All the president's PR men: Raw Story investigation reveals revolving door on Iraq PR
Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane
Published: Wednesday October 17, 2007
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New questions are being raised about political operatives who have promoted President Bush’s Iraq war agenda and their role in spreading “good news” about Iraq, illustrating a public relations revolving door among the Republican Party, the White House and the private sector.

A month long investigation by RAW STORY, originally prompted by the pro-Iraq war advertising of a “grassroots” group called Freedom’s Watch, has unearthed a series of connections between the Bush administration and two subsidiaries of the PR giant Burson-Marsteller, particularly BM’s own “grassroots” firm, Direct Impact.

Founded in 1988, Direct Impact boasts of over “1,200 field representatives covering every Designated Market Area in the nation, ready to engage their community in a moment's notice. Self-designated as a “grass roots” company, Direct Impact's community operations include media and online advocacy.

Direct Impact began working with Burson-Marsteller by 1997 and became a full-fledged subsidiary in late 2001. Following the acquisition, the formerly low-profile firm began hosting a steady stream of powerful Republican Party political and communications figures.

For example, Burson-Marsteller, which had hired former National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Craig Veith to oversee their Media Relations Practice, appointed him CEO of Direct Impact in late 2002.

As head of Media Relations, Veith and Prince Bandar, then Saudi ambassador to the US, had signed an agreement for Burson-Marsteller to work on repairing Saudi Arabia's image in the wake of 9/11 – just three days after the attacks.

Veith was joined at Direct Impact in 2003 by a prominent GOP campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who had held Veith’s former job of communications director for the NRCC since 2001. Schmidt left Direct Impact a year later to become a top strategist in the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign, where he ran the rapid response operation. He then joined the White House staff as a Senior Adviser to the President and a Counselor to the Vice President.

In April 2005, former Bush-Cheney '04 Midwest regional political director Dave DenHerder joined Direct Impact. DenHerder would become Direct Impact's COO in September after Veith, who had been both CEO and COO, departed to found his own firm.

Freedom's Watch and Democracy Data

In August 2007, a “grassroots” organization called Freedom’s Watch began running a series of ads attacking those who disagree with the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq as “anti-victory.” According to their mission statement, the group seeks to give voice to Iraq war issues which it claims have been underrepresented because “those who want to quit while victory is possible have dominated the public debate about terror and Iraq since the 2004 election.”

Although Freedom’s Watch is a non-profit corporation “dedicated to educating individuals about and advancing public policies that protect America’s interests at home and abroad,” the group was exposed by the online publication, Politico, as largely consisting of wealthy Republican donors, Neoconservatives, and, most prominently, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

In his role as press secretary, Fleischer had helped sell the Iraq war to the American people. At a September 2002 press briefing, he said, “There is already a mountain of evidence that Saddam Hussein is gathering weapons for the purpose of using them. And adding additional information is like adding a foot to Mount Everest.” (WH Press Briefing 9/6/2002).

But Freedom’s Watch's relationship to Fleischer, as well as other political operatives in the RNC, is not the only issue surrounding the startup “grassroots” effort.

Freedom’s Watch is hosted on servers belonging to Democracy Data and Communications (DDC) – DEMOCRACYDATA.COM – which for many years had common ownership, leadership, and even shared office space and telephone numbers with Direct Impact.

According to public records, in 2001 both Direct Impact and Democracy Data were located at 1029 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA. They also shared the following telephone number: 703-684-9690 and the following fax number: 703-683-9626. In 2005, well after Burson-Marstellar had acquired Direct Impact and also well after Veith had become CEO, they continued to share the same address as well as the same phone and fax numbers.

Although there is no apparent current direct link between Freedom’s Watch and Direct Impact, the overlapping of relationships raises questions about the true origin of the “Freedom’s Watch” grassroots effort and a larger, more political use of domestic organizations to convey a message that mirrors that of the Administration.

Blackwater USA

The most recent news buzz about Burson-Marsteller has been about their contract with the embattled security contractor Blackwater USA.

According to the Nation’s blog, Blackwater’s subsidiary BKSH was "tasked with salvaging Blackwater's tattered image and allegedly murderous conduct. ... The account is being handled by Robert Tappan, a former State Department official who directed communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004."

Reached for comment last Tuesday, Paul Cordasco – a spokesman for Burson-Marsteller – said that the engagement with Blackwater was short term.

"Through a personal relationship, BKSH, a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller, helped Blackwater prepare for their recent hearing before Congress,” Cordasco said. “With the hearing over, BKSH's temporary engagement has ended."

Cordasco did not respond when asked to elaborate on what “a personal relationship” means, nor to questions asking about what exactly the firm did for Blackwater.

Robert Tappan is not part of BKSH, however. In July 2006, Tappan became head of Burson-Marsteller’s Washington office with responsibility for overseeing the marketing operations of Direct Impact, a position he still maintains.

Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, Tappan had served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, holding that position from November 2002 to June 2006. Tappan’s case, one of many, illustrates the vanishing boundaries between the private sector of public relations and government communications.

While at the State Department, Tappan was said to have been involved in the distribution of domestic pro-Afghanistan war propaganda, in the form of a “feel good” Administration pre-packaged piece about Afghanistan that appeared on local tv outlets in 2003, without a disclaimer, as a news story.

“Tracking precisely how a ’good news’ report on Afghanistan could have migrated to Memphis from the State Department is far from easy,” wrote two reporters for the New York Times. “The State Department typically distributes its segments via satellite to international news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press Television News, which in turn distribute them to the major United States networks, which then transmit them to local affiliates.”

“‘Once these products leave our hands, we have no control,’ Robert A. Tappan, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said in an interview. The department, he said, never intended its segments to be shown unedited and without attribution by local news programs. ‘We do our utmost to identify them as State Department-produced products.’”

Tappan was sent to Iraq in early 2004 to serve as Director of Strategic Communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority. At this point in the war, optimism about the US endeavor in Iraq was beginning to fade and the Pentagon was turning to public relations to bolster popular support.

“U.S. occupation in Iraq has led to progress, in spite of what the media say, according to Robert Tappan,” a news story after his return remarked. “Tappan and the CPA were also responsible for an advertising campaign in Iraq, he said. The messages in the three-commercial series were ‘We all yearn to live in a free Iraq,’ ‘I want my children to live in peace’ and ‘I want a prosperous Iraq.’”

For his services, Tappan earned the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service – the highest Defense Department civilian honor.

Immediately before joining the State Department, Tappan had been a senior vice president with public relations firm Powell Tate, whose co-founder and vice-chairman was Sheila Tate, a onetime press secretary to Nancy Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Tate was a participant in the Rumsfeld Group, named for the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a kitchen cabinet of lobbyists and Republican insiders who met informally to help the White House and the Defense Department produce sellable talking points about Iraq. In particular, they worked on “linking the anti-terrorism cause with efforts to convince the public 'of the need to engage “rogue states” – including Iraq – that are likely to harbor terrorists.’”

The group was brought together after 9/11 by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria “Torie” Clarke, who had advised Rumsfeld “that in order to get the American public to buy into the war on terrorism, they needed to suggest a link to nation states, not just nebulous groups such as al-Qaeda.”

Like Tappan and his superiors at State, Clarke appeared to view news and the nature of reporting as a product to be delivered to the American people, ordered by a third party and often filtered through the foreign press.

In 2006, Direct Impact and Democracy Data appear to have parted ways. This was confirmed to Raw Story by Tappan in September.

“Burson-Marsteller does not have any role with Freedom’s Watch in any way, shape or form,” Tappan declared in an email to RAW STORY. “Neither our firm, nor any of its subsidiary or affiliate companies, are involved with Freedom’s Watch. To the best of my knowledge, none of our principals, including me, have been involved with this organization, either on a personal or professional level, at any time.”

Taken in concert, this group of people suggests a pattern whereby GOP campaign and public relations expertise has been applied to selling the administration’s policies, particularly in the Middle East and Iraq, in a series of advertising campaigns where private PR and government advocacy become almost indistinguishable.

The privatization of propaganda

The National Security Act of 1947, Section 503(f), defines domestic propaganda as illegal. The Act states that “no covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.”

However, when asked specifically by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) in February 2006 about his views of the President’s power to conduct domestic covert propaganda, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he was unable to answer the question:

FEINSTEIN: Can the president suspend, in secret or otherwise, the application of Section 503 of the National Security Act, which states that no covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies or media? In other words, can he engage in otherwise illegal propaganda?

GONZALES: Senator, this will probably be my response to all of your questions of these kind of hypotheticals. Questions as to whether or not – can Congress pass a statute that is in tension with the President’s constitutional authority? Those are very, very difficult questions, and for me to answer those questions sort of off the cuff, I think would not be responsible.

Bush Administration propaganda efforts have been well-documented.

In 2004, for example, local stations were found to have received videos produced by more than 20 different federal agencies to promote the administration’s policies, many of which aired as if they were the network’s own reporting. The Army and Air Force’s Hometown News Service has delivered “good military news” to an estimated 41 million homes. Nor were commentators immune: In January 2005, news emerged that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had received $240,000 from the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story and regularly reports on intelligence and national security stories. Contact: [email protected]

Muriel Kane is director of research for Raw Story.