September 30, 2005
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - Federal auditors said today that the Bush administration had violated the law by purchasing favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.
In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated "covert propaganda" inside theUnited States, in violation of a longstanding, explicit statutory ban.
The contract with Mr. Williams and the general contours of the administration's public relations campaign had been known for months. The report today provided the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities.
Lawyers from the G.A.O., an independent nonpartisan arm of Congress, found that the Bush administration had systematically analyzed news articles to see if they carried the message, "The Bush administration/the G.O.P. is committed to education."
The auditors declared: "We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds."
The G.A.O. also assailed the Education Department for telling Ketchum Inc., a large public relations company, to pay Mr. Williams for newspaper columns and television appearances praising Mr. Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.
When that arrangement became publicly known, it set off widespread criticism. At a news conference in January, Mr. Bush said: "We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
But more recently the Education Department defended its payments to Mr. Williams, saying his commentaries were "no more than the legitimate dissemination of information to the public."
The G.A.O. said the Education Department had no money or authority to "procure favorable commentary in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition" in federal law.
In the course of its work, the accountability office discovered a previously undisclosed instance in which the Education Department had commissioned a newspaper article. The article, on the "declining science literacy of students," was distributed by the North American Precis Syndicate and appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country. Readers were not informed of the government's role in writing of the article.
The auditors also denounced a prepackaged television news story disseminated by the Education Department. The news segment, a "video news release" narrated by a woman named Karen Ryan, said that President Bush's program for providing remedial instruction and tutoring to children "gets an A-plus."
Ms. Ryan also narrated two videos praising the new Medicare drug benefit last year. In those segments, as in the education video, the narrator ended by saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
The prepackaged television news segments on education and on Medicare did not inform the audience that they had been prepared and distributed by the government.
The public relations efforts by the Education Department came to light a few weeks before Margaret Spellings was sworn in as secretary in January. SA spokeswoman for the secretary, Susan Aspey, said Ms. Spellings regarded the efforts as "stupid, wrong and ill-advised." She said Ms. Spellings had adopted procedures "to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."
The investigation by the Government Accountability Office was requested by Senators Frank R. Lautenberg ofNew Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats.
Mr. Lautenberg expressed concern about a section of the G.A.O. report in which federal investigators said they could not find records to confirm that Mr. Williams had performed all the activities for which he billed the government.
The Education Department said it had paid Ketchum $186,000 for services performed by Mr. Williams's company. But it could not provide transcripts of speeches, copies of articles or records of other services performed by Mr. Williams, the G.A.O. said.
In March, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel said that federal agencies did not have to acknowledge their role in producing television news segments if they were purely factual. The inspector general of the Education Department reiterated that position earlier this month.
But the Government Accountability Office said today: "The failure of an agency to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information. The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual. The essential fact of attribution is missing."
The G.A.O. said that Mr. Williams's work for the government resulted from a written proposal that he submitted to the Education Department in March 2003. The department directed Ketchum to use Mr. Williams as a regular commentator on Mr. Bush's education policies. Ketchum had a federal contract to help publicize the law, signed by Mr. Bush in 2002.
The Education Department flouted the law by telling Ketchum to use Mr. Williams to "convey a message to the public on behalf of the government, without disclosing to the public that the messengers were acting on the government's behalf and in return for the payment of public funds," the G.A.O. said.
The Education Department spent $38,421 for production and distribution of the video news release and $96,850 for
the evaluation of newspaper articles and radio and television programs. Ketchum assigned a score to each article, indicating how frequently and favorably it mentioned specific features of the new education law.
Congress tried to clarify the ban on "covert propaganda" in a spending bill signed by Mr. Bush in May. The law says that no federal money can be used to produce or distribute a prepackaged news story unless the government's role is openly acknowledged. Congress said the law "confirms the opinion of the G.A.O." on this issue.