Beware the coming propaganda juggernaut

The public's money is already being spent to sell privatization -- one P.R. firm is being paid $1.8 million by the Social Security Administration.

By Joe Conason
Published February 25, 2005 9:03PM (EST)

The dimensions of the conservative campaign to destroy Social Security -- and dismantle the New Deal -- are now heaving into view. Determined to achieve the victory that has eluded them for more than 70 years, George W. Bush's aides and allies are building a very big, very ugly propaganda juggernaut.

In strategy and tactics, this massive new creation already reflects designs traditionally employed by the Republicans under Karl Rove, whether they are promoting a war, electing a president or merely seeking to pass (or defeat) a piece of legislation.

What remains uncertain, for the moment, is the extent to which the White House will deploy government-sponsored propaganda to win this struggle. Will it misuse public money -- including, ironically, the proceeds of Social Security taxes -- for its partisan deconstruction project? And while ostensibly "independent" groups boast that they will spend tens of millions on the privatization crusade, that may not be enough to overcome growing popular resistance to Bush's effort.

The president himself has been campaigning vigorously for his "plan," as have his surrogates. But we now know that the Bush administration regularly employs less transparent and more deceptive techniques to manipulate opinion. In pursuit of the president's political goals, federal agencies have hired pundits with public funds -- creating bogus news stories that appear on television -- and the administration has permitted at least one fake news organization to infiltrate the White House press corps.

Are Bush appointees in the Social Security Administration concocting a similar propaganda effort to promote privatization? Reports last month in the Washington Post and the New York Times suggested that they are quietly doing just that. The newspapers obtained copies of a "national strategic communications plan" and a "communications/marketing tactical plan" prepared by SSA officials. Those documents indicate that the agency will place messages about the system's "solvency" in traditional media, as well as in "outreach" efforts to consumers at "big-box stores" and "farmers markets."

Evidently, the idea is to use the credibility of the Social Security Administration itself to undermine people's confidence in the system. After all, the majority of Americans won't necessarily believe arguments for privatization and against Social Security that emanate from Republican and business front groups. They are far more likely to respond to a warning from the most successful and efficient agency in the government.

Exactly what Bush's minions at the SSA have been up to, aside from writing strategy plans, isn't clear yet. To find out, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal public interest group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the SSA last month. Sloan asked for "records of any contacts between the agency and outside public affairs firms," notably including any dealings with Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard -- the Washington P.R. giants recently implicated in the administration's pundit payola and news management scandals. Public records show that the SSA already has entered into a $1.8 million consulting contract with Fleishman-Hillard.

The Social Security administrators don't seem eager to disclose their public relations spending. So far, Sloan has received no response at all from the SSA officials who handle FOIA requests, although the 20-day legal deadline for an answer has passed. This week she filed suit against the agency in federal district court in Washington, demanding that the appropriate records be turned over to her.

The news that has leaked out about the SSA's public information campaign suggests that messages are being coordinated somewhere. The would-be privatizers of the Social Security system, whether in government or out, have begun by amplifying the "crisis" atmosphere and irrational fears of "bankruptcy" that right-wing groups and politicians have encouraged for many years now. They have lined up phony grass-roots organizations financed by corporate largesse, in this case a retread of an old Richard Viguerie fundraising scam formerly known as United Seniors Association, which was recently renamed USA Next. (As Talking Points Memo revealed Wednesday, USA Next has been operating from the offices of a direct-mail firm that also works for the Republican National Committee -- in other words, for Karl Rove.)

The messaging is characteristic Rove-speak. At USA Next, they are testing divisive cultural jabs against their political adversaries, such as the weird Internet ad that sought to tar the American Association of Retired Persons with support for gay marriage. They are also floating the accusation that their opponents lack patriotism, by falsely suggesting that the huge retiree group "doesn't support veterans." They have hired professional smear artists for the nastiest attacks, including consultants who worked for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth last year.

And of course, the would-be privatizers are preparing to blanket the airwaves with misleading commercials sponsored by major business lobbies, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Wall Street's Club for Growth. Those interests regard a privatized social insurance and pension system as a potential bonanza in contracts and fees -- as well as a historic ideological triumph over progressive values.

And how cleverly ironic the Rove Republicans would be to underwrite their partisan deconstruction project by raiding the public Treasury -- and using Americans' own payroll taxes to undermine their retirement security.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Karl Rove Social Security