FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Pentagon Pundits Get a Pass

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.

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
July 23, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Why Boris Johnson is Even More Dangerous Than Trump
Christopher Ketcham
The American West as Judeo-Christian Artifact
Jack Heyman
Whitewashing American History: the WPA Mural Controversy in San Francisco
David Mattson
Through the Climate Looking Glass into Grizzly Wonderland
David Macaray
Paul Krassner and Me
Thomas Knapp
Peckerwood Populism is About Political Strategy, Not Personal Belief
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange and His Wiki Wicked leaks
Howard Lisnoff
What Has Happened to the U.S. Since the Kids Left Woodstock?
Victor Grossman
“How Could They?” Why Some Americans Were Drawn to the Communist Party in the 1940s
Gary Leupp
Minnesota, White People, Lutherans and Ilhan Omar
Binoy Kampmark
Lunar Narratives: Landing on the Moon, Politics and the Cold War
Richard Ward
Free La Donalda!
July 22, 2019
Michael Hudson
U.S. Economic Warfare and Likely Foreign Defenses
Evaggelos Vallianatos
If Japan Continues Slaughtering Whales, Boycott the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Mike Garrity
Emergency Alert For the Wild Rockies
Dean Baker
The U.S.-China Trade War: Will Workers Lose?
Jonah Raskin
Paul Krassner, 1932-2019: American Satirist 
David Swanson
U.S. Troops Back in Saudi Arabia: What Could Go Wrong?
Robert Fisk
American Visitors to the Gestapo Museum Draw Their Own Conclusions
John Feffer
Trump’s Send-Them-Back Doctrine
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
Landscape of Anguish and Palliatives: Predation, Addiction and LOL Emoticons in the Age of Late Stage Capitalism
Karl Grossman
A Farmworkers Bill of Rights
Gary Leupp
Omar and Trump
Robert Koehler
Fighting Climate Change Means Ending War
Susie Day
Mexicans Invade US, Trump Forced to Go Without Toothbrush
Elliot Sperber
Hey Diddle Diddle, Like Nero We Fiddle
Weekend Edition
July 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
The Blob Fought the Squad, and the Squad Won
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
It Was Never Just About the Chat: Ruminations on a Puerto Rican Revolution.
Anthony DiMaggio
System Capture 2020: The Role of the Upper-Class in Shaping Democratic Primary Politics
Andrew Levine
South Carolina Speaks for Whom?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Big Man, Pig Man
Bruce E. Levine
The Groundbreaking Public Health Study That Should Change U.S. Society—But Won’t
Evaggelos Vallianatos
How the Trump Administration is Eviscerating the Federal Government
Pete Dolack
All Seemed Possible When the Sandinistas Took Power 40 years Ago
Ramzy Baroud
Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis
Ron Jacobs
Dancing with Dr. Benway
Joseph Natoli
Gaming the Climate
Marshall Auerback
The Numbers are In, and Trump’s Tax Cuts are a Bust
Louisa Willcox
Wild Thoughts About the Wild Gallatin
Kenn Orphan
Stranger Things, Stranger Times
Mike Garrity
Environmentalists and Wilderness are Not the Timber Industry’s Big Problem
Helen Yaffe
Cuban Workers Celebrate Salary Rise From New Economic Measures
Brian Cloughley
What You Don’t Want to be in Trump’s America
David Underhill
The Inequality of Equal Pay
David Macaray
Adventures in Script-Writing
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail