The continuing saga of the Pentagon pundit program just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland might say.
From 2002 to 2008, the Defense Department secretly cultivated more than 70 retired military officers who frequently serve as media commentators. Initially, the goal was to use them as “message force multipliers,” to bolster the Bush administration’s Iraq War sell job. That went so well that the covert program to shape U.S. public opinion — an illegal effort, by any reasonable reading of the law — was expanded to spin everything from then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s job performance to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to warrantless wiretapping.
In April 2008, shortly after the New York Times first reported on the Pentagon’s pundits — an in-depth exposé that recently won the Times’ David Barstow his second Pulitzer Prize — the Pentagon suspended the program. In January 2009, the Defense Department Inspector General’s office released a report claiming “there was an ‘insufficient basis’ to conclude that the program had violated laws.” Representative Paul Hodes, one of the program’s many Congressional critics, called the Inspector General’s report “a whitewash.”
Now, it seems as though the Pentagon agrees.
On May 5, the Defense Department Inspector General’s office announced that it was withdrawing its report on the Pentagon pundit program, even removing the file from its website. (You can still download the report from our website by clicking here.)
“Shortly after publishing the report … we became aware of inaccuracies in the data,” states the “withdrawal memo” (pdf) from the Inspector General’s office. The office’s internal review of the report — which it has “refused to release,” according to the Times — “concluded that the report did not meet accepted quality standards.” The report relied on “insufficient or inconclusive” evidence, the memo admits. In addition, “former senior [Defense Department] officials who devised and managed” the Pentagon pundit program — including Victoria Clarke and Lawrence DiRita — “refused our requests for an interview.”
While the Inspector General’s “highly unusual” about-face is welcome, it gets us no closer to accountability. “Additional investigative work will not be undertaken,” the withdrawal memo states, because the Pentagon pundit program “has been terminated and responsible senior officials” — such as Allison Barber — “are no longer employed by the Department.”
Of course, accountability for the Pentagon pundit program was never likely to come from the Defense Department itself. Now it’s up to Congress to demand — and the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission to carry out — real investigations into the elaborate propaganda campaign.