[Washington Babylon ]How the Pentagon’s “Surrogates Operation” Feeds Stories to Administration-Friendly Media and Pundits | Harper's Magazine

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[Washington Babylon]

How the Pentagon’s “Surrogates Operation” Feeds Stories to Administration-Friendly Media and Pundits


Earlier this week I wrote a story about a program run by the Pentagon’s Office of Public Affairs. This program seeks to bypass the mainstream press by working directly with a carefully culled list of military analysts, bloggers, and others who can be counted on to parrot the Bush Administration’s line on national security issues.

The unit was initially called the “Surrogates Operation” but was later rechristened as “Communications Outreach” after someone realized that the original title, while accurate, was embarrassing for those working with the Pentagon.

As I reported earlier, the unit is headed up by Erin Healey, a former junior assistant press secretary at the White House. Other players I identified were Julie George, a former campaign worker for ex-Senator Rick Santorum, and Jocelyn Webster, who formerly worked in the White House’s political operation. I’ve since learned that another key figure at the Surrogates unit is James Davis, who like Healey was apparently brought in as a contractor but was subsequently given a political appointee position. From what I understand, Davis is a political ally of former senator and GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson.

The Surrogates unit arranges regular conference calls during which senior Pentagon officials brief retired military officials, civilian defense and national security analysts, pundits, and bloggers. A few moderates are invited to take part, but the list of participants skews far, far to the right. The Pentagon essentially feeds participants the talking points, bullet points, and stories it wants told.

As far as I can tell, the conference calls with retired military officials and other analysts are not transcribed or made public, and I’ve been unable to learn who takes part in those briefings. But the calls with bloggers—who are often briefed by the same Pentagon officials who speak with the other groups—can be found on “Defend America,” a Pentagon website. “Welcome to the archives of the ‘Bloggers’ Roundtable’,” reads the site, adding forthrightly, “Here you will find source material for recent stories in the blogosphere concerning the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Global War on Terrorism by bloggers and online journalists.”

Recent calls with bloggers include a July 18 briefing by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Mark I. Fox (“Coalition Forces in Iraq Taking Down Enemy ‘Cell by Cell’); one on July 11 with U.S. Army Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner (“Antiterrorism Successes Continue in Iraq Despite Foreign-Born Resistance”); one on June 27 with U.S. Army Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner (“Phantom Thunder Operations Disrupt Terrorists in Iraq”), and another on June 13, also with Bergner (“Local Security Engagements Squeezing Insurgents, General Says”).

I’m still going through the transcripts, which identify some but not all of the blogger-Surrogates. They include military writers like Andrew Lubin, from the aptly named blog On Point and Jarred Fishman, The Air Force Pundit. Other participants have included Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Gurwitz, an editorial writer for the San Antonio Express-News and contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Victoria Coates and Streiff from RedState, Mark Finklestein of News Busters and Austin Bay, who blogs and conducts podcasts for Pajamas Media, and writes a national security column for Creators Syndicate.

Some of the bloggers are transparent about taking part in conference calls. Goldfarb took part in a June 26 call focusing on Guantanamo Bay with J. Alan Liotta, principle director for the Pentagon’s Office of Detainee Affairs; when he wrote about it he noted that Liotta’s remarks were made “to a few bloggers on a conference call this morning arranged by the office of the secretary of defense.”

Others have been less transparent but either way the Pentagon has successfully used its handpicked team to get out its message. On February 7, U.S. Army Major General Kenneth Hunzeker briefed bloggers from Iraq on encouraging signs he spotted with the Iraqi police training program.” The following day Finkelstein wrote an article for Cybercast News Service that quoted Hunzeker extensively and which carried the headline, “Media Exaggerate Militia Infiltration of Iraqi Police, General Says.”

I found other intriguing cases, including this one: In early July, soon after Liotta’s briefing, Deroy Murdock, a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, wrote an opinion piece published in a number of outlets that called for the expansion of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. He essentially endorsed torture in the piece, writing: “Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s lips were sealed until he experienced a few minutes of unpleasant but non-fatal waterboarding. Then he wouldn’t shut up.” In his piece, Murdock quoted Liotta as saying, “When you capture a lawful enemy combatant and hold them as a prisoner of war, you are entitled, under the laws of war, to hold that individual until the end of the conflict.” That quote came directly from Liotta’s conference call with bloggers.

It’s pretty amusing to note here that Murdock also quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that he’d like to see Guantanamo Bay shut down. Murdock described that comment by Gates as “pathetic, embarrassing, and potentially fatal.” So the Surrogates apparently managed—directly, or indirectly in the event that Murdock is not an active participant—to have Murdock call their boss an idiot.

I emailed Murdock to ask him if he had participated in the conference call or was otherwise working with the Surrogates unit and, if not, how he came upon Liotta’s comments. If he replies, I’ll update this story.

By the way, just today the Surrogates program held a blogger’s roundtable with Brigadier General Robert Holmes and another conference call for civilian defense experts with Brigadier General Edward Cardon. Look for both men to be quoted—very sympathetically—in newspapers and on websites shortly.

Before these bloggers start to complain that they’ve done nothing wrong, I’d like to ask how they would feel if a group of handpicked, administration-friendly liberal bloggers had done the same thing during the Clinton years. I believe they would have objected vociferously–and I would have agreed with them. No one, on any side, should let themselves be used to spread the administration’s gospel. At least not anyone who can pretend to journalistic standards.

Note: Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark has written several good posts about Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dorrance Smith, who is apparently the father of the Surrogates program. Check out this one, in which he notes that while previously working as a media liaison in Iraq Smith would wear a “W 2004” ball cap when working with U.S.-backed Iraqi news outlets. Lynch said that Smith’s “view of the media [is] inherently political,” and described another of his old efforts, a C-Span Baghdad project, as “a pure form of media as state propaganda.”

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