The Pentagon has stopped feeding its talking points directly to retired generals and officers who then recited the military’s arguments to major television networks as their own ostensibly “independent” analysis.
In a blockbuster expose this month, the New York Times revealed the Pentagon’s “hidden hand” behind the military talking heads who helped it sell the Iraq war to the American people. Since the story appeared eight days ago it has been all-but-ignored by the major television networks who served as conduits for the Pentagon’s message men.
Now the program has been “temporarily suspended” a Pentagon spokesman says, so the Department of Defense “can take a look at some of the concerns.”
Chief among those concerns is that the military analysts participated in what amounted to a propaganda campaign aimed at the American people because of their own financial interests.
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the legality of the program, which one former analyst told the Times was like “psyops on steroirds.”
Kerry wrote a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro (reprinted below) in which he asked the GAO to determine who at the Pentagon was involved, how often the contacted the military analysts and what financial ties those analysts had to securing defense contracts.
“Americans need to be able to trust that defense contractors secure government contracts based on how well they protect our soldiers, not how closely they follow Pentagon talking points,” Kerry said in a news release. “I look forward to hearing from the GAO about the legality of this alleged covert practice, who was involved, how it operated, and its impact on media coverage.”
Both Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, also have weighed in on the program, in statements to The Nation. (Republican nominee John McCain has said nothing about the program.)
The Clinton Campaign said that given the Bush administration’s record on intelligence and misinformation, an investigation is critical to determine how the Pentagon shaped the “commentary of putatively independent television military analysts” for “‘selling’ the Iraq war and our country’s defense policy now.” The campaign statement also flagged “serious questions about the potential linkage of government contracts to favorable public commentary by military analysts.”
The Obama Campaign called for “greater transparency to ensure that those who lobby the Pentagon are not rewarded for favorable commentary about the Administration’s policies.” Obama spokesperson Jen Psaki also broadened the argument to indict the ongoing debate over war policy, saying “it’s past time that we conducted an honest dialogue about the situation in Iraq.” …
McCain’s refusal to comment on the program is unsurprising, given his staunch support for every major aspect of the President’s Iraq policy. However, the Democratic candidates’ delay in responding is more complicated. There has been a virtual blackout of the topic on television news, so the candidates have not been pressed in recent interviews, such as Obama’s Fox appearance on Sunday. And the issue is politically delicate because it implicates the conduct of retired generals. The campaigns were careful to criticize the administration, not the generals, who hold a hallowed position in foreign policy discourse. The Clinton Campaign even stressed that its criticism did not impugn “the honor and patriotism of our dedicated career military officers,” and neither candidate advocated a congressional or independent inquiry.
Teleconferences and briefings for the military analysts have been halted pending the review, which is being conducted by the Pentagon’s public affairs office, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not directly addressed the issue since the lengthy report on the program appeared in the Times April 20, except to say that the analysts should make clear they were speaking only for themselves.
The Times found that the Pentagon laid on special briefings and conference calls for the retired officers, many of whom then repeated the talking points as military experts on television news shows.
The paper also found that many of the media analysts also worked as consultants or served on the boards of defense contracting companies, but that those ties often went undisclosed to the public.
Gates last met with the military media analysts in September, Whitman said.
With wire reports
Sen. John Kerry sent the following letter to the GAO Monday:
The Honorable Gene Dodaro
Acting Comptroller General,
United States Government Accountability Office
441 G St., NW
Washington, DC 20548
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
Recently, the New York Times reported that the Department of Defense (DoD) led a covert effort to cultivate military analysts with distinguished service records to produce favorable press coverage of the Administration’s wartime policies.
There is great public concern that DoD would systematically enlist military analysts, many of whom had business interests tied to the Administration’s war effort, to spread its message over the airwaves. At a time when confidence in Washington is at an all-time low, there is a very real worry among Americans that when they turn on the television to hear objective analysis from a military commentator they might instead be hearing what they would deem to be “propaganda.”
Collectively, this cadre of analysts may represent over 150 military contractors as lobbyists, senior officials, and board members. The analysts’ business relationships raise legitimate concerns as to whether some of them were encouraged to tailor their commentary in order to maintain their companies’ good standing with DoD. In fact, some analysts reportedly echoed message points they sometimes suspected to be inaccurate or false for this reason.
So that Congress may understand the full reach of this alleged operation, as well as what steps may be necessary to prevent a similar effort in the future, I ask that your office pursue a full investigation into this matter. I ask that this investigation consider the following:
•The names of all senior Pentagon officials involved in this effort, and the extent of that involvement;
•The extent of the contact between Pentagon officials and the military analysts in question regarding what was said by the analysts over the public airwaves;
•The extent to which the military analysts involved had personal financial interests that were in some way linked to their analysis, including a list of federal contracts that are in any way linked to the companies that employ any of the analysts in question;
•The extent to which the personal financial interests of the analysts were known, and potentially used, by the Pentagon to promote misleading, inaccurate or false information through the media;
•The extent to which the personal financial interests of the analysts were disclosed to the public and to the media outlets that employed their service;
•Whether the actions taken by Pentagon officials to recruit and employ the military analysts were in fact illegal, and if so, whether those involved were made aware at the time that they were breaking the law;
•What procedures are in place to ensure that military analysts with close ties to government officials or information are not using preferential access to senior officials to further business opportunities; and
•What steps need to be taken by Congress and by the Pentagon to ensure that this type of effort is not repeated.
As the answers to these questions will do much to address the level of doubt and cynicism created by these actions, I ask that you pursue this request with a sense of urgency and report your findings to Congress as expeditiously as possible.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.