David Barstow of the New York Times has written the first installment in what is already a stunning exposé of the Bush Administration’s most powerful propaganda weapon used to sell and manage the war on Iraq: the embedding of military propagandists directly into the TV networks as on-air commentators. We and others have long criticized the widespread TV network practice of hiring former military officials to serve as analysts, but even in our most cynical moments we did not anticipate how bad it was. Barstow has painstakingly documented how these analysts, most of them military industry consultants and lobbyists, were directly chosen, managed, coordinated and given their talking points by the Pentagon’s ministers of propaganda.
Thanks to the two-year investigation by the New York Times, we today know that Victoria Clarke, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, launched the Pentagon military analyst program in early 2002. These supposedly independent military analysts were in fact a coordinated team of pro-war propagandists, personally recruited by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and acting under Clarke’s tutelage and development.
One former participant, NBC military analyst Kenneth Allard, has called the effort “psyops on steroids.” As Barstow reports, “Internal 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.’ … Don Meyer, an aide to Ms. Clarke, said a strategic decision was made in 2002 to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war.”
Clarke and her senior aide, Brent T. Krueger, eventually signed up more than 75 retired military officers who penned newspaper op/ed columns and appeared on television and radio news shows as military analysts. The Pentagon held weekly meetings with the military analysts, which continued as of April 20, 2008, when the New York Times ran Barstow’s story. The program proved so successful that it was expanded to issues besides the Iraq War. “Other branches of the administration also began to make use of the analysts. Mr. Gonzales, then the attorney general, met with them soon after news leaked that the government was wiretapping terrorism suspects in the United States without warrants, Pentagon records show. When David H. Petraeus was appointed the commanding general in Iraq in January 2007, one of his early acts was to meet with the analysts.”
Barstow spent two years digging, using the Freedom of Information Act and attorneys to force the Bush Administration to release some 8,000 pages of documents now under lock and key at the New York Times. This treasure trove should result in additional stories, giving them a sort of “Pentagon Papers” of Iraq war propaganda.
In 1971, when the Times printed excerpts of the Pentagon Papers on its front page, it precipitated a constitutional showdown with the Nixon Administration over the deception and lies that sold the war in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers issue dominated the news media back then. Today, however, Barstow’s stunning report is being ignored by the most important news media in America — TV news — the source where most Americans, unfortunately, get most of their information.
Joseph Goebbels, eat your heart out. Goebbels is history’s most notorious war propagandist, but even he could not have invented a smoother PR vehicle for selling and maintaining media and public support for a war: embed trusted “independent” military experts into the TV newsroom. As with most propaganda, the key to the success of this effort was the element of concealment, as these analysts and the Bush administration hid the fact that their talking points and marching orders were coming directly from the Pentagon.
The use of these analysts was a glaring violation of journalistic standards. As the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists explains, journalists are supposed to
* Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
* Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
* Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
* Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
* Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
* Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
* Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
The networks using these analysts as journalists shamelessly failed to vet their experts and ignored the obvious conflicts of hiring a person with financial relationships to companies profiting from war to be an on-air analyst of war. They acted as if war was a football game and their military commentators were former coaches and players familiar with the rules and strategies. The TV networks even paid these “analysts” for their propaganda, enabling them to present themselves as “third party experts” while parroting White House talking points to sell the war.
Now that Barstow has blown their cover, the TV networks have generally refused to comment about this matter. Further compounding their violations of the public trust, they are blacking out coverage of the New York Times exposé, no doubt on advice of their own PR and crisis management advisors.
Since the 1920s there have been laws passed to stop the government from doing what Barstow has exposed. It is actually illegal in the United States for the government to propagandize its own citizens. As Barstow’s report demonstrates, these laws have been repeatedly violated, are not enforced and are clearly inadequate. The U.S. Congress therefore needs to investigate this and the rest of the Bush propaganda campaign that sold the war in Iraq.
The attack and occupation of Iraq continues, with no end in sight. Estimates of the number of Iraqi dead range from the hundreds of thousands to more than a million. The cost to American taxpayers will eventually be in the trillions of dollars. More than 4,000 US soldiers have lost their lives, and this is just a part of the horrific toll of mental and physical disability that the war is taking on hundreds of thousands of troops and their families.
This war would never have been possible had the mainstream news media done its job. Instead, it has repeated the Big Lies that sold the war. This war would never have been possible without the millions of dollars spent by the Bush Administration on sophisticated and deceptive public relations techniques such as the Pentagon military analyst program that David Barstow has exposed. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Victoria Clarke, who designed and oversaw this Pentagon propaganda machine, now works as a commentator for TV network news. She may have changed jobs and employers since leaving the Pentagon, but her work remains the same.
John Stauber is the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy.