A Pentagon briefing program established by President George W. Bush’s administration designed to encourage TV and radio military analysts to put a positive spin on news coverage of the Iraq war was found to be in compliance with U.S. Defense Department directives and regulations despite ethical concerns involving conflicts of interest. The Pentagon’s inspector general’s office issued its findings in a December 2011 report after a nearly three-year investigation. The investigation was launched after a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning article in The New York Times described how, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Pentagon developed close relationships with retired military officers who worked as analysts for TV and radio networks. Even after the report, critics are still concerned about the relationship between news networks and military analysts, but the practice appears to be continuing in the context of reporting on a potential conflict with Iran.
David Barstow’s April 2008 New York Times story, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” suggested that the relationship the Pentagon developed with military analysts as a part of this briefing program violated Pentagon rules against propaganda. The story further posited that the retired military officers trumpeted administration talking points in appearances on network and cable news broadcasts and opinion pieces in major newspapers in exchange for access to high-level military officers and Bush administration officials. The full 2008 Times story is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/us/20generals.html?pagewanted=all. (For more on the original Times story, see “Times’ Story about Military Analysts Makes Ripples Not Waves” in the Spring 2008 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
Following the story, the Pentagon suspended the briefing program and members of Congress — led by Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — asked that the Defense Department’s inspector general to begin an investigation. In January 2009, the inspector general’s office released its first report finding no wrongdoing in the program, according to a Dec. 24, 2011 Times report. But soon after, the office retracted the report because it “was so riddled with inaccuracies and flaws that none of its conclusions could be relied upon.” The inspector general launched a new inquiry in late 2009.
The Washington Times reported on Dec. 1, 2011 that the inspector general’s final report on the briefing program again found no wrongdoing. The “Review of Matters Related to the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Retired Military Analysts Outreach Activities,” completed on Nov. 21, 2011, confirmed that under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon “made a concerted effort starting in 2002 to reach out to network military analysts to build and sustain public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to the Dec. 24 New York Times story. The newest inquiry found that from 2002-2008, the briefing program organized 147 events for 74 military analysts. This included 22 meetings at the Pentagon, 114 conference calls with generals and senior officials, and 11 Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to the report, Rumsfeld, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or both were involved in 20 of the events.
The report also documented conversations between retired officers acting as military analysts and Pentagon officials. One retired officer said Rumsfeld told him, “You guys influence a wide range of people. We’d like to be sure you have the facts.” The report considered whether the Pentagon’s outreach was an honest effort to inform the public, or rather, an improper campaign intended to manipulate the press. The inquiry confirmed that Rumsfeld’s staff often provided military analysts with talking points before making network appearances. In some cases, the report said, analysts “requested talking points on specific topics or issues.” One analyst described them as “bullet points given for a political purpose to someone who is going to make a speech, or go on television, or radio, or write something.” Another military analyst told investigators that the intent of the briefing program “was to move everyone’s mouth on TV as a sock puppet,” but that continuing to participate in the program did not require analysts to be a completely “parrot,” or in other words, regurgitate what they had been told.
The inquiry also confirmed that Rumsfeld hired a company to track and analyze what was said during military analyst media appearances. Four analysts reported that they were removed from the briefing program “because they were critical” of the Pentagon, the report said. A former Pentagon official told investigators that when retired four-star Army general and NBC News military analyst, Barry McCaffrey, “started challenging” Rumsfeld during on air appearances, he was told that Rumsfeld wanted him “immediately” removed from the invitation list because McCaffrey was no longer considered a “team player,” the report said. Rumsfeld told investigators he did not recall this incident. Similarly, retired four-star Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who worked as a military analyst for CNN, said that when he was no longer invited to special briefings, he “took it as a sign” that the Pentagon “was displeased with his reporting,” according to the report. Clark also told investigators a CNN official told him that the White House had asked the news organization to release him from his contract as a commentator.
Several other top aides to Rumsfeld contradicted these accounts of the program and insisted the goal was to inform and educate the military analysts. Many of the other military analysts interviewed by investigators agreed. In response to conflicting interviews, the inspector general’s office examined nearly 25,000 pages of documents related to the briefing program. Except for one “unsigned, undated, draft memorandum,” investigators did not uncover any documents that described program motives or strategies. Therefore, the report said they had to rely heavily on interviews with Rumsfeld’s former public affairs aides. “Although we largely had to rely on interviews, we found the intent of the RMA outreach activities was to provide information to the public through former military members, as credible third party subject matter experts.” The report also said the program included a “reasonable cross section of media outlets” based on its analysis of in-Pentagon meeting attendance and travel events.
The report also addressed the issue of whether military analysts with ties to defense contractors used their Pentagon access to senior officials to gain a competitive business advantage. The inquiry revealed that at least 43 of the 63 military analysts were affiliated with defense contractors. Investigators asked 35 of those affiliated whether their participation in the program benefited their business interests and nearly all of them said it did not. According to the report, investigators did not identify military analysts who used the program activities “to gain new or expanded contract business or who profited financially, related to the contractor affiliation from information received” as a part of the program. “There are potentially other tangible and intangible benefits” that analysts may have gained as a part of their participation in the program, the report said, but emphasized this inquiry only addressed the potential benefits to defense contractors. The inspector general’s redacted report can be found at http://www.dodig.mil/Ir/reports/RMATheFinalReport112111redacted.pdf.
According to the December 1 Washington Times story, the inspector general’s report marked the fourth time the briefing program was found to be free of improper conduct. In addition to the two inquiries led by the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO), Congress’ investigatory arm, also found that the program had followed regulations. The story also made reference to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) investigation into whether TV broadcasters broke rules dealing with the proper disclosure of sponsorship when military analysts appeared, but no report has been issued by the regulatory agency. Keith Urbahn, spokesman for former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, told The Washington Times, “Two things ought to happen, though they never will. One, the New York Times should give back its Pulitzer for a story that is now proven to be a fabrication. And two, Sen. Carl Levin should reimburse the U.S. taxpayers for what must be the millions of dollars squandered in pursuit of repeated investigations that he ordered to fit his partisan agenda. And while they’re at it, the New York Times and the senator from Michigan ought to apologize to the uniformed military officers whose reputations were maligned by their attacks.”
Networks Shied Away From Reporting on Questionable Analyst Program
Despite Barstow’s 7,600-word Sunday New York Times cover story on April 20, 2008, a May 8, 2008 Politico.com report noted the lack of attention the investigation into the Pentagon’s military analyst program was receiving on television airwaves. “Even with countless media outlets available these days, a Sunday New York Times cover story could always be counted on to send a jolt through the television news cycle. But apparently that’s no longer the case.”
Bloggers “kept the story simmering” and Democratic congressional leaders called for investigations into the Pentagon briefing program. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) sent a letter to the FCC urging former Chairman Kevin J. Martin to investigate the Pentagon’s program and any potential violations of the law by networks or military analysts, the Politico.com story said. Now-former FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps responded to Democratic efforts in a statement: “President Eisenhower warned against the excess of a military-industrial complex. I’d like to think that hasn’t morphed into a military-industrial-media complex, but reports of spinning news through a program of favored insiders doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
The FCC request followed DeLauro’s letters to five network executives on April 24, 2008: NBC News President Steve Capus, now-former ABC News President David Westin, CBS News President Sean McManus (now president of CBS Sports), FOX News chief executive Roger Ailes, and CNN News Group President Jim Walton. A response letter from ABC on April 29, 2008 said it employed two retired military analysts: Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former Deputy Chief of Staff to the U.S. Army, and retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash. The letter said ABC News policy requires consultants to disclose any outside employment and both of them had done so. The network also said it was aware of Keane’s support of military action in Iraq and his role in recommending it to the U.S. Government. “On several occasions when General Keane appeared in an ABC News program we specifically disclosed to our audience his position as an (unpaid) advisor on the subject,” ABC News President David Westin wrote. The letter also clarified confusion over whether military analysts are held to the same ethical rules as full-time journalists. ABC said while reporters are not permitted to have outside employment, consultants may be free to do so, as long as it is disclosed and the network can take it into account when determining subjects they can address on network programming. “From what I know of our reporting involving our military analysts, I am satisfied that ABC News has acted responsibly,” Westin wrote. ABC’s letter can be viewed at http://www.politico.com/pdf/PPM44_080508_abc001.pdf.
CNN President Jim Walton also responded to DeLauro’s letter on May 2, 2008, writing that CNN “maintains a firm commitment to the highest journalism standards.” He said CNN is sensitive to the issue of conflicts of interest and requires all contributors to formally disclosure of all business ties. In a periodic review of contributors, CNN looked into the disclosures of General Marks in 2007 and “discovered the extent of his dealings and immediately ended [their] relationship with him.” Walton wrote that CNN holds “every contributor to the highest ethical standards.” CNN’s letter can be viewed at http://www.politico.com/pdf/PPM44_080508_cnn001.pdf.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism tracked the mainstream media coverage for a week after the New York Times story on the briefing program ran, and found that out of approximately 1,300 news stories, only two of them referenced the Pentagon analysts scoop, according to the May 8 Politico.com story. Both aired on PBS’s “NewsHour.” Andrew Tyndall, an independent TV analyst who monitors nightly newscasts told Politico that “broadcast networks rarely do self-criticism stories.” However, he said, “this is really the sort of thing that all of the networks should have addressed online.” In April 22, 2008 Los Angles Times story, Scott Collins argued the original Times story made “minimal ripples with the public because the TV networks ignored it and it had to compete with a democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania.” Collins also pointed out that none of the Sunday morning TV talk shows discussed the article. Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News” responded to the Times story 10 days after it ran on his blog, Politico reported, and said he “read the article with great interest.” Williams mentioned working alongside retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey and the late retired four-star Army Gen. Wayne Downing and said “All I can say is this: These two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.” Williams’ full blog post response can be viewed at http://dailynightly.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2008/04/29/4371964-different-times.
Unlike some newspapers, most broadcast networks do not have ombudsman or public editors, which the Politico.com story said leaves “little room for transparency if they refuse to comment or commit to a follow-up story.” CBS’s Public Eye blog, created in the wake of Dan Rather’s “Memogate,” was intended to respond to viewer concerns about reporting and analysis. “Memogate” involved a report that relied on a series of documents regarding President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard which turned out to be fabrications. The blog was discontinued in 2008, following cutbacks, Politico reported. “This controversy about military analysts would have been right in our ballpark,” said Dick Meyer, former editorial director of CBS News who spearheaded the Public Eye project in an interview with Politico. “It’s irresponsible for a modern news organization to not have some kind of readers’ advocate, some kind of public editor function.”
Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, challenged the use of these so-called military analysts on news coverage of all subjects because they blur the line between journalists and sources. “What they are is a new breed of newsroom mutt,” Wasserman wrote in an April 28, 2008 Miami Herald column. Wasserman argued that the line between a journalist and a source should be clear. If an expert is necessary to speak with authority on a complicated issue, journalists should make sure they find a truly independent individual. “Institutionalizing the news consultant is no way to enrich the news; it’s just another way to corrupt it. Consultants must go,” Wasserman wrote. Wasserman spoke at the Silha Center’s 2008 Spring Ethics Forum, which focused on strategies for remaining independent when covering politics and war. (See “Forum Explores Journalistic Independence, War and Politics” in the Spring 2008 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
Gen. McCaffrey Privately Briefs NBC Officials on War with Iran
Reports in February indicate that TV and radio networks may not reduce their use of military analysts despite the controversy over whether they are giving an objective analysis. On Feb. 28, 2012, online political magazine Salon.com reported NBC has continued its relationship with retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was a member of the Pentagon’s briefing program, and according to Barstow’s reporting, deeply invested in war policies. According to the story, McCaffrey presented a seminar to approximately 20 NBC executives and producers, including NBC News President Steve Capus, entitled “Iran, Nukes, & Oil: The Gulf Confrontation” on Jan. 12, 2012. Salon.com obtained the Power Point presentation and said McCaffrey “all but predicts war with Iran within the next 90 days: one that is likely to be started by them” followed by further discussion about the Iranian threat to the United States. Blogger Glenn Greenwald called this meeting and PowerPoint a “nice glimpse” into the “merger between the American media and the military” that was first illustrated in Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage.
NBC released a response statement to Greenwald’s report on Feb. 29, 2012, according to a Huffington Post story the same day. The network called the article “inaccurate, ignorant,” and an “insulting depiction of [NBC News’] editorial process,” the story said. NBC did say McCaffrey presented his thoughts on Iran at a recent editorial board meeting. “In similar sessions, we have received the views of current and former US government officials. … There is no singular view of editorial issues that permeate our editorial discussions. Indeed, editorial board meetings, with diverse representation are an important part of any open-minded journalistic enterprise.” Greenwald responded through an update to his February 28 blog post and said it is “impossible to assess the validity of NBC’s claim that they invite those with ‘vastly different world views’ when it comes to Iran…” He also said despite NBC’s accusations of inaccuracies, it “does not even purport to identify a single inaccuracy in any thing I reported.”
Silha Bulletin Editor