again, the committee’s attempt to gather more information about DeParle’s apparent violation of criminal law has been met with a wall of silence by the White House.

In a reprise of the Bush-era Armstrong Williams scandal, the Department of Health and Human Services paid MIT health care economist Jonathan Gruber almost $400,000 as a contractor in two jobs. While employed by the DHHS, he wrote multiple editorials promoting ObamaCare and did interviews with national news outlets, never disclosing that he was under contract to an executive branch department. Further, the White House allowed him to testify in front of two Senate committees in support of ObamaCare, and White House Budget Director Peter Orszag used a letter from Gruber in his testimony in support of ObamaCare.

In a separate DHHS scandal, the DHHS website directed visitors to http://www.healthreform.gov to lobby Congress for ObamaCare. The site asked visitors for contact information to send form letters to Congress (which is illegal), and the committee assumes that the personal data collected has been harvested and saved into a database for use by the White House and the DHHS in support of future propaganda efforts.

The most recent DHHS-related abuse is the  cable television ad by retired actor Andy Griffith touting both Medicare and ObamaCare:

This year, as always, we’ll have our guaranteed [Medicare] benefits. And with the new healthcare law, more good things are coming. Free check-ups, lower prescription costs and better ways to protect us and Medicare from fraud. … I think you’re gonna like it.

The DHHS paid for the ad, which cost $700,000. It was also featured on both the DHHS and White House websites. The commitee notes that the ad “was designed to affect general elections by convincing seniors to support one of the Democrats’ major legislative initiatives,” and is therefore unlawful.

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden have touted Recovery.gov, a site Biden was publicly charged with creating, as evidence that the administration’s stimulus efforts have been successful — in effect, asking the public to ask them how well they think they are doing their jobs. Interestingly enough, the economic figures touted on the site and referred to by the administration have been revealed to be fraudulent. Once called upon the suspect numbers, Recovery.gov merely changed their criteria so that they would not be responsible for disclosing the fraudulent data. The committee concludes: “[W]asting those dollars by promoting false or misleading information is an abuse of the resources at the disposal of the White House and a betrayal of public trust.”

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.

It remains to be seen if the report will be picked up by the mainstream media or if it will otherwise raise public awareness of how the Obama administration is spending taxpayer money on self-aggrandizing propaganda efforts during the current recession. It also remains to be seen if the report and any subsequent investigations will curtail these abuses.