Bush administration: Fake news is A-OK

The Office of Legal Counsel defined torture out of existence. Now it's doing the same to propaganda.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 15, 2005 1:14PM (EST)

Remember those fake video news reports the Bush administration has been distributing to local television stations? Back in February, the Government Accountability Office warned federal agencies to stop pushing the phony news reports on the grounds that continuing to do so would amount to the distribution of domestic propaganda in violation of federal law.

That might have been the end of the matter, but the Bush administration has other ideas. Last week, budget director Josh Bolten and a Justice Department lawyer named Steven Bradbury issued their own opinion about the fake news stories. Their conclusion: The GAO is wrong, and the fake news reports are perfectly legal. Moreover, as the Washington Post reports today, Bolten and Bradbury said that legal advice for the executive branch is supposed to come not from the Government Accountability Office but from the Justice's Office of Legal Counsel.

That would be the same Office of Legal Counsel that issued a legal memorandum in August 2002 defining torture out of existence and opining that the president's commander-in-chief power gives him authority to defy federal law in the name of national security -- and the same Office of Legal Counsel that retracted that memo in December 2004, just in time for Alberto Gonzales' confirmation hearings.

The OLC may well be the right entity to provide legal advice to the executive branch, but that doesn't mean that its advice is any better on the fake news stories than it was on the torture of detainees. In words that could have described either issue, the head of the GAO told the Post yesterday that the administration's approach to the fake news stories is not just illegal but wrong. "This is more than a legal issue," said Comptroller General David Walker. "It's also an ethical issue and involves important good government principles, namely the need for openness in connection with government activities and expenditures. We should not just be seeking to do what's arguably legal. We should be doing what's right."

A government that aspires to morality and not just to the bare minimum of legality? The notion seems so . . . quaint.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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