Following President Obama’s assumption of office, a single member of the core Rumsfeld team at Defense has managed to hold on to his position: the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Bryan Whitman. As I documented previously, he has a long record of using his position for politically dubious shenanigans, including a quickly debunked smear of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.
Back in 2007, Ken Silverstein linked Whitman to a curious program, the full scope of which was then barely understood. As David Barstow documented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé, seventy-five retired military officers were recruited by Pentagon public affairs officers and were given talking points to deliver on Fox, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and MSNBC. They were given extraordinary access to White House and Pentagon officials. As Barstow states: “The access came with a condition. Participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon.” The program shows the Washington media at its worst—“independent analysts” are trotted out on TV and radio for their views, but in fact they are merely regurgitating messages prepared by the Pentagon and designed to reinforce its media message.
This entire project certainly broke the law, and there is no reason to doubt that the Pentagon officials in charge of it understood that. As the Reagan Administration Justice Department ruled in a February 1, 1988 opinion, “covert attempts to mold domestic opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties run afoul of restrictions on using appropriated funds for propaganda.” The law forbids the use of appropriated funds for “covert propaganda,” that is, efforts to shape domestic public opinion that do not reveal that government appropriations were used. The program that Barstow exposed, and in which Whitman played a leading role, was clearly illegal because it was covert, it was an effort to shape domestic public opinion, and it involved the “undisclosed use of third parties.”
Now, Raw Story fleshes out some details. After reviewing a FOIA treasure trove of internal documents concerning the program, here’s what they found about Whitman’s role in the project:
Bryan Whitman surfaces in over 500 emails and transcripts, revealing the deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations was both one of the program’s senior participants and an active member. Whitman’s conspicuous presence in these records is notwithstanding thousands of documented communications the Bush Pentagon released but for which names were redacted and an untold number the prior administration successfully withheld after its two-year legal battle with the Times.
Not surprisingly, Whitman reacts to the story with a very bland denial.
In a conversation with Mr. Whitman, he denied any involvement or senior role in the program, saying he only had “knowledge” of its existence and called the assertion “not accurate.” Asked to explain the hundreds of records showing otherwise, Mr. Whitman replied, “No, I’m familiar with those documents and I’d just beg to differ with you,” though he did acknowledge being in “some” of them.
As Brad Jacobson notes, the overall structure of the program, and a decision to house it formally in the public affairs office for community relations, appears to have been designed to protect Whitman in the event that the program was later disclosed. He goes on to note Whitman’s intimate involvement in the program—detailing Whitman’s role in coping with the Pentagon’s early failure to provide soldiers with body armor, and disclosures of instances of torture in connection with the report of Admiral Albert T. Church. A subsequent review shows the “independent military analysts” mindlessly parroted the talking points that were furnished by Whitman.
Raw Story is promising further analysis as their series on Whitman continues. The disclosures prompt a simple question: why is Whitman, a loyal Republican propaganda artist, still in the Pentagon? Barack Obama’s commitment to provide a home for some loyal Bushies is welcome, but public affairs might not be the best position for them to occupy.