WASHINGTON: Already accused of waging two covert propaganda campaigns in the past year, the Bush Administration came under more fire last week from government transparency watchdogs for PR efforts involving two federal agencies.
A White House memo sent to employees of the Social Security Administration (SSA) in February 2004 asked them to "disseminate to all audiences" the message that the benefits system must be reformed.
The memo, now circulating among the press, lists talking points on the "long-term challenges facing Social Security," which critics say are based less in fact than the administration's political agenda.
The missive reads, "Modernization must include individually controlled, voluntary personal retirement accounts," a pet initiative of the White House.
The directive went to SSA PR and regional directors, said Dana Duggins, VP of the American Federation of Government Employees' Social Security Council.
"Never have Social Security employees ever engaged in any political activity," she said. "We are looked at as a source for the White House now. It clearly is unethical."
SSA representatives were not immediately available for comment.
But Bush counselor Dan Bartlett told NBC's Meet the Press, "There's no expectation that career employees would be asked to advocate on behalf of any specific prescription for Social Security."
The Social Security Council, which represents employees at the agency, is working with the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Retired Americans, and the Campaign for America's Future in a counter-campaign.
Also last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would no longer require staffers to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prevented them from sharing "sensitive," though not classified, information with the public.
Members of the media and First Amendment advocates have long protested the rule, though few seemed impressed with the change.
"I don't think it radically changes things," said Steve Sidlo, managing editor for the Dayton [OH] Daily News. "It doesn't seem to me that they've seen the light and are willing to embrace transparency in government."
Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for DHS, said the change is the simple result of the evolution of the policy. "There's nothing particularly meaningful about this time," she said.