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Pentagon’s Pundits: A Look at the Defense Department’s Propaganda Program

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The New York Times has revealed new details on how the Pentagon recruited more than seventy-five retired military officers to appear on TV outlets as so-called military analysts ahead of the Iraq war to portray Iraq as an urgent threat. The Times reported the Pentagon continues to use the analysts in a propaganda campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance. We speak with Col. Sam Gardiner (Ret.) and Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now we turn to the ‘Pentagon’s Pundits.” The corporate media’s reliance on retired military officers for on-air commentary is well known. From the lead-up to the Iraq war to the present day, dozens of pro-war former military officials have appeared on the major news networks billed as impartial experts.

This is a brief excerpt of the documentary Independent Media in a Time of War

by the Hudson Mohawk Independent Media Center.

    MICHAEL MOORE: I would like tonight to call for a removal, an immediate removal, of all US troops from CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, NBC, all of them.

    CNN ANCHOR: Via phone by General Franks.

    COL. MIKE TURNER: The embed program, I think, is just superb.

    MSNBC EMBED: We have three aircraft carrier battle groups.

    MSNBC EMBED: Still a great deal of activity.

    NBC EMBED: Just like out of an action movie.

    GEN. WESLEY CLARK: We’ve hit, we’ve struck, You can the sort of adrenaline pumping.

    VICE ADM. DENNIS McGINN: We are coming, and you can’t do anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Media critics have long pointed out the discrepancy between the overwhelming number of pro-war military voices versus the almost complete absence of antiwar voices.

It turns out the pro-war slant of military analysts was in fact part of a carefully orchestrated propaganda effort from the Pentagon. The New York Times has revealed the Pentagon recruited more than seventy-five retired military officers to appear on TV outlets as so-called military analysts ahead of the Iraq war. Newly disclosed Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” who could be counted on to deliver administration themes and messages to millions of Americans in the form of their own opinions.

The so-called analysts were given classified Pentagon briefings, provided with Pentagon-approved talking points and given free trips to Iraq and other sites paid for by the Pentagon. Their involvement was ultimately approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Retired Green Beret Robert Bevelacqua, a former Fox News analyst, said, “It was [the Pentagon] saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you.’”

The Pentagon even hired a private contractor to monitor the analysts’ broadcast interviews. Brent Krueger, a senior official who helped oversee the propaganda effort, said, “We were able to click on every single station, and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’”

The propaganda campaign also extended into the nation’s newspapers. Nine of the Pentagon-connected analysts wrote op-ed articles for the New York Times, and the Pentagon helped two retired military officers write a piece for the Wall Street Journal.

Many of the same retired military officers also have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they were asked to assess on air. In interviews, at least two so-called analysts admitted to deliberately tempering their on-air comments out of fear of losing military contracts for their firms. Officials from NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN all admitted to being unaware of their analysts business interests in the war. Fox News declined to comment for the New York Times.

The Times reports the Pentagon continues to use the analysts in a propaganda campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.

For more on this story, I’m joined by two guests. Peter Hart, activism director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, known as FAIR, in New York, he writes for FAIR’s magazine Extra! and is also co-host of FAIR’s syndicated radio show CounterSpin. Joining on the phone from Virginia, Colonel Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force Colonel, he has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College.

Let’s begin with you, Sam Gardiner. Your response to the expose in the Times?

COL. SAM GARDINER: I think that there are about four or five levels of problems here. The most profound and the most painful is their disdain of the Pentagon for democracy. I mean, think about it. What we have seen, this is a part of the campaign. They don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe that the American people, if given the truth, will come to a good decision. That’s very painful.

The second thing is about the military analysts themselves. They were being given these briefings, but none of them ever said that they were provided this inside information.

And then, I think the third thing is the networks themselves. They wanted cheerleaders, and they could have — without knowing the background that the analysts were being given inside information, they wanted cheerleaders, and they knew that cheerleaders gave them access. So, I mean, there are really some serious problems from top to bottom on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Hart, your take on this? You’ve been looking at the media, critiquing how the networks and the press have covered this war.

PETER HART: I think FAIR has been talking about this for twenty-plus years, so there isn’t a surprise in the sense that the media rely on these retired military officials for perspective in covering any war. What I think is surprising and distressing is the media aspect of it. The Pentagon trying to get its story out is no surprise. And the Times focused on that. The Times spent less time talking about the media’s role as accomplices in this propaganda operation, and I think that’s what’s important.

When you look at who they relied on and combine that with the fact that they were talking to current military officials and current government officials, you have an overwhelming source pool that is dominated by people who support this war or any war. So it’s not surprising that this was going on.

I think the extent of the briefings was somewhat shocking and the blase attitude from the networks. They didn’t care what military contractors these guys were representing when they were out at the studio. They didn’t care that the Pentagon was flying them on their own dime to Iraq. Just basic journalistic judgment was completely lacking here. So I think the story is really about a media failure, more than a Pentagon failure. The Pentagon did exactly what you would expect to do, taking advantage of this media bias in favor of having more and more generals on the air when the country is at war.

AMY GOODMAN: In this piece in the New York Times is the role of Torie Clarke, Victoria Clarke, who at the time was Pentagon spokesperson. Peter Hart — now she is an ABC commentator — can you talk about the setting up of this program?

PETER HART: Well, I think they took advantage of something that they understood to exist in the media already: a preference for these retired military officers to come in and give perspective about the war. So they started in 2002, understood that these guys actually get more air time than many of the anchors on CNN and NBC. So they went to them and said, “Look, we’ll supply you with talking points, special briefings with Don Rumsfeld.” I think by the Times’s count, there were eighteen meetings with Donald Rumsfeld in his private briefing room. They set out the good china when they arrived. So the Pentagon knew that they could spin these stories, and they were remarkably successful.

One of the most shocking things in the story is that in early 2003, these guys got a briefing about WMDs, and the government said, “We actually don’t have hard evidence right now that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” Did any of them go on the air and say that? No. The Pentagon, I think, had total control and total faith that these guys would deliver the message that they intended to deliver to the public, and that’s exactly what they did, and the media did very little to counteract this overwhelming propaganda campaign from the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Gardiner, can you talk about psychological operations, PSYOP, something you are a specialist in, and whether you see this fitting in?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, Amy, it was part of a campaign, and you and I have talked about this before. The campaign that the Pentagon designed had three elements. One element was to dominate the news 24/7. I was at a conference in London in the summer of 2003 at which the Pentagon communication consultant, John Rendon, spoke and gave an assessment of how they had done in the run-up to the war. And he said, “Well, there were three things we tried to do, and we did well on two, but not the third.” The first was to make the news be theirs 24/7, and they did that by the morning briefings from Baghdad — or from Kuwait and then the afternoon press conference from the Pentagon. “We wanted to control the printed media, and that was primarily done by the embedded program.” He said, “The one thing we failed at was we didn’t have people who provided the context. We lost control of the military analysts, and they were giving context.”

So it was about sixty days after that presentation that the Pentagon began this meeting with the military analysts. And I might point out that it was only those who generally agreed. People who had been saying critical things were never invited to this. I was never invited, and I had been saying critical things about the number of troops and, you know, about the argument for the war and even WMD, but didn’t get invited. People that were generally supportive of the Pentagon were the ones that were invited.

But it was certainly part of — and this is where I think I fault the Pentagon. We’re very close to violating the law. They are prohibited from doing propaganda against American people. And when you put together the campaign that Torie Clarke did with these three elements, you’re very close to a violation of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back in time to actually 1999. It was April 22, and the scene was New York at the formal Overseas Press Club Awards. I had a chance then, after the awards ceremony, to interview CNN anchor and vice-president Frank Sesno. I asked Sesno about the practice of putting retired generals on CNN without also putting on peace activists.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you agree with your network’s policy, CNN, and the other networks, all of them, putting retired military generals on the payroll as military analysts? Do you think that is appropriate?

    FRANK SESNO: I think that what we routinely do when we get into a major story is we try to, through some commitments, financial commitments, have certain people who are effectively consulting, working with us and for us. I believe as long as we identify them as what they are, as long as we believe in our editorial judgment that their judgment is straight and honest — and we judge that — and it’s not a series of talking points, yes, I think it’s appropriate.

    I think it would become inappropriate if they were our only source of information or our only source of analysis or our only source of whatever the opinion is that we’re assessing, if there were no opposing viewpoints, if you will.

    But just as I don’t think it’s inappropriate for us to have obtained an academic, Michael Gerhardt, during the impeachment proceedings, who in fact testified during a portion of those hearings, who had his own point of view — he brought something to us, and we paid him for that — I don’t think it’s inappropriate to do the same with others who happen to have as their qualifications that they used to wear a uniform.

    AMY GOODMAN: But the Pentagon is more than willing to share its point of view for free. Why do you have to pay for one side?

    FRANK SESNO: The Pentagon actually doesn’t share everything, by any means, including its analysis. And we have found through extensive experience with those retired generals who are informed, connected and have integrity that they bring in extra depth of analysis.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, then, let me ask you this. If you support the —-

    FRANK SESNO: Last one.

    AMY GOODMAN: OK. If you support the practice of putting ex-military men, generals, on the payroll to share their opinion during a time of war, would you also support putting peace activists on the payroll to give a different opinion in times of war, to be sitting there with the military generals, talking about why they feel that war is not appropriate?

    FRANK SESNO: We bring the generals in because of their expertise in a particular area. We call them analysts. We don’t bring them in as advocates. In fact, we actually talk to them about that. They are not there as advocates.

    AMY GOODMAN: And yet, they’re repeatedly asked whether, for example, they think the war should be escalated from air strikes to bringing in ground troops?

    FRANK SESNO: Now, that’s not true. They are asked as military strategists and planners and professionals, whether you like it or not, whether a particular kind of warfare, a limited warfare, is going to be, in that particular question you laid out, sufficient to do the military job that the politicians have explained. But they are also asked and mostly asked questions about particular pieces of equipment or hardware, about various other tactics. But as I say, we don’t -— you know, we’re not — we’re not talking to them as, in our view, as advocates, rather as analysts.

    AMY GOODMAN: And yet, why not put peace activists on the payroll?

    FRANK SESNO: We do.


    FRANK SESNO: On payroll? No, we don’t put peace activists — we don’t — we do not choose to put a lot of people on the payroll. And we will put people on the payroll whom we choose and whom we feel is necessary to put on the payroll.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who was the last peace activist, peace leader that you interviewed?

    FRANK SESNO: I will tell you that I do not have in front of me, you know, a log of the people I’ve interviewed or others have interviewed. I think we have had a wide array of opinion over our programs.

    AMY GOODMAN: Tomorrow, there will be a major protest in Washington for the fiftieth anniversary of NATO. Will you be bringing — not just showing pictures of people shouting and screaming in protest, but will you be bringing the leaders of, for example, Peace Action, of Fellowship of Reconciliation, of the different peace groups into your studio to interview them extensively about why they’re against the bombing?

    FRANK SESNO: I can’t tell you right here off the top of my head what our coverage plans are on — at that level of specificity. I’d have to look at our rundown and look at some of our planning. But I will tell you this and make you this assurance, that we are going to be covering the NATO story in all of its dimensions, just as we cover every story in all of its dimensions. If there are protests and they are newsworthy, they will be covered.

    AMY GOODMAN: Would you ever think of interviewing Noam Chomsky, for example?

    FRANK SESNO: I would think of interviewing all sorts of people.

    AMY GOODMAN: And yet, he has never been on CNN.

    FRANK SESNO: I don’t — I personally don’t know Noam Chomsky personally. Alright, so, you know, if there are people with points of view, we’re very interested to hear those points of view, and there are a lot of ways of doing it.

    AMY GOODMAN: How, other than screaming in the streets and getting a picture taken?

    FRANK SESNO: Well, that’s up to you. But, you know, there are a lot of ways people have of registering their opinions: through op-eds, through phone-in shows, through protest, if that’s what people are doing.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about an invitation into your studio for an extensive interview, like the military generals get?

    FRANK SESNO: Why don’t you have — why don’t you have him get me — get me my — get me a card, and we’ll see what we can do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was, well, then-CNN Vice President Frank Sesno. It was April 22, 1999 in the midst of the bombing of Yugoslavia. Frank Sesno is now CNN’s special correspondent. Well, at that time, a few days later, we called up Noam Chomsky and asked him his response.

    NOAM CHOMSKY: About what he has to say, I mean, they have a pretense, which they probably believe, of presenting all sides, but it’s within the framework of the government propaganda system. So, for example, you could get Serbian military experts, too. They could comment on military affairs, if you simply want military experts. And there are plenty of military experts who are highly critical of US policy. One could have them on.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Noam Chomsky. Well, the former news chief of CNN defended his decision last August to seek the Pentagon’s approval of prospective CNN news analysts during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Eason Jordan, who now runs the Iraq Slogger website, said, quote, “Employers routinely vet prospective employees with their previous employers. In these cases, we vetted retired generals to ensure they were experts in specific military and geographic areas. The generals were not vetted for political views,” he said. Eason Jordan’s comments have come under renewed scrutiny after being featured in Norman Solomon’s film War Made Easy. This is an excerpt.

    EASON JORDAN: Oh, I think it’s important to have experts explain the war and to describe the military hardware, describe the tactics, talk about the strategy behind the conflict. I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started, met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war, and we got a big thumbs up on all of them. That was important.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eason Jordan. Well, a couple of weeks into the 2003 Iraq invasion, Jeremy Scahill and I hosted a discussion on the corporate media and the war with, well, then-CNN host Aaron Brown. Steve Rendall was also with us, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. I just want to play excerpts from that discussion. This is Steve Rendall questioning Aaron Brown about CNN’s extensive use of retired generals.

    STEVE RENDALL: The question that I would like to ask is, whenever the question is war, what we see is the networks and the cable news channels running out and hiring ex-generals, former Pentagon officials, national security types, people to a man and woman who think in terms of military solutions. We ask, why don’t they hire the people who would be seen as a counter, as a counterweight to those militarist voices?

    AARON BROWN: I think the generals question, respectfully, is a colossal red herring. For one thing — and I’ll just speak about the generals that I deal with, and in particular one I deal with a lot, General Clark — I don’t know one of them who is eager or was eager to engage in this war and probably any war, because they know much better than you know and I know the cost of war. Now, political leadership is something else, but military leadership, because I’ve been around them and have some feel for how they think, I’m confident in.

    But if what — part of what we have to do — we don’t bring generals in to engage in a debate over whether the war should or should not be fought, and that’s why that’s a red herring. We bring generals in to explain what is happening on the ground and why. That’s an enormous difference. An enormous difference. And I think it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that an explanation of the tactical moment needs to be offset by someone who doesn’t believe there ought to be a tactical moment at all. It’s happening. It needs explanation. Viewers are entitled to explanation. They need to know if it is effective or not effective or why. They need to understand where it’s going. They need to understand the costs of it all. And all of those things are how we use generals or military people. We don’t use them ever — well, we haven’t used them in the course of the war itself to discuss the appropriateness of the war, as opposed to the execution of the war.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Aaron, will you consider hiring a paid antiwar analyst for NewsNight?

    AARON BROWN: I honestly don’t think it’s a particularly relevant question. I mean, it’s not — it’s — we’re in a war. There’s going to be times after the war when we’re going to have to talk about how that — how the occupation is being run and whether it’s being run appropriately by the right people, and in a fair and smart way, and what the implications are of an American occupation of an important Arab capital. And at that point, by and large, the generals go away because there’s no war to cover. Or there’s a different war to cover, a different kind of war to cover. And we’ll look for a range of people to talk about those issues.

    AMY GOODMAN: But right now?

    AARON BROWN: But again, no, because I think it’s a red herring issue.

    AMY GOODMAN: To have an antiwar analyst onboard, paid to be at your beck and call, like the generals?

    AARON BROWN: I think — yes. As my daughter would say, I’m not sure what part of that answer was confusing. But yes, I don’t think that’s the question, and I don’t think it’s how we use the generals at all, period. I mean, I don’t know how many times we’re going to go over the same thing. I just don’t think we use the generals to argue the war. We use the generals to explain what is happening on the ground and why. That’s an important thing to do, and that’s the role they play.

AMY GOODMAN: Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown. Final comment, Peter Hart?

PETER HART: — gave, that was wrong. That’s not how the generals were used. That’s not how they’re used up to the present day. Whenever there was news from Iraq that needed to be spun in the Pentagon’s favor, they went back to the generals. In late 2003, the guerrilla war is heating up; they get the generals to Iraq to show them their side of things. Guantanamo comes under heat; they take the generals to Guantanamo and have them — they roll them out to the networks to talk about how Guantanamo is fantastically run. Donald Rumsfeld is criticized by a different class of generals; well, let’s bring in the Pentagon generals, give them briefings and send them out, have them write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and so forth.

This is, I think, a standing bias of the mainstream media, and I put the onus on the media over this story. They don’t have to operate this way, but they do. And they don’t see any other way of doing business than relying on these folks who we now know are in the pocket of the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Colonel Sam Gardiner, your comment? The Times had to sue the Pentagon to gain access to the 8,000 pages of email messages, transcripts and records describing these years of private briefings, trips to Iraq and Guantanamo, the extensive Pentagon talking points operation.

COL. SAM GARDINER: Yeah. I must say that my criticism is of the Pentagon. After the first Gulf War, there was sort of a culture change, and it occurred not only in the leadership of the civilian part of the Pentagon, but also in military people, which was the idea that they had to manipulate the press to get support. They called it different things. It was called “information warfare,” it was called “strategic communications.” But never before have we had so much of a cultural focus on the message as almost being more important than what they do.

And we’ve seen that all through the operations in Iraq, from the naming of terrorist death squads in ways to connect to 9/11 to the most recent experience where we’re talking about special groups so you can connect it with the Iranians being in Iraq. It is a cultural change that even leads officers to lie. And that occurs both of active-duty and retired officers. And that is a painful change in a culture where truth has been the essence of what an officer was, and that seems to be fading.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Sam Gardiner, I want to thank you for being with us, and Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. When we come back from break, from pro-war pundits to an antiwar vet. We’ll be joined by Utah Sergeant Marshall Thompson. Stay with us.

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