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Think Again: Pentagon Propaganda and the Media Stonewall

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On April 18, 2006, retired U.S. Air Force Major General Donald Shepperd appeared on CNN’s “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer to respond to the news that a wave of retired generals was calling for the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in response to his mishandling of virtually every aspect of the war effort in Iraq.

Rumsfeld had called a meeting with many current and former military officials days earlier, and Shepperd was one of them. When Blitzer asked Shepperd if Rumsfeld brought up the controversy, Shepperd downplayed its importance. “Very little, Wolf. Everybody expected the headlines out of this to be the secretary says the following things. And the focus of the meeting was very little on that. … Basically, the focus was on how the war in Iraq is going, how it would have been different in the past if, and that type of thing. It was not about the retired generals controversy, although the secretary is clearly distracted by it and worried about it and concerned about it, and he listened to a lot of things from the group.”

On the same program, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre simply (and uncritically) repeated Shepperd’s assertion, explaining, “Well, Wolf, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is not taking much of this criticism to heart, and he’s making it clear he’s not [going] any place, anywhere—any time soon.”

What viewers could not know at the time was that Rumsfeld called the meeting in question specifically for the purpose of combating calls for his resignation. Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff insisted that “the boss” wanted the meeting fast “for impact on the current story.” When the New York Times leaked word of the planned meeting, the Pentagon scrambled to play it off as simply a matter of routine.

Viewers also didn’t know that it wasn’t the first time retired military officers, who often appeared as objective analysts in the media, met with Rumsfeld to construct carefully honed messages. To the contrary—as reported by the New York Times in a stunning, 7,500 word story last week “the analysts met personally with Mr. Rumsfeld at least 18 times, records show, but that was just the beginning. They had dozens more sessions with the most senior members of his brain trust and access to officials responsible for managing the billions being spent in Iraq.”

According to the report, beginning in the run-up to the Iraq war, the Pentagon began a sophisticated program that trained retired military officers to repeat well-honed administration talking points during interviews with the press, where they were presented as objective analysts.

Says the Times: “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse—an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”

In this particular meeting with Rumsfeld over calls for his resignation, the Times revealed there was “a shared determination to marginalize war critics and revive public support for the war.”

“I’m an old intel guy,” said one analyst at the meeting, according to the Times. (The transcript omits speakers’ names). “And I can sum all of this up, unfortunately, with one word. That is Psyops. Now most people may hear that and they think, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to brainwash.’”

“What are you, some kind of a nut?” Mr. Rumsfeld interrupted, drawing laughter. “You don’t believe in the Constitution?”

The “Psyops” operation being carried out—or “information dominance,” as one Pentagon official who helped craft the program called it—can be traced at least back to 2003 and the push for an invasion of Iraq. The analysts in question would appear in the media and assess the case for war—but always on the side of invasion, and always for the reasons dictated by their secret handlers at the Pentagon.

Promos like this one were common at that time: “Showdown Iraq, and only NBC News has the experts. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, allied commander during the Gulf War. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, he was the most decorated four-star general in the Army. Gen. Wayne Downing, former special operations commander and White House advisor. Ambassador Richard Butler and former UN weapons inspector David Kay. Nobody has seen Iraq like they have. The experts. The best information from America’s most watched news organization, NBC News.”

Of course, it was never disclosed that some of those officials were on the Pentagon payroll and saying what the administration wanted—things that were, needless to say, usually false. “[M]embers of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated,” the Times wrote. “Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.”

In addition to being in the tank for the administration and its ideological goals, many of the officials were wedded to companies that sought profit from the war. The Times says that most of the alleged analysts also had financial interests in “military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.”

The Pentagon’s deceit and subversion of democratic dialogue here is saddening, but not terribly surprising. It is just one more front in the war waged against the possibility of an honest debate about the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, which has been based on lies and deliberate deception since its inception.

It’s also unsurprising in the context of this administration, which has proven frequently willing to execute such ruses. Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act; commentators Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus were paid $21,500 and $10,200, respectively, to advise the Department of Health and Human Services on its marriage initiatives. The administration has also produced “video news releases,” which appear to be straight news and were often played as such on local broadcasts.

But the Pentagon has at least done one thing right—it has suspended the military analyst information program that was feeding information to retired generals. That accountability, token and forced as it may be, is at least more than the mainstream press, who gave the “analysts” their stage, can claim.

What’s been missing from the coverage of this story is any significant reaction or follow-up from the networks themselves or the other unwitting participants in this propaganda program. Officials at the major networks immediately passed the buck when initially questioned by the Times about the story. “[N]etwork officials, meanwhile, acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts’ interactions with the administration. They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said.”

And since then, not a word, save from PBS. Neither ABC, NBC, nor CBS have even mentioned it in any network broadcast in the 11 days and counting since the story broke, despite regularly featuring these Trojan Horse analysts. (Although, as Media Matters notes, they have found ample time for coverage of photographs of Miley Cyrus).

For years, the major networks presented “objective” sources that were, in fact, anything but. This may or not be a violation of federal law. Some in Congress are planning to examine the issue further, and yet somehow, the networks don’t think it’s news even though presidential candidates have denounced it and the Pentagon has already responded.

Brian Williams, anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” recently addressed the controversy, but only on his blog, after hectoring from Glenn Greenwald and his readers. Unfortunately, his response to Greenwald ignored virtually all 7,500 words in the Times bombshell and simply perpetuated the myths he and his network had perpetrated in the first place. “All I can say is this: these two guys [Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey] never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq. If you’ve had any exposure to retired officers of that rank (and we’ve not had any five-star Generals in the modern era) then you know: these men are passionate patriots. In my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers…"

Of course, as noted, the Times had already confirmed that these men met with Rumsfeld and Pentagon officials. In addition, both were members of “The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq,” and McCaffrey is “on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies—all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts,” according to The Nation. Aren’t NBC’s viewers entitled to this knowledge, as well?

Greenwald moreover notes that General McCaffrey never once criticized the administration’s plans. About as “tough and honest” as he ever got was when three years into the civil war, he admitted, “it’s a very bad situation, and it’s getting worse.”

The same might be said of much of mainstream media, and alas, the television’s coverage of the war, as well.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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