The morning of June 20, 2006, an email message circulated amongst U.S. Defense Department officials.
“Jed Babbin, one of our military analysts, is hosting the Michael Medved nationally syndicated radio show this afternoon. He would like to see if General [George W.] Casey would be available for a phone interview,” the Pentagon staffer wrote. “This would be a softball interview and the show is 8th or 9th in the nation.”
Why would the Pentagon help set up a radio interview? And how did they know that the interview would be “softball”?
From early 2002 to April 2008, the Defense Department offered talking points, organized trips to places such as Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and gave private briefings to a legion of retired military officers working as media pundits. The Pentagon’s military analyst program, a covert effort to promote a positive image of the Bush administration’s wartime performance, was a multi-level campaign involving quite a few colorful characters.
Flipping through the over 8,000 pages of documents released in connection with the program, one Pentagon pundit arguably steals the spotlight: Jed Babbin. A former Pentagon official himself, the retired Air Force officer served as a deputy undersecretary of defense with the George H.W. Bush administration. Since then, he has kept busy authoring books, serving as a contributing editor to the conservative monthly American Spectator, frequently filling in for right-wing radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham and Hugh Hewitt, and appearing as a military pundit on cable television.
The Pentagon Producers
Babbin repeatedly appears in the Pentagon pundit documents, usually either emailing his American Spectator articles to Pentagon officials, or using his special access to arrange interviews with high-ranking government and military officers for his articles and radio guest host gigs.
“We can work it,” Bryan Whitman wrote in a message to fellow Pentagon public affairs staffer Eric Ruff in July 2005. Whitman had just secured deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs Matthew Waxman for Babbin’s guest host slot on “The Mark Larson Show,” a conservative radio program out of California. “I hope you are getting a cut of Babbin’s action as his agent,” Whitman joked to Ruff.
In February 2006, Babbin emailed Pentagon legal advisor Thomas Hemingway. “I’m subbing for Hugh Hewitt again tomorrow and want to bash the UN report,” he wrote, referring to an inquiry into conditions at Guantanamo Bay that led the United Nations to call for the detention center to be closed. “I asked for [U.S. Army Major General] Jay Hood and got the answer that the military isn’t going out on that now. Can you do it? Please call asap.”
Babbin didn’t just use Pentagon public affairs staffers as his radio bookers. He also asked them for their thoughts on what he should say, as a pundit.
“I just got a call from Jed Babbin,” wrote one Pentagon public affairs officer in October 2006. “He is going to be on [the CNBC show] Kudlow [& Company] tonight and want [sic] to be prepared if they ask him about the [Al-Qaeda] threat to Saudi oil fields. … Anything we could share with him??”
The Pentagon was also more than proactive. “[Fox News’] Hannity and Colmes is having Jed Babbin on today to talk about North Korea,” emailed Pentagon public affairs staffer Dallas Lawrence to Ruff and Whitman in February 2005. “We are getting Jed a one pager on the status of forces in the Korean Peninsula (the message being, we still have a massive deterrent there for [North Korea]). We will also put him into touch with State for talking points on the 6 party talks.”
An Ethical Dilemma
In a phone interview, Babbin defended his communications with the Pentagon. “I am a journalist,” he told me. “I have information that’s given to me by sources of all sorts. Private information is what you normally do in Washington. You get confidential sources and you rely on them. I’m not compromised. I can’t speak for anybody else other than myself, but I have no relationship with defense contractors, I have no contracts with the Pentagon. There’s no conflict there.”
But Babbin’s contacts with the Pentagon are still problematic, according to Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute for media studies. “When you hire a former general [as a media commentator], you’re hiring him for his expertise and his ability to independently analyze what’s going on,” she explained. “If you’re assuming because he’s retired he has a measure of independence and then you find out, no, he’s actually been to all these trainings where he’s received talking points, that’s a problem. You have promised your audience that you’re going to deliver them independent analysis — not a mouthpiece for the Pentagon.”
That raises the question of whether the responsibility to ensure the integrity and independence of military analysts lies with the pundits themselves or with the media outlets that hired them. In this case, says McBride, it’s the latter.
“The journalists had the obligation to figure out if their sources were independent,” she said. “Each show decided how they were going to use these people, and at that point, somebody should’ve been having a conversation about what they’re bringing to the product and how that works, and then finally, there should be an overall standard that says when we hire people, here is what we should ask of them.”
In his defense, Babbin said that “everyone I wrote for and so forth knew I was talking to people in the Pentagon.” Babbin also went on government-funded trips to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, but said he doesn’t believe that any of the media outlets he writes or appears on-air for have policies against such activity. So, Babbin concludes that he had no conflicts of interest.
Do the media outlets that Babbin appeared on feel the same way? Salem Radio Network, which produces both “The Hugh Hewitt Show” and “The Michael Medved Show,” radio programs that Babbin appeared on while participating in the Pentagon’s pundit program, refused comment. Phone calls to the American Spectator and WMET of Washington, D.C., were not returned.
Todd Meyer, a producer for Greg Garrison’s show on Indianapolis radio station WIBC, one of Babbin’s more frequent stomping grounds, said, “I’m not sure if Jed mentioned he was a part of [the Department of Defense’s military analyst program]. He might at some point. He said over the years, though, that he’s been part of many, many briefings at the Pentagon, most when he was actually working there under Bush 41.”
Meyer added that Babbin was never presented on the show as an independent analyst. “Jed Babbin is the editor of Human Events, he wrote for National Review, he wrote for American Spectator. He’s conservative,” stressed Meyer. “We’re a conservative talk show. Mr. Babbin’s been on our show many, many times over the years and he comes from a conservative background. He was privy to a number of briefings. We took advantage of hearing what was in those briefings.”
But is being conservative synonymous with being a mouthpiece for the Pentagon?
Babbin contends that he was nothing of the sort. “If they were buying my loyalty, they got a pretty bad bargain. If they thought they were buying my reporting, they really had a very poor investment. Look at my stories, look at what I’ve written. I’ve been very highly critical at times of the president and a lot of the people who conduct the war.”
A Very Helpful Pundit (Not Like Some)
Judging by the Pentagon pundit documents, the Defense Department sees Babbin as an ardent supporter. “Babbin will do us well,” Pentagon PR staffer Bryan Whitman wrote in a March 2005 email. In June 2005, Larry Di Rita told fellow Pentagon public affairs officers, “We really should try to help [Babbin secure guests for his radio hosting gigs]. … He is consistently solid and helpful.” Another message, from Thomas Hemingway to Eric Ruff in June 2006, reads: “I’m sure all your folks are familiar with the tremendous support we’ve received from Jed.” And that’s in addition to the aforementioned “softball interview” comment.
Not all the military analysts were as enthusiastic as Babbin. Kenneth Allard started out that way. In 2005, he told the Pentagon that he was working on a book about the role of military analysts on cable television.
“I have lined up the support of most of them but also wanted to highlight the Secretary’s role in having started these gatherings,” Allard wrote in an email message to Ruff in December 2005. “You see, the Clinton crowd simply ignored us and hoped we would just go away. … You guys deserve credit for having had the smarts to invite us into the fold. With all the hell that gets raised in Washington about government cover-ups and concealments, it’s actually refreshing that somebody thought to inform some rather knowledgeable observers about what was really going on.”
The deteriorating situation in Iraq changed Allard’s outlook on the Pentagon pundit program. In 2008, he told the New York Times that he recognized a growing chasm between what the Department of Defense was telling the military analysts and what independent reports showed. “Night and day,” Allard said. “I felt we’d been hosed.”
“I know Ken quite well and I don’t know why he gave it that characterization,” Babbin told me. “I asked a lot of tough questions and sometimes got answers that were satisfactory and some that weren’t.” However, Babbin doesn’t seem to have shared his concern with his readers, listeners or viewers when the Pentagon’s answers were unsatisfactory.
The experience of another analyst, William V. Cowan, best illustrates the Pentagon’s low tolerance for dissent. After Cowan criticized U.S. military operations in Iraq on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” he was “precipitously fired from the analysts group,” according to the New York Times.
While Jed Babbin was only one of some 75 retired military officers that the Department of Defense used as their so-called “message force multipliers” and “surrogates,” and while he wasn’t seeking defense contracts like some of his fellow pundits, his case is representative of the breakdown of transparency and accountability consequent to the Pentagon’s covert program. Babbin’s experience also shows that someone could consistently parrot the administration’s talking points, while believing himself to be independent and even, at times, critical of the official narrative.
Following the New York Times report exposing the military analyst program, Pentagon spokesperson Robert Hastings said, “The briefings and all other interactions with the military analysts had been suspended indefinitely pending an internal review.”
However, even that may be misleading.
“The program has stopped,” Babbin told me. “But obviously I talk to a lot of people in this town.”
DANIEL HAACK interned at the Center for Media and Democracy this summer. He’s studying international communications and integrated marketing communications at Ithaca College.