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Sunday, December 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

About Those 'Retired' Military Officer/Analysts

Last Sunday, The New York Times published a very lengthy — even by Times' standards — investigative article headlined, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand." The sub-headline read: "Courting Ex-Officers Tied to Military Contractors." The 7,600-word article by reporter David Barstow was spread across three columns of the big Sunday paper front page and continued over three more full pages inside.

On the front page, were color photos taken from TV images of nine high-ranking former senior officers. The images were from appearances on major cable and commercial broadcast television networks by these retired officers and military analysts over the past five years. On the inside pages, TV images of eight other former officers were shown. Ten of the 17 were retired generals.

Here's some of what Barstow wrote on the front-page portion of his investigation:

"To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as 'military analysts' whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

"Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance . . . The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air. Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively," Barstow wrote, the several dozen military analysts "represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants . . . Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.

Come Right In, Sir

"Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department . . . In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access. A few expressed regret for participating in what they regarded as an effort to dupe the American public with propaganda dressed as independent military analysis." On the other hand, Barstow also reported that, "Many analysts strongly denied that they had either been co-opted or had allowed outside business interests to affect their on-air comments, and some have used their platforms to criticize the conduct of the war."

As for the TV networks, Barstow wrote that, "Many analysts said network officials were only dimly aware of these interactions. The networks, they said, have little grasp of how often they meet with senior officials, or what is discussed . . . Some networks publish biographies on their Web sites that describe their analysts’ military backgrounds and, in some cases, give at least limited information about their business ties. But many analysts also said the networks asked few questions about their outside business interests, the nature of their work or the potential for that work to create conflicts of interest . . . analysts said their network handlers also raised no objections when the Defense Department began paying their commercial airfare for Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq — a clear ethical violation for most news organizations."

The Times article — which evolved from a successful, two-year lawsuit against the Department of Defense to gain access to 8,000 pages of e-mail messages, transcripts and records — focused on multiple appearances by retired military officers, some of them designated as network analysts, on CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC. There was also one reference to National Public Radio in the following paragraph: "Some e-mail messages between the Pentagon and the analysts reveal an implicit trade of privileged access for favorable coverage. Robert H. Scales Jr., a retired Army general and analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio whose consulting company advises several military firms on weapons and tactics used in Iraq, wanted the Pentagon to approve high-level briefings for him inside Iraq in 2006. 'Recall the stuff I did after my last visit," he wrote. "I will do the same this time.'"

No Mention of PBS

There was, however, no mention of PBS in the article even though, from what I can gather, four of the 17 officers whose pictures were shown and who were mentioned in the article had, at one time or another over the past five or six years, appeared on PBS's flagship news program, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. So, not surprisingly, a number of viewers e-mailed or called me asking whether PBS had also been taken in by this Pentagon program and whether they had been alert in terms of more fully identifying these guests for viewers.

Based on some rather quick research and a perusal of several transcripts and my own recollections in watching over the years, the NewsHour did a reasonably good job, as I'll explain further down in this column.

On the other hand, what is troubling to me is that the NewsHour failed to make any note of the extensive Times article on the Monday evening program, the day after the story was published, or since then. Surely viewers are used to seeing military analysts all over television, including PBS, and this seemed like a big story, worth at least mentioning, along with a bit of explanation about PBS procedures. Program executives point out that Monday was a very big news day, the eve of the big Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, and that a segment on the Times article is scheduled for tonight (Thursday).

PBS was not alone, however, in not reporting on this important investigative effort by the Times. As far as I can tell, none of the major networks followed up on the story even though it went right to the heart of how they operate on a significant issue. The Washington Post's media reporter, Howard Kurtz, did one of the few newspaper follow-ups and also discussed it in a segment of his TV program for CNN.

As for PBS, just by the nature of the one hour, five-nights a week broadcast, the NewsHour had far less time devoted to analysis by retired senior military officers than did the 24/7 cable news networks. Among the senior retired officers most often on the NewsHour — six times that I count — was retired three-star Army Gen. William Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency who was an early and ardent critic of Bush administration war policy and was, of course, not part of any Pentagon public relations effort nor mentioned in the Times article.

How They Appeared

The four senior retired officers mentioned in the article that have appeared on the NewsHour, some of them on multiple occasions over the years, include retired Army Gens. William Nash, Barry McCaffrey and Montgomery Meigs, and Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis. In most of these appearances, these officers were paired with another guest who took an opposing view, something that almost always distinguishes the NewsHour but is rarely the case with appearances on other TV networks.

For example, McCaffrey, an NBC analyst who is probably the most visible and high-profile former general officer on television, made one appearance on the NewsHour on June 19, 2002, in a segment about the Army's multi-billion dollar Crusader weapon system that then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to cancel. McCaffrey, a supporter of the Crusader, was identified on the program by correspondent Kwame Holman as a consultant to the artillery system's manufacturer, and his views were sharply rebutted on air by retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters.

Similarly, when Lt. Col. Maginnis appeared on Jan. 11, 2006, during a segment on the hot topic of whether U.S. troops had adequate body armor, he was introduced by correspondent Margaret Warner as "currently a consultant to the Pentagon and receives regular briefings there." His views were also challenged on the air by the other guest, retired Lt. Col. Roger Charles. Warner also pointed out at the time that the Army and Marine Corps had been invited to participate in the program but had declined.

On an earlier program on Dec. 23, 2005, about plans to make some cuts in U.S. forces in Iraq, Maginnis was introduced by Ray Suarez of the NewsHour as a Pentagon consultant and pointed out that, "He visited Iraq this past October under the auspices of the Pentagon." His views on that segment were opposed by retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes.

On an April 13, 2005, NewsHour segment about "Gays in the Military," Holman told viewers: "We contacted six of the highest ranking Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee to talk about the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. All declined interviews. The Pentagon also declined. When we asked for a spokesperson on gays in the military, Pentagon officials pointed us to retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis . . ." The other guest was Army Sgt. Robert Stout, who is gay.

On an earlier program on the subject of controversial remarks about faith by another top general, Maginnis was also introduced as a former national security director of the Family Research Council.

Maginnis is among the more interesting retired officers mentioned in the Times article, which reports that he actually "works in the Pentagon for a military contractor." An online biography says he "is a senior strategist with the US Army in the Pentagon which is a contracted position with BCP International Limited, an Alexandria VA-based company. Since October of 2002, Col. Maginnis has been a member of the Secretary of Defense's retired Military Analysts Group."

So even though PBS may do better than most other TV operations in providing at least some better identification of guest connections, there is actually a good deal more that at times is worth taking an extra few seconds to tell viewers about.

As for Gen. Meigs, his only appearance on the NewsHour came on June 21, 2007, when the subject was the use of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, the highly lethal home-made bombs that were wreaking havoc with US troops in Iraq. But, as moderator Suarez pointed out, Meigs was called out of retirement in 2005 to run the Pentagon's counter-measures program.

Gen. Nash, who is a director for the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, has appeared on the NewsHour about four times in the past six years or so but, as the Times article points out, he has "no defense industry ties, and no fondness for the administration." Like other senior officers, he was always paired with another officer who took a different view as was the case on Jan. 23, 2007, when the subject was Gen. David Petraeus and whether he was the right man as the new US commander in Iraq.

The Early Team

Aside from the officers mentioned by the Times, the NewsHour, very early in the war more than five years ago, did use a handful of former officers as military analysts. They were on a retainer for one month. They included: retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a former Special Forces officer and chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency; retired Air Force Col. John Warden, a top planner in the 1991 Gulf War; retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who was identified on NewsHour programs as "a longtime consultant to the Defense Department;" former Marine Corp Col. Gary Anderson and Lt. Col. Dale Davis.

I asked NewsHour Senior Producer Mike Mosettig about these former officers and he said: "As far as we know, during the first hot phase of the Iraq war, the NewsHour never put on as guests — and certainly not in solo slots — any of the retired military people mentioned in The New York Times. As far as we can determine, none of our military analysts during the war came to our studios armed with talking points directly from Secretary Rumsfeld and Torie Clarke (the former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs who oversaw the department's dealing with the retired officer/analysts). Further, we believe that any review of our programming during that time, would show that Colonels Lang and Gardiner, supplemented by Colonels Warden, Anderson and Davis, all of whom were on monthly retainer, provided the most astringent and astute analysis of the war seen on American television."

Mosettig also points out that the program does extensive pre-interview interviews, including background checks and he says he felt there were no conflicts of interest at the time. "We are always working to make sure we are as transparent as possible in spelling out the current roles of our guests, either financial or political."

On balance, as I said earlier, I thought the NewsHour's record in identifying its guests and their various continuing connections to the Pentagon was pretty good and a lot better than other networks. Most importantly, these former officers were always on with other officers who presented an opposing view to NewsHour viewers, and that is something that routinely distinguishes PBS from other such segments elsewhere.

What Me, Worry?

Nevertheless, the value of the Times article, which I viewed as an excellent public service, lays out in detail the depth of these continuing ties to the Pentagon, to the vast array of contractors and contracts that surround it, and to the public relations value — both in terms of policy and attraction of business — that can be influenced by TV performances.

There is nothing wrong with retired officers with important experience coming on TV as analysts. They can, and often do, make valuable contributions to understanding. And obviously anyone going on television to discuss important matters will check with his or her contacts in the military beforehand to get an up-to-date assessment on how others see the issue. That would be normal for any specialized field.

Yet the Times article documents what is also the heavy-hand of propaganda and media manipulation — tactics that have been reported on before with this administration — that can make such appearances deceptive and dangerous for the public. That is especially so because of the trust that so many people put in experienced military officers even if they no longer wear the uniform. That is why it is so crucial that networks apply rigorous standards in vetting these guests — indeed, all guests — and in letting the viewer in on what they find out. That is why it is so disappointing that the networks didn't even cover this story and why it is likely that it will happen again, and again.


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