Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only shake you down once a year, but when we do we really mean it. It costs a lot to keep the site afloat, and our growing audience, well over TWO million unique viewers a month, eats up a lot of bandwidth — and bandwidth isn’t free. We aren’t supported by corporate donors, advertisers or big foundations. We survive solely on your support.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pentagon Pundits Get a Pass

by DIANE FARSETTA

Is there a difference between covert propaganda and secretive campaigns to shape public opinion on controversial issues? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) apparently thinks that there is.

The GAO recently ruled that the Pentagon pundit program did not break the law against taxpayer-funded domestic propaganda. The program involved some 75 retired military officers who serve as frequent media commentators. From 2002 to 2008, the Pentagon set up meetings between the pundits and high-level Department of Defense (DOD) officials. The Pentagon’s PR staff not only gave the pundits talking points, but helped them draft opinion columns and gave them feedback on their media appearances. The Pentagon also paid for the pundits to travel overseas, following carefully-scripted itineraries designed to highlight successes in Iraq and humane measures at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

“There is no doubt,” the GAO ruling states, “that DOD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the Administration’s war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the [pundits] with conference calls, meetings, travel, and access to senior DOD officials.” However, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress concluded that the Pentagon pundit program wasn’t covert propaganda, for two reasons: the Pentagon didn’t pay the pundits for their favorable commentary, or conceal the program from the public.

However, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the program, along with the available internal Pentagon documents, reveal major holes in the GAO’s reasoning.

All that glitters is not gold

In finding that the pundits “clearly were not paid by DOD,” the GAO ignores well-documented evidence — including statements from some of the pundits themselves — that the Pentagon access and information they received was as good as gold.

Many of the pundits are lobbyists, executives or consultants for military contractors. In these roles, their ability to attract clients and the rates they’re able to charge are directly related to the number of influential Pentagon contacts they have and their ability to learn privileged information. The Pentagon pundit program provided both in spades. “Some Pentagon officials said they were well aware that some analysts viewed their special access as a business advantage,” reported the New York Times’ David Barstow. Brent Krueger, a former Pentagon aide involved in the pundit program, told Barstow, “Of course we realized that. … We weren’t naive.”

The Pentagon program even provided financial benefits to pundits without military industry ties. “Many analysts were being paid by the ‘hit,’ the number of times they appeared on TV,” explained the Times. “The more an analyst could boast of fresh inside information from high-level Pentagon ‘sources,’ the more hits he could expect.”

Further proof of the program’s worth to the pundits can be found in their willingness to repeat talking points they questioned or disagreed with, simply to remain on the Pentagon’s good side. Pundit and Blackbird Technologies vice president Timur J. Eads admitted that “he had at times held his tongue on television for fear that ‘some four-star could call up and say, “Kill that contract.”‘” Fellow pundit Robert S. Bevelacqua, who works for the military contractor WVC3 Group, Inc., questioned the case for war with Iraq presented at the Pentagon meetings, but kept his concerns to himself. “There’s no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart,” he told the Times.

To back up its assertion that the Pentagon didn’t conceal the existence of its pundit program, the GAO cites a New York Times article from April 2006. At the time, pressure was mounting on then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. To push back, Rumsfeld called an emergency meeting of the Pentagon pundits. Word of Rumsfeld’s efforts leaked, and the Times obtained a memo sent to the pundits. Its 2006 article reported that the memo had been sent to “retired generals who appear regularly on television” and who Pentagon officials “consider to be influential in shaping public opinion.”

That oblique reference to a massive — and, at the time, growing — Pentagon attempt to shape public opinion on many controversial issues falls far short of any realistic standard of meaningful disclosure. Moreover, the GAO fails to acknowledge that the 2006 Times report and others like it were prompted by a leak, which the Pentagon scrambled to cover. “This is very, very sensitive now,” a Pentagon official warned others about the pundit program at the time, according to the Times’ April 2008 report. That article also reported that program “participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon.”

Lastly, if the Pentagon was so forthcoming, why did the New York Times and its lawyers have to engage in a two-year-long legal battle, to have the Pentagon respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for documents about the pundit program?

What happened to the GAO?

The weaknesses in the GAO’s Pentagon pundit findings is surprising, given the agency’s strong track record of interpreting the “publicity or propaganda” restrictions. In 2004 and 2005, the agency repeatedly ruled that government-funded fake TV news segments, or video news releases (VNRs), were illegal covert propaganda.

“While agencies generally have the right to disseminate information about their policies and activities,” the GAO explained, “agencies may not use appropriated funds to produce or distribute [VNRs] intended to be viewed by television audiences that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials.” It is not sufficient, the GAO added, “for an agency to identify itself to the broadcasting organization as the source.”

In 2005, the GAO ruled that work done for the U.S. Department of Education by the PR firm Ketchum also constituted illegal covert propaganda. The problematic activities included VNRs and commentaries by Ketchum subcontractor Armstrong Williams, a PR executive and conservative pundit, that promoted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). “The Department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship with the Department,” the GAO concluded.

There are obvious parallels between undisclosed VNRs, Williams’ payola punditry and the Pentagon pundit program. All three employ a standard PR tactic — the third party technique — to promote a government agenda via seemingly-independent news or commentary.

In setting up the Pentagon pundit program, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Torie Clarke (a former PR executive) argued that “opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent,” according to the New York Times. Internal Pentagon documents that refer to the pundits as “surrogates” and “message force multipliers” further suggest that Defense Department officials were quite deliberately obscuring their role in shaping media commentaries by “key influentials.”

It’s unclear why the GAO would fail to take the most damning information into consideration, when ruling on the legality of the Pentagon pundit program. I fear that by giving a pass to a nefarious PR tactic that undermines transparency and democratic values, the GAO has helped pave the way for similar deceptive campaigns in the future.

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]