Last month, I wrote about (1 2 3) the Pentagon’s “Surrogates” program, which works with selected military analysts, bloggers, former defense officials, opinion-makers, and others who are almost all highly sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s national security agenda and initiatives. I focused on conference calls that the Pentagon’s public affairs unit arranges between senior military officials and bloggers.
A number of the bloggers took issue with the stories and disputed my suggestion that the calls were essentially a vehicle for the Pentagon to communicate with a largely friendly audience. Noah Shachtman at Danger Room wrote that he had called the public affairs unit and quickly arranged for Jason “Armchair Generalist” Sigger and Matt “Mountain Runner” Armstrong to sign up for the conference calls and that “neither is what you would call a fan of this administration.” Shachtman arranged this after I had written four critical items about the program, so I’m sure the Pentagon was happy to swat that softball out of the ballpark. In any case, the Pentagon had never imposed an ideological ban on the conference calls, but it certainly seemed to be reaching out far more aggressively to friendly voices than to critics.
Several bloggers also defended the program by noting that the defense writer David Axe had participated in the conference calls, and that he was not only an administration critic but had posted a harsh commentary after one of the calls. Axe also contacted me to say that his participation undermined my case. But recently, Axe called to say that he was coming around to my point of view, and subsequently told me why over coffee at a café in Washington. “A lot of the conference calls are very clearly PR,” he said. “The more I’ve thought about it the more it becomes clear that something is fishy and that [the conference calls] are part of an orchestrated agenda.”
Axe said that he values being put in touch with deployed military officers, who are almost impossible to reach otherwise. Furthermore, there are no restrictions put on what questions can be asked during the calls.
But Axe said he’s noted something curious: at most of the conference calls, Jack Holt, chief of new media operations at the Pentagon, tells everyone that if there’s a topic they’d like to discuss in the future, he’d be happy to arrange it. Axe tells me he’s requested talks on several topics–he specifically mentioned a number of requests he’s put in on the Pentagon’s plans in Africa–and has gotten nowhere. “[Holt] always says ‘great,’ he’s very reassuring, but then nothing happens,” Axe said. “Any attempts to deviate course go nowhere. I don’t know why, but my guess it that it doesn’t match their agenda.”
Meanwhile, some military officials who have already briefed the bloggers are returning for repeat appearances and they talk about subjects that have been well covered at past events. Last Friday, the day after we met, Axe emailed to say that he’d attended a briefing that day with Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation. “This was our second roundtable with him, and he basically repeated himself,” Axe wrote.
One point that I want to repeat from past posts is that some of the bloggers who take part have come away from the calls with interesting insights (though a few pure hacks are involved). But the format and design of the program almost inevitably produces, on balance, Pentagon-friendly outcomes.
I also want to again note that the blogger calls are not the most troubling part of the Pentagon’s outreach program. The truly problematic aspects are briefings for handpicked civilian defense and national security analysts, retired military officials, and others who are fed administration-friendly talking points. Unlike with the blogger conference calls, there is apparently no public disclosure of who is taking part in those briefings and no transcripts of what transpires.