Pentagon propaganda puppets

May 7, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on the Pentagon's team of independent "analysts" that spread Bush administration war lies in the media.

THE PENTAGON abruptly announced it would dismantle a military analyst program after an investigation by the New York Times exposed it for it was--a propaganda machine.

The program consisted of the Pentagon funneling information about the Iraq war to a stable of at least 75 retired military officers, who would then appear on television news and in print, under the guise of being "independent" analysts. These "analysts" were provided with, among other things, paid trips, private briefings and access to classified intelligence about the war.

After the Times story, the program has been "temporarily suspended just so that we can take a look at some of the concerns," Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman told reporters.

"Concerns"? The propaganda scheme--known inside the Pentagon as the "surrogates" program, and run by the Defense Department's public affairs office--was straight out of George Orwell's 1984.

According to Times reporter David Barstow, "The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Pentagon military analysts

"Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the...analysts represent more than 150 military contractors, either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants.

"The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration's war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized."

Though the Pentagon's Whitman insisted the program was "nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people," even some themselves now acknowledge the real purpose of the program. "It was them saying, 'We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,'" Robert Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News commentator, told the Times.

The analysts weren't turned into puppets unwittingly. According to Barstow, the analysts often stood to profit on investments by pushing the administration's line "even when they suspected the information was false or inflated." Throw in a craven corporate media that typically act as stenographers for U.S. government propaganda, and you have all participants with an interest in spreading war lies.

EVEN BEFORE the invasion of Iraq took place, the Pentagon was making sure it had plenty of retired military men in its pocket to give the war a p.r. boost in the face of less-than-reliable "evidence" of Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." At one 2003 briefing, the Times reported, military pundits were told, "We don't have any hard evidence" about Iraq's illicit weapons--an admission that wasn't shared with the public.

After the invasion, in the summer of 2003, when the Iraqi insurgency first emerged, an internal Pentagon strategy memo called for "re-energiz[ing] surrogates and message-force multipliers"--starting with the military analysts. The analysts were then taken on a tour of Iraq in September 2003, "timed to help overcome the sticker shock from Mr. Bush's request for $87 billion in emergency war financing," according to the Times.

One trip participant, retired Gen. William Nash of ABC, said some briefings "were so clearly 'artificial' that he joked to another group member that they were on 'the George Romney memorial trip to Iraq,' a reference to Mr. Romney's infamous claim that American officials had 'brainwashed' him into supporting the Vietnam War during a tour there in 1965, while he was governor of Michigan."

Plus, for many of the analysts, the trip provided a business opportunity, giving them access to "the most senior civilian and military leaders in Iraq and Kuwait, including many with a say in how the president's $87 billion would be spent."

The Pentagon, for its part, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a private contractor to analyze the surrogates program, tracking every media appearance by one of the military analysts.

If any of the analysts didn't toe the line, retribution was swift. After the deaths of 14 Marines in a single day in 2005, William Cowan, a Fox analyst, retired Marine colonel and chief executive of a military firm, called the Pentagon to inform them that some of his comments might be critical. In response, senior aides to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arranged a private briefing to try to persuade him to change his mind.

When Cowan told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that the United States was "not on a good glide path right now" in Iraq, he was, he said, "precipitously fired from the analysts group" for this appearance. The Pentagon, he told the Times, "simply didn't like the fact that I wasn't carrying their water."

Meanwhile, when several former generals who weren't part of the propaganda team went public with criticisms of the war and Donald Rumsfeld in April 2006, the Pentagon drafted two of its retirees now working for Fox, Gen. Thomas McInerney and Major Gen. Paul Vallely, to write an opinion article for The Wall Street Journal defending Rumsfeld.

"Starting to write it now," Vallely wrote to the Pentagon. "Any input for the article," he added a little later, "will be much appreciated." In response, the Pentagon forwarded talking points and statistics designed to contradict the idea of a growing insurgency.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy's Sheldon Rampton, the analyst program is actually illegal. "It violates, for starters, specific restrictions that Congress has been placing in its annual appropriation bills every year since 1951," he wrote.

Of course, the Pentagon and successive presidential administrations have always gone to great lengths to manipulate the media. But this latest propaganda scandal gives an inside glimpse of how such schemes operate--and how desperate the military and political elite are to keep ordinary people from learning the truth about their wars.

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