Washington Babylon — July 24, 2007, 5:14 pm

Not “Terribly Compelling”: Pentagon surrogates reply to criticism

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A number of the bloggers who participate in conference calls organized by the Pentagon’s public affairs office have objected to recent stories I’ve posted about the project. “There is, Black Five readers well know, no weight to the charge that these Roundtables are about parroting Administration anything,” writes Grim of BlackFive.net. “For the one thing, we don’t talk to Administration officials, but to career military men. The journalist is the one in error, by treating career servicemen as if they were political figures.” Charlie Quidnunc writes that the bloggers are simply “fighting back against [the] spin” of mainstream journalists who “just parrot all the Democratic talking points spreading anti-administration gospel.”

And at the Weekly Standard, the inimitable Michael Goldfarb chimes in, saying, “The entire program consists of providing an opportunity for new media to speak directly with senior officers in Iraq and policy makers at the Pentagon. [Silverstein] might be surprised to learn what actually goes on: bloggers putting hard questions to commanders in the field and writing up the answers without spin.” Goldfarb and Grim both note that after one conference call, David Axe wrote a very critical piece titled “Lies My Leaders Told Me.” And Goldfarb, too, will stick it to the man. He writes:

Not only are we clear about who our sources are, we are not always kind to them–I wrote at the time that Liotta’s rationale for keeping Gitmo open wasn’t “terribly compelling.”

However, when the curious reader consults Goldfarb’s original post, the full quote is as follows:

To be blunt, I don’t find this to be a terribly compelling argument for keeping Gitmo open–though neither is it unreasonable.

Which is not exactly the bold statement I was expecting when I clicked through, and, by the end of the post, Goldfarb appears to come around to Liotta’s point of view, saying that moving prisoners out of Gitmo “seems like a risk not worth taking.” I acknowledge that by Goldfarb’s usual standards this bold outburst was the rhetorical equivalent of him putting on a Che T-shirt and marching at an antiwar demonstration.
But ultimately, despite his intentions, he only proves my point: what he sees as spirited criticism is basically agreement with a few caveats. As to the David Axe piece to which he links—it’s an exception that proves the rule. By invoking the rare critic, the Pentagon is able to say, “We’re balanced. This is not just a PR exercise.”

These bloggers have valid viewpoints and the right to express them. That’s not the issue. What I find more interesting is that they were handpicked by the Department of Defense as part of a larger Pentagon PR effort.

So let’s take another look at that PR program. It was described in an October 3, 2006 internal memorandum from Dorrance Smith, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. In the memo, Smith said he was working to transform public affairs from a “Reactive” shop to a “Proactive” one. “Because the stakes are so high,” says the memo, “and the war on terror so urgent, we need to move fast on all fronts.” Furthermore, Smith and his team would be “working closely with the new Strategic Communication Integration Group (SCIG) to synchronize our efforts with the military and with policy.” (Emphasis added.)

The memo identifies four components to the program:

The first was “Creating Products and distributing information meeting the demands of the new media,” including YouTube and cell phones. That component was led by Allison Barber, who has already drawn scrutiny for another public affairs effort called “America Supports You.” The New York Times previously unearthed a memo from Barber about that earlier effort. “What we have learned,” said the memo, “is that the American people are beginning to fatigue, even in their support for the troops. I don’t think we have a minute to lose when it comes to maximizing support for our military, especially in the new political environment.”

The second component was a “Rapid Response” unit, which was charged with developing “messages and products for the round-the-clock media cycle. That unit, which was subsequently shut down, was headed up by Mark Latimer, who subsequently became a Bush speechwriter.

The third component was TV and radio booking, which aimed at enhancing the effort “to provide civilian and military guest for cable network and radio programs.” This was headed up at the time by Bryan Whitman, who has subsequently been replaced by Erin Healey, a former deputy spokeswoman for the White House.

Healey now also heads up the fourth component, which coordinates “efforts to provide information and visibility to the surrogate community.” When the memorandum was written, the surrogates operation was led by Mark Pfeifle, later named by President Bush as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Global Outreach.

As I’ve said in previous posts, these last two components of the program offer briefings and support for handpicked civilian defense and national security analysts, pundits, bloggers, and others who, with a few token exceptions, reliably support the administration. Unlike with the bloggers, there is apparently no public disclosure of the other groups working with the Pentagon’s spin operation. Hence, no matter how participants would like to describe the effort, it’s quite clear that the Pentagon views it as a propaganda program. Just look at the titles of the talks:

  • Iraq Training Team Commander Expresses Confidence Iraqis Will Succeed
  • Afghan Police Training Mirrors Army Success
  • Iraq Rebuilding Progress Should Be Taken in Context, General Says
  • Soldiers’ Armor Best in the World, General Says
  • Iraq Situation ‘Winnable,’ Multi-National Force Official Says

That’s why it’s hard to agree when Grim at Black Five says that the bloggers aren’t briefed by administration officials, but by career military men who are not “political figures.” The briefers may not be elected, but they do seem to be spinning (unless, of course, Iraq is going great and every major news outlet, including many on the right, is lying to us). And when Charlie Quidnunc says the bloggers are just “fighting back” against journalists who are “spreading anti-administration gospel,” it seems to me he thereby concedes my point that this is a propaganda effort to counter administration critics.

The list of bloggers who regularly participate in the conference calls is overwhelmingly conservative and friendly to the goals of the Bush Administration. While they’re not public, I’m told that the lists of military analysts, pundits, and others working with the Pentagon are even more uniformly hawkish. And that’s the problem I have with the whole Pentagon PR project. The government is picking certain people as “surrogates” to the exclusion of many others and feeding them news. These bloggers purport to broadly represent military and national security opinion, but there are plenty of military officials and conservatives who disagree with the administration’s policies in Iraq and elsewhere. With rare exceptions, those people are not invited to the Pentagon’s briefings.

It all comes down to a simple question, one I’ll let the reader answer on his or her own: are you comfortable with the Pentagon, under any administration, picking its personal media intermediaries in an effort to get its message out?

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