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Government Curries Favor With Military News Analysts

April 24, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The Pentagon may influence the analysis of some retired military personnel who appear on television news programs, the New York Times recently reported. Media insiders discuss the details of this murky world of defense companies, the current administration and the war in Iraq.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now a look at the role of military analysts on TV and in the Pentagon. Judy Woodruff has our story.

LESTER HOLT, NBC Anchor: We turn to retired Army Colonel Ken Allard in “The War Room” — Colonel?

COL. KEN ALLARD (Ret.), Former MSNBC Military Analyst: Lester, good evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the months leading up to the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, dozens of retired military officers served as analysts on cable and network television.

FORMER MILITARY ANALYST: We’ve got to have Umm Qasr to bring the humanitarian goods in. We’ve seen the problem about Al Nasiriyah, the fighting with the Marines…

MAJ. GEN. PAUL VALLELY (Ret.), U.S. Army: In this case, we’re moving to Baghdad, Bill, and we’re going to remove that regime very shortly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These former generals and colonels have been a mainstay of commentary and analysis. And the networks paid them for their appearances.

Now, a lengthy New York Times investigation, published on Sunday, revealed the Pentagon targeted many of these analysts as part of an information apparatus to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.

Pentagon officials organized hundreds of private meetings with senior military leaders and the military analysts. They included talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

According to the Times, analysts were also taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated.

It was also disclosed that most of the analysts have ties to military contractors.

JIM LEHRER: And we go again now to our retired colonels…

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, the NewsHour briefly put five military analysts on a retainer in 2003, but none of them attended Pentagon briefings while on retainer to the NewsHour.

In the Times report, Defense Department Spokesman Bryan Whitman defended the program and said, “The intent and purpose of this is nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people.”

Questions of legality

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more now on all this, I'm joined by John Stauber. He is the founder and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. It is a nonprofit organization that investigates and reports on public relations tactics. He's also the author of several books, including "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq."

And Robert Zelnick, he spent more than 20 years with ABC News and served as their Pentagon correspondent from 1986 to 1994. Today, he teaches journalism at Boston University.

And for the record, we invited Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC and NBC to participate, but they declined our offer or did not respond.

We've been talking to the Pentagon since Monday about participating in this segment. But when we finally scheduled it today, they were unable to supply a guest on short notice.

Well, gentlemen, John Stauber, let me begin with you. The Times spent two years investigating this story. They ultimately had to sue to get documents out of the Pentagon.

In your view, what is the essence of the story? What does it say that the Pentagon did?

JOHN STAUBER, Center for Media and Democracy: Well, Judy, first of all, congratulations to the NewsHour for doing this report. And it's a shame on the networks who were duped this way that they didn't show up to defend or explain their actions.

What happened here was a psy-ops campaign, an incredible government propaganda campaign whereby Donald Rumsfeld and Torie Clark, the head of public relations for the Pentagon, designed a program to recruit 75, at least 75 former military officers, as your report said, most of them now lobbyists or consultants to military contractors, and insert them, beginning in 2002, before the attack on Iraq was even launched, into the major networks to manage the messages, to be surrogates.

And that's the words that are actually used, "message multipliers" for the secretary of defense and for the Pentagon. This program continues right up to now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is the essence of this that what they did was -- what the Pentagon did was illegal?

JOHN STAUBER: Yes, what they did was illegal. Now, the Pentagon might contest that, but we've had various laws on the books in our country going back to the 1920s. It is illegal for the U.S. government to propagandize citizens in this way.

In my opinion, this war could have never been sold if it were not for this sophisticated propaganda campaign. And what we need is congressional investigation of not just this Pentagon military analyst program, but all the rest of the deception and propaganda that came out of the Bush administration and out of the Pentagon that allowed them to sell and manage this war.

Holding journalists accountable

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we want to keep this, for the purposes of this discussion, focused on this particular report.

Let's turn to Bob Zelnick. Bob, you covered the Pentagon for, what, eight years for ABC?

BOB ZELNICK, Former ABC News Correspondent: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How surprised were you to see this report?

BOB ZELNICK: I wasn't surprised at all. In fact, when I covered the Pentagon, I often sought information from retired generals and admirals and colonels because I knew they were well-informed.

I knew they kept in touch. I knew they had drinks at the Army-Navy Club. I know they went to Army-Navy football games on special trains together. I knew that many of them were serving as what we called Beltway bandits or consultants.

So I wasn't surprised at all, except by the amount of space devoted to this piece by the New York Times.

And if I were giving advice to anybody, it would be, if you have an admiral on who is or a general who is currently a consultant to the Pentagon, that should be disclosed right at the top of the interview.

But we don't -- as networks, we didn't have these people on because they were neutral; we had them on because they knew what they were talking about. They had spent their lives in military affairs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the fact that they were recruited, as the article and as John Stauber has just cited, that they were recruited by the secretary of defense, by other people working for him specifically to get the story out, you're saying is entirely in keeping with what you've seen the Pentagon do?

BOB ZELNICK: I don't think the Pentagon recruits for ABC News; at least it didn't when I worked there. And I don't think they recruit for Fox or CNN or any of the other networks or cable operations.

I think the term "recruit" was used rather loosely to mean they recommended, perhaps, former generals or admirals to the various networks and, once they had them, they kept them informed.

And I think that's to the good. It meant that more information was available.

If occasionally a general or an admiral or a colonel who was retired and used in this fashion allowed himself to be dictated to, that's his fault. And I think any solid news person or executive editor running one of these programs would have discerned that early on and quit using him.

Disclosing Pentagon ties

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Stauber, if it was disclosed that these retired military officers were talking to the Pentagon, isn't it natural that they would have gotten briefings in some instances from the U.S. government?

JOHN STAUBER: Well, let me say I'm just shocked to hear Bob Zelnick depict and misrepresent what's going on here. And I have to wonder, Professor Zelnick, if you even read the New York Times article very closely.

This is an instant where these people were recruited by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld as agents of Pentagon propaganda and inserted into the networks.

Now, you can fault -- and we should fault -- the networks for not vetting these people properly, for not being much more careful about their credentials.

But the fact is this program began with the Pentagon, with the Bush administration, recruiting these people to be their surrogates. And those are the words that the internal documents used. This is the Pentagon Papers of this war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I want to give Bob Zelnick a chance to respond.

BOB ZELNICK: I covered the First Gulf War, and they had just as many military analysts on the networks and the cable shops as they had this time. So it was something that the networks perceived was in their own interest to develop these kinds of contacts.

And it was in their interest. It certainly was in my interest as a Pentagon correspondent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Zelnick, what about the fact...

JOHN STAUBER: Well, I'm shocked.

Consultant role under scrutiny

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just follow up with Bob Zelnick. The fact that, according to the New York Times report that most of these analysts evidently had business ties to defense contractors, does that color their ability to be independent analysts?

BOB ZELNICK: As I said, I think it should be disclosed right at the outset. But what do we expect these guys to do after 30 or 40 years in the service, during which time they've risen to the ranks of the most senior officers?

We would expect them to wind up as consultants or, as I said, we call them Beltway bandits. I just don't get upset over something that's completely natural, completely to be expected, and widely known throughout the industry.

JOHN STAUBER: This was completely unknown...

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Stauber...

JOHN STAUBER: ... that these people were agents of the Defense Department.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Stauber, just to understand, are you saying that if what these analysts were doing at the Pentagon had been fully disclosed, if their business connections with the defense contractors had been fully disclosed, would that have made what they did acceptable, in that the audience watching these interviews would have been aware?

JOHN STAUBER: No, not at all. The full disclosure actually came about this Sunday, and actually it's only partial disclosure. And that disclosure is that -- and the New York Times is the only news organization in full possession of these documents -- the Pentagon military analyst program began with Donald Rumsfeld and Torie Clark.

Seventy-five-plus former military officers were recruited. And they delivered the talking points of the Bush administration to manage the news media coverage and public opinion of the war.

The flow wasn't from journalists knocking on the door of the Pentagon and saying, "Excuse me, Admiral, I'd like to ask a question. First question: Are you retired and do you work for military contractors?" That would be -- that's totally fine.

The flow was illegal government propaganda, recruiting these people, and inserting them into the news, and then hiring a company to measure and quantify how good a job they did of selling the war and managing press and public opinion. This is Goebbels-like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Stauber -- thank you, John Stauber, we are going to have to leave it there. We will continue to follow this story. We know the New York Times is continuing to report on it. John Stauber and Bob Zelnick, we appreciate it. Thank you both.

BOB ZELNICK: Thank you.

JOHN STAUBER: Thank you.