We've got a Justice Department these days that is like a Mafia law firm. It's on retainer to provide legal cover for whatever the godfather wants to get away with.
First the department conveniently redefined torture so narrowly that it let the Bush administration shrug off just about any mistreatment of prisoners short of drawing and quartering them on the village green. So much for the Geneva Conventions.
Now Justice is advising the sundry agencies of the federal government to ignore a finding by the Government Accountability Office that it is not -- repeat: not -- OK to hoodwink the public with phony TV news reports.
It was bad enough that the administration was running the scam in the first place. Now, caught, the White House simply swaggers on, undeterred, a new pinnacle of brazenness for this already chutzpah-rich administration.
The administration has been caught repeatedly circulating phony news reports that promote its policies -- the Medicare prescription legislation, the anti-drug program, gains in air travel security -- and sending them to local TV stations to be broadcast as legit news, as apparently, and to their discredit, scores of stations did.
The practice fits a broader pattern of fakery. Administration agencies gave lucrative contracts to three conservative columnists, suborning sycophancy, and salted the White House press corps with a ringer who could be counted on to ask powderpuff questions whenever the going got rough at news conferences.
The Government Accountability Office's declaration that the fake news violates laws forbidding covert propaganda has now been countermanded by Joshua Bolton, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general, in a memo instructing government offices to ignore the finding. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel dissents from the ruling and the dissent, the memo claims, governs.
That defiance converts what could have been rebuked and then dismissed as bad judgment and shoddy practice into a willful and downright scary assertion that the president has some near-monarchial authority to mislead the public as it suits his interest.
And adding insult to injury, officials blame the local TV producers.
Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said, "TV producers who receive our material are clearly aware where it comes from. To hold us accountable for ethical news judgment is a bit difficult to understand."
Well, yes, but still that's like the three-card monte swindler blaming his victim for being a sucker.
The core issue here is not just some quibble about legal technicalities or just another bureaucratic snit over whose department rules. It is a matter of bedrock ethics.
Even if it were lawful for an administration to manufacture counterfeit news in hopes that some useful number of stations will abet the fraud by fobbing the stuff off as their own, the resort to that deception would be no less appalling, manipulative and cynical.
© 2005 Star Tribune