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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.