By William Fisher
Who should we blame for retired military men getting themselves hired by TV networks to be talking head cheerleaders for “progress” in Iraq? The Pentagon? The media? Our elected officials and presidential wanabees? The public?
I think my friend Steven Aftergood has it just about right. Here’s what he told me:
“It is unrealistic to expect the Pentagon to do anything other than to advance its own institutional interests in the media and elsewhere. Furthermore, it is not surprising when retired career military officers present a perspective that coincides with that of their former cohort.”
But he added, “Two things are disturbing, however. One is the secret, unacknowledged coordination between the Pentagon and the purportedly independent spokespersons. That stinks. But what’s worse is the failure of the media to come to terms with the way it was manipulated. Media organizations are supposed to be skeptical of authority, and evenhanded in their approach to public policy issues. This story illustrates how badly they failed to justify the public trust.”
But is this shameful compromising of our media just another one-news-cycle story? Maybe not. I think this story should still has some legs left.
Witness what some in Congress are doing.
As America’s television networks continued their silence about their use of retired military officers to “sell” progress in Iraq, members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on the Defense Department Inspector General to investigate the Pentagon-sponsored public relations effort.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and 40 others members of Congress, called on the Inspector General (IG) to investigate how high-ranking officials within the Defense Department were allowed to operate a program “aimed at deceiving the American people.”
"When the Department of Defense misleads the American people by having them believe that they are listening to the views of objective military analysts when in fact these individuals are simply replaying DoD talking points, the department is clearly betraying the public trust," the lawmakers wrote in a joint letter to Defense Department Inspector General Claude M. Kicklighter.
"Not only must the Inspector General now account for what it did and did not know about this state-sponsored propaganda effort, but they must also explain why, if they knew about the propaganda campaign, it was allowed to proceed," DeLauro said.
"Additionally, we are calling for the Inspector General to launch an investigation to ensure no detail surrounding this program remains hidden," she added. The House members also want to know if the inspector general considers the program to be illegal.
Retired officers who acted as military analysts for major news outlets were given V.I.P. access to the Pentagon, with regular briefings by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a sponsored trip to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.
The operation was abruptly halted after it was reported by The New York Times. The times” massive probe revealed that some 75 retired military officers, prepped by the Pentagon, served as paid television commentators since the run-up to the Iraq war -- and many also have conflicting ties to defense contractors. These business links were seldom disclosed to viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks on which they appeared, the newspaper said.
The Times report said the officers got private briefings, trips and access to classified intelligence meant to influence their comments.
"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," the newspaper wrote.
The Pentagon defended its work with the analysts, saying they were given only accurate information.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, pointed out in the Times article that it was “sometimes enough just for the Pentagon's cynical commissars to make retirees feel important, to give them a sense that they were still players.” For other so-called “talking heads,” pleasing the Pentagon was strictly mercenary.
The Times’ revelations have sparked a serious backlash among many journalists and advocates of more transparency in government. But despite an avalanche of similar criticism throughout the blogosphere, and by a handful of journalism veterans and critics, the news chiefs and on-air hosts at CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS, have had little reaction to the revelations concerning the "Media Generals." Most declined to comment publicly, but have ceased using the officers on-air. Some are reportedly tightening their guidelines for hiring military commentators.
This is not the first time the Pentagon has engaged in concealed efforts to influence public opinion. In December 2005, at the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq, media reports revealed that a contractor to the Defense Department was paying off Iraqi journalists to write “good news” stories about American progress there.
The Pentagon carried out the effort as part of an organized and well-funded program, and did so in secret. The Los Angeles Times broke the story.
Irony or ironies -- the Defense Department scheme was being carried out at the same time the State Department's exchange program was working to teach foreign journalists about the role and responsibility of a free press.
Some critics saw this as the worst aspect of this situation because it added to the perception of U.S. hypocrisy -- at a time when the government is spending millions of dollars trying to "win hearts and minds" around the world.
Only one senior administration official commented on the “Iraq Payola” scheme. Appearing on ABC's "This Week" program, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley joined Iraqi journalists in the view that, if the DOD investigation supported the allegations, the idea was bad policy and should be stopped. It is unclear whether the program remains in operation.
Earlier, the media uncovered another DOD program known as "Total Information Awareness." TIA was an advanced form of "data mining," that would have effectively provided government officials immediate access to personal information such as phone calls, e-mails and Web searches, financial records, purchases, prescriptions, school and medical records and travel history.
Disclosure of the program triggered a furor among the public and in Congress and it was shut down. But nobody was fired or reprimanded.
As shameful as this episode surely is, another friend sounds an even more ominous note. Majorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, looked back at the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and told me:
“During the run-up to the war on Iraq, the Pentagon gave its ‘analysts’ talking points: Iraq has chemical and biological weapons; Iraq is developing nukes; Iraq could give its WMD to Al Qaeda; and an invasion would be quick and cheap. This disinformation campaign was designed to condition Congress and the American people to accept Bush's illegal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq.”
Now, she said, “we are seeing the same pattern as many in the Bush administration prepare for an attack on Iran. Petraeus, Crocker, Gates, Bush and Cheney are mouthing the mantra that Iran has nukes and is a danger to America. Watch for other ‘analysts’ to parrot this line. Since there appears to be a split in the administration about the wisdom of such an attack, public pressure could tilt the balance away from war.”
Let us pray!
In the 1930s, the man considered to be the “father of modern public relations”, Edward L. Bernays, wrote a book called “The Engineering of Consent.” His thesis was that ideas and attitudes can be shaped by messages communicated time and time and time again – enhanced by so-called “third part endorsement” – such as that conveniently provided by retired generals and colonels.
The run-up to the Iraq invasion provided the beautiful evidence to support that thesis. And if you think Bernays is some relic from the past, think again.
The Bernays Doctrine is alive and well – and living in the White House and the Pentagon.