By Shane Harris
Videotape footage of people using drugs and interviews with federal officials discouraging their use that was produced by the White House drug control policy office, violate a legal ban on official propaganda because they were presented to the public without any indication they were produced by the government, according to a decision released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office.
GAO, in response to a request from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., examined a series of "video news releases" prepared by the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2002 to 2004 to determine whether they violated a legal prohibition on "covert propaganda." The ban was included in the appropriations legislation that funded ONDCP's media campaign to lower drug use among American youth.
The videotapes were complete, prepackaged new stories, GAO found. They were sent to media outlets to be used "as news reports, without the need for any production effort," the agency wrote in its 17-page decision.
The video packages were narrated by unseen people who acted as reporters covering a press conference or other ONDCP activity, as well as officials involved in the anti-drug campaign, according to GAO. "Each story is accompanied by proposed 'lead-in' and 'closing' remarks to be spoken by television station news anchors," the agency found.
Some of the tapes included references by name to the narrators, one of whom was called Mike Morris. "Many of the suggested anchor remarks include a phrase like, 'Mike Morris has the story,' or 'Mike Morris has more,' " GAO found. The narrators were hired to read scripts prepared and approved by ONDCP. They weren't affiliated with any news organizations.
ONDCP's estimates show that the video footage reached more than 22 million households, GAO noted, "without disclosing to any of those viewers - the real audience - that the products they were watching, which 'reported' on the activities of a government agency, were actually prepared by that government agency, not by a seemingly independent third party. This is the essence of the 'covert propaganda' violation."