Covert propaganda

Covert propaganda refers to media materials prepared by a government agency and then disseminated by a non-government outlet with the source undisclosed.[1] What defines covert propaganda materials is that they are “misleading as to their origin.”[2] The source must be intentionally misleading, however, and not just due to administrative carelessness. The agency in question must desire that its authorship be obscured, and it must take steps to ensure that obscurity. “A critical element of covert propaganda,” reads a Government Accountability Office opinion, “is the concealment of the agency's role in sponsoring such material.”[3] The prohibition also applies to communications prepared by private contractors at the behest of a government agency.[4] Covert propaganda does not include messages and materials published by government whistleblowers.[5]

The GAO has expressed deference to agency materials that might be seen as covert. For example, Federal Trade Commission material advocating Postal Service deregulation, in which the agency was clearly identified as the producer, was not covert propaganda.[6] Advertisements produced and disseminated by the Department of Health and Human Services in support of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 were not covert propaganda because they identified HHS as the source.[7] A document published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) condemning proposals for marijuana legalization, although it did not itself identify its source, was not covert propaganda because it was distributed along with other materials in which ONDCP was identified.[8] A brochure produced by the U.S. Forest Service in support of a new resource management plan in Sierra Nevada was not covert propaganda because the emblem and name of the agency were displayed on the brochures.[9]

One of the first adjudicated violations of the covert propaganda prohibition was the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) effort to distribute “suggested editorials” supporting SBA reorganization. Those editorials constituted covert propaganda because they were designed to masquerade in newspapers as the work of the paper’s editorial board.[10] A related but more serious infraction involved the Reagan administration’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America (OPDL), which had paid journalists and academics to write articles criticizing the Nicaraguan government and supporting the administration’s foreign policy in Latin America.[11] These articles were published without disclosures of the authors’ government contracts.[12] For example, OPDL officials arranged for a university professor, who was also on the OPDL payroll, to publish a newspaper editorial supporting Reagan’s Central America policy without informing either the readers or the newspaper.[13] The GAO made an official finding of covert propaganda but did not seek recovery of the improperly expended funds.[14] Instead, it referred the matter to the State Department,[15] which took no public action.[16]

More recently, the GAP investigated a contract between the Department of Health and Human Services and columnist Maggie Gallagher for services related to President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, for which she was paid $21,500.[17] Gallagher published several articles praising the initiative without disclosing the relationship, but the available employment documents presented no evidence that these articles were part of the HHS contract or that she was compensated for them.[18] The GAO therefore found that no covert-propaganda violation had occurred.[19]

An example of an editorial contract in which covert propaganda was disseminated was that between columnist Armstrong Williams and the Department of Education (DOE). Williams had approached the DOE in March 2003 and proposed to write supportive commentary on the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for cash. He even agreed to “accept significantly less for his services than he would normally charge” because he already supported the legislation.[20] The contract was consummated, and DOE documents indicate that Williams performed 169 promotional activities over a 12-month period.[21] Williams, who received about $241,000 in compensation for the service, did not disclose to readers his relationship with DOE.[22] The GAO opinion also notes that, because the contract with Williams was unlawful, DOE violated the Antideficiency Act’s prohibition on expenditures in excess of available budget authority.[23]

[1] E.g., Government Accounting Office, Letter to Senate Committee on Postal Services, B-229257 (Jun. 10, 1988).
[2] General Accounting Office, Matter of: To the Honorable Jack Brooks, B-229069 (Sep. 30, 1987).
[3] General Accounting Office, Letter to the Chairman of Senate Committee on Small Business, B-223098 (Oct. 10, 1986).
[4] Government Accountability Office, Department of Education—Contract to Obtain Services of Armstrong Williams, B-305368 (Sept. 30, 2005).
[5] Richard B. Kielbowicz, The Role of News Leaks in Governance and the Law of Journalists’ Confidentiality, 1795-2005, 43 San Diego L. Rev. 425 (2006).
[6] Government Accounting Office, Letter to Senate Committee on Postal Services, B-229257 (Jun. 10, 1988).
[7] Government Accountability Office, Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003: Use of appropriated funds for flyer and print and television advertisements, B-302504 (Mar. 10, 2004).
[8] Government Accountability Office, Application of Anti-Lobbying Laws to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Open Letter to State Level Prosecutors, B-301022 (Mar. 10, 2004).
[9] Government Accountability Office, Forest Service—Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment brochure and video materials, B-302992 (Sep. 10, 2004).
[10] Government Accounting Office, Letter to the Chairman of Senate Committee on Small Business, B-223098 (Oct. 10, 1986).
[11] Government Accounting Office, Matter of: To the Honorable Jack Brooks, B-229069 (Sep. 30, 1987) (“information developed during the course of our investigation demonstrates that, on occasion, S/LPD also arranged for the publication of articles which purportedly had been prepared by, and reflected the views of, persons not associated with the government but which, in fact, had been prepared at the request of government officials and partially or wholly paid for with government funds.”).
[13] Id.
[14] Id. (“We have been unable to estimate the amount of effort and funds expended on covert propaganda operations. Materials contained in S/LPD files indicate that covert propaganda operations were conducted on several other occasions and were not separated from routine legitimate activities. view of the difficulty in determining the exact amount expended illegally, as well as the identity of any particular voucher involved, we conclude that it would not be appropriate in these circumstances to attempt recovery of the funds improperly expended.”).
[15] Id. (“We recommend that the Department of State take action to insure that violations of appropriations restrictions contained in section 501 do not occur in the future.”).
[16] Government Accountability Office, Department of Health and Human Services—Contract with Maggie Gallagher, B-304716 (Sep. 30, 2005), at 3.
[18] Id. at 7.
[19] Id.
[20] Government Accountability Office, Department of Education—Contract to Obtain Services of Armstrong Williams, B-305368 (Sept. 30, 2005), at 2.
[21] Id. at 5.
[22] Id.at 10-12 (“We can find no evidence in the record that the Department took any steps to assure that appropriate disclosures were made.”).
[23] Id. at 14(citing 31 U.S.C. § 1341(a))