What will it take, for the Defense Department officials involved to be held responsible for an illegal government propaganda campaign? Why don’t news professionals realize that they need to vet their commentators and disclose any potential conflicts of interest to their audiences? When will the cable and network television stations that featured the Pentagon’s pundits tell viewers that their war commentary was anything but independent?
An in-depth article on one of 75 retired military officers covertly cultivated by the Pentagon to be its “message force multipliers” recently raised these questions yet again. Retired general, NBC News analyst and industry consultant Barry McCaffrey is a prime example of “a deeply opaque world,” where “privileged access to senior government officials” and “war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests,” writes New York Times reporter David Barstow. It was Barstow who first reported on the Pentagon pundit program, which was launched in early 2002 to help sell the Iraq war and later expanded to promote Bush administration talking points on such controversial issues as Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping.
In his follow-up to his April 2008 expose, Barstow focuses on McCaffrey as a one-man “military-industrial-media complex.” Barstow carefully documents how McCaffrey’s high-level contacts — his contentious relationship with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld notwithstanding — along with his media access and his role as a consultant for military and security contractors afforded McCaffrey opportunities to advance the interests of his clients, while profiting handsomely himself. For example, McCaffrey used insider information, obtained on Pentagon-funded trips to Iraq, to help the company Defense Solutions refine its proposal to supply Iraq with 5,000 armored vehicles. McCaffrey then promoted the Defense Solutions proposal directly to Iraq forces commander General David Petraeus, and made comments supportive of it during media appearances, as well as in testimony before Congress and in correspondence with policymakers and Defense Department officials — all while failing to disclose that Defense Solutions was his client.
It’s regrettable, but perhaps not surprising, that a military man wouldn’t appreciate the need to disclose such conflicts of interest in his media appearances. McCaffrey’s response to Barstow’s article, posted on the website of his consulting firm, BR McCaffrey Associates, does not address the issue of disclosure. “When he sees a concept that would support military interests,” the statement reads, “he does of course recommend it to national defense leaders. … General McCaffrey is an expert on national security. He is not a reporter.”
However, the reporters at NBC News also failed to understand the importance of disclosure. NBC News president Steve Capus claimed that while McCaffrey is not held to the network’s conflict-of-interest rules because of his status as a consultant, he is an “independent voice” whose business interests simply don’t impact his commentary. According to emails obtained by Glenn Greenwald, NBC coordinated its response to Barstow’s article with McCaffrey. Worse, NBC has yet to report on the Pentagon pundit scandal — or even respond to the commenters on its “Daily Nightly” blog who have asked about McCaffrey.
In addition to documenting how easily military uniforms and medals have masked hidden interests and shaped coverage of the most important issues of the past several years, Barstow’s new article further shows the journalistic bankruptcy of war commentary. In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, McCaffrey had “significant doubts” about the size of the U.S. invasion force and the lack of post-invasion planning. Yet, in his appearances on NBC and its cable affiliates, McCaffrey was a cheerleader for the imminent war. Days before the invasion, McCaffrey told Tom Brokaw that he had no “real serious” concerns about invading Iraq. When McCaffrey belatedly admitted some doubts, Rumsfeld cut him out of the Pentagon’s pundit briefings and calls. Yet, the Pentagon continued to cultivate McCaffrey and monitor his public statements, arguably paying more attention to him than to their stable of more compliant pundits.
How the Pentagon managed McCaffrey
The 8,000 pages of Pentagon pundit documents — which the New York Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (backed up by lawsuits) and the Defense Department later made public — provide more information about McCaffrey and his complex relationship with the Pentagon’s PR machine. (The Center for Media and Democracy has converted the Pentagon pundit documents to text-searchable form.)
McCaffrey was one of the earliest participants in the Pentagon pundit program. He attended pundit meetings with Rumsfeld on October 31, 2002, and January 10, 2003, and was on a pundit conference call discussing Iraq on April 1, 2003. McCaffrey’s name also appears on a roster of 14 Pentagon pundits, dated February 12, 2003.
According to Barstow, Rumsfeld exiled McCaffrey from the pundit program in 2003. Yet the Pentagon continued to include McCaffrey in its media tracking and analysis, and went to significant lengths to influence what he was saying. In a November 2006 email exchange among Pentagon officials involved in the pundit program, one explained that McCaffrey’s “audience reach is significant, and his observations will continue to shape popular opinion as we transition to a new SECDEF [Secretary of Defense] and continue to look hard at the GWOT [Global War on Terror] way ahead.”
One way in which the Pentagon sought to sway McCaffrey was by organizing and funding overseas trips for him. “Other military analysts were invited on trips, but only in groups. General McCaffrey went by himself,” reports Barstow. “The stated purpose was for General McCaffrey to provide an outside assessment in his role as a part-time professor at West Point. But his trips were also an important public relations tool, meticulously planned to arm him with anecdotes of progress.”
The Pentagon pundit documents detail four of McCaffrey’s freebie trips: to Afghanistan and Pakistan in August 2005, to Saudi Arabia in January and February 2007, a return to Pakistan and Afghanistan in February 2007, and to Kuwait and Iraq in March 2007. The documents specify that most of these trips were requested by the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, Egypt and Central Asia. The exception is McCaffrey’s Saudi Arabia visit, which was “at the invitation of Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki Al Faisal.” According to Barstow, McCaffrey also traveled to Iraq on the Pentagon’s dime in the summer of 2005, December 2007 and October 2008.
The Pentagon also attempted to shape McCaffrey’s commentary by ensuring that he talked to high-level officials before his major media appearances. On Friday, August 26, 2005, Pentagon PR staffer Larry Di Rita emailed his colleagues that McCaffrey (along with Pentagon pundits Montgomery Meigs and Wayne Downing) were scheduled to appear on influential political talk shows that Sunday. “Would it make sense to see if general petreaus [sic] were willing to speak with them between now and then?” DiRita asked. “YES,” responded Captain Frank Thorp, the PR assistant to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers. “Not a bad idea,” responded another Pentagon PR staffer, Bryan Whitman, who was heavily involved with the pundit program.
On Saturday, August 27, Whitman emailed Petraeus, asking him to call McCaffrey and the other two pundits. “If past experience is any indication, it really helps their commentary if they have the opportunity to spend a few minutes to hear from somebody who is actually out there doing it,” Whitman explained. Di Rita then asked Petraeus to keep in mind that the pundits “want to be extremely critical of the policy, of the secdef and his supposed bad plans, but very supportive of their fellow generals. … It’s b.s., and you might want to help these guys better understand the situation in this regard.”
Petraeus talked to McCaffrey that same day and emailed back a report to the group of Pentagon PR staffers. “GEN McC,” he wrote, “frankly, has some bomb chucker ideas that I tried to temper, but I’m not sure I succeeded. (Told him for ex that we got $5.7B this year!)”
The pundit documents also describe attempts to counter or neutralize McCaffrey’s criticism of Rumsfeld. On December 7, 2005, McCaffrey said on NBC’s “Today” show, referring to Iraq, “Clearly bad judgments were made by the civilian leadership and the Pentagon going into this war. … It didn’t have to be this way. One would think Secretary Rumsfeld and others would be held accountable. … I’m surprised, to be honest, [Rumsfeld’s] still there [as Secretary of Defense]. … I think it’s up to the Senate to act. You know, we’ve got Senator John Warner, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Jack Reid … who understand national security. About time for them to step in and make their views known.”
McCaffrey’s comments caused a flurry of emails among Pentagon PR staffers. One suggested, “We ought to get this to warner. He should know mccaffrey is using his name and tagging him to reed [sic], et al.”
In an August 2006 email exchange included in the Pentagon pundit documents, think tank hawk and former Defense Department official Frank Gaffney complained about McCaffrey to one of Rumsfeld’s assistants. “I am spending a lot of time defending Don,” Gaffney emailed, “for example at 9:00 a.m. this morning on MSNBC against Barry McCaffrey.”
The Fleishman-Hillard connection
McCaffrey’s punditry was frequently critical of Rumsfeld — with the notable exception, described by Barstow, of McCaffrey’s attempts to ingratiate himself to the Administration, following his expulsion from the Pentagon pundit program. However, his commentary consistently aligned with — and sometimes directly promoted — the interests of his clients. McCaffrey’s publicist told Barstow that the retired general “worked with clients ‘to get your mission achieved in the media'” and often spoke “with the twin goals of shaping policy and generating favorable coverage for clients with worthy products or ideas.”
McCaffrey might have learned his media skills from Fleishman-Hillard, a PR firm whose clients have included the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline, AT&T, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Election Systems & Software.
Since 2003, McCaffrey has advised Fleishman-Hillard’s government relations unit. He’s also on the firm’s international advisory board, which Fleishman-Hillard touts as “a powerful client resource” whose members offer advice, write op/eds and give speeches. McCaffrey also helped launch Fleishman-Hillard’s homeland security practice in 2003, which one Fleishman executive described at the time as a way to meet the “tremendous need … to communicate” with the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “whether it is to sell something or whether to lobby for some particular position.”
But, as it turns out, McCaffrey’s association with Fleishman-Hillard goes back a decade. In 1998, the firm won a major PR contract from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which McCaffrey then headed. The ONDCP contract brought Fleishman-Hillard $9.4 million in 1999.
While Fleishman-Hillard still works for ONDCP, there were two controversies of note under McCaffrey’s tenure. One was ONDCP’s allowing television networks to avoid airing anti-drug public service announcements — which left them more airtime to sell to advertisers — by incorporating anti-drug messages into their programming. (The deal was exposed by Salon.com; Fleishman-Hillard was responsible for the “outreach to and collaboration with the entertainment industry.”)
The other controversy involved an unflattering article in the New Yorker, by Seymour Hersh. The May 2000 article was titled, “Overwhelming Force.” It cited evidence that a military action by McCaffrey’s unit in Iraq, as part of the first Gulf War, occurred “two days into a ceasefire” and “was not so much a counterattack provoked by enemy fire,” as McCaffrey later described it, “as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat.”
Before the New Yorker article appeared in print, McCaffrey contacted Paul Johnson, who was the head of Fleishman-Hillard’s Washington DC office and worked on the ONDCP account. McCaffrey asked Johnson for advice on how to handle the damaging New Yorker piece. Johnson — who later worked with McCaffrey at Fleishman-Hillard’s homeland security practice — gave him free PR advice, as a “personal favor,” stressing that “it never even occurred to” him to bill ONDCP for the time.
The experience might have helped McCaffrey formulate a response to Barstow’s Pentagon pundit investigations. McCaffrey apparently discussed a coordinated response with NBC News officials, more than a week before Barstow’s latest article appeared. NBC shared with McCaffrey the protests it lodged with Barstow, which called the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter’s work “a gross distortion of the truth.”
“Very balanced, objective response,” McCaffrey emailed back to three NBC contacts, including anchor Brian Williams. “Underscores my view of NBC as an enterprise based on journalistics [sic] ethics— and courage.”
DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She participated in the “stridently anti-American” National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis, on a panel titled, “The Changing Role of Media Critics.” She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org