No Comment — December 27, 2011, 1:27 pm

The Pentagon and its Sock Puppets

An internal Department of Defense review has concluded that a Rumsfeld-era program under which retired military officers who appeared on American broadcast media were given special briefings and access was consistent with Pentagon rules. The New York Times reports:

The inquiry found that from 2002 to 2008, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon organized 147 events for 74 military analysts. These included 22 meetings at the Pentagon, 114 conference calls with generals and senior Pentagon officials and 11 Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Twenty of the events, according to a 35-page report of the inquiry’s findings, involved Mr. Rumsfeld or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or both. One retired officer, the report said, recalled Mr. Rumsfeld telling him: “You guys influence a wide range of people. We’d like to be sure you have the facts.”

The inspector general’s investigation grappled with the question of whether the outreach constituted an earnest effort to inform the public or an improper campaign of news media manipulation. The inquiry confirmed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff frequently provided military analysts with talking points before their network appearances. In some cases, the report said, military analysts “requested talking points on specific topics or issues.” One military analyst described the talking points as “bullet points given for a political purpose.” Another military analyst, the report said, told investigators that the outreach program’s intent “was to move everyone’s mouth on TV as a sock puppet.”

The internal review also apparently found no fault with the exclusion of four individuals precisely because they refused to be sock puppets, speaking critically of some Pentagon decisions. One of them, General Wesley Clark, apparently lost his position as an analyst for CNN because of Pentagon and White House displeasure with what he had to say.

The investigation was prompted by David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize–winning exposé of the Pentagon program. Barstow wrote:

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.

Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Mr. Cheney, Alberto R. Gonzales and Stephen J. Hadley.

In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.

The Barstow exposé revealed two of the most important media scandals to emerge from the Iraq War period. The first went to the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s deft use of its enormous public-affairs resources to influence the American media, often for blatantly political purposes. These operations were plainly illegal. Since World War II, Congress has imposed clear limits, written into defense-appropriations measures, on the Pentagon’s ability to engage in domestic public-relations operations. The Department of Defense is permitted to run recruitment campaigns and give press briefings to keep Americans informed about its operations, but it is not permitted to engage in “publicity or propaganda” at home. The internal DoD review exonerating the practice of mobilizing and directing theoretically independent analysts apparently focuses on the fact that the program conforms with existing department rules, but it overlooks the high-level prohibition on “publicity or propaganda,” which was plainly violated.

The second scandal goes to the broadcasters themselves. They apparently recruited these analysts anticipating access to the Pentagon and a steady conduit of information. Their compromise highlights the Achilles heel of the Beltway media: access, not critical or objective coverage, is everything. There is little evidence to suggest that the broadcasters took any meaningful steps to assert their independence or objectivity—indeed, the dismissal of Wesley Clark by CNN shows precisely the opposite. The net result is that American viewers were sold on independent analysis and instead got individuals, often with ongoing contractor relationships with the Pentagon, who read from pre-prepared Pentagon talking points.

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Although he was persuaded that this new relationship between the Pentagon and its contractors was “a vital element in keeping the peace,” he was deeply troubled by the relationship’s potential to disrupt the delicate balance of interests that is fundamental to a modern democracy. David Barstow’s investigation provided some of the most subtle and compelling evidence of this process to appear in recent years. The Pentagon’s self-exonerating report, by contrast, suggests that media sock puppets may become a modus operandi.

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