A Christmas Gift for the Pentagon

Remember how it turned retired generals into media shills? Lax oversight means it could happen again.

Donald Rumsfeld.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

This is a time of good cheer at the Pentagon—its watchdog, the inspector general, has just ruled that its Bush-era campaign to manipulate the media was entirely acceptable under Defense Department regulations. The report, dated Nov. 11, was held back until Christmas Eve, when it was released at the happiest time of the year. But we should not allow it to slip into oblivion.

In response to Sept. 11, the Pentagon’s publicity department organized at least 161 “outreach” meetings with retired military officers serving as television commentators on the war effort. The Pentagon provided this select group with high level briefings, showering them with talking points and otherwise equipping them to be media defenders of administration policy. The meetings were suspended in 2008 amid a first wave of reports alleging improprieties. The inspector general responded with a defense of the outreach program in 2009, but his initial report was so full of errors that he retracted it and went back to the drawing board.

The inspector general’s office has now returned with a much more comprehensive effort, aiming to determine whether the program’s purpose was to provide a “free flow of news and information” and “to benefit a broadly representational community.” It had a tough time coming up with an answer, since its investigators found that the Pentagon’s effort was a seat-of-the-pants operation. It never produced serious guidelines on how “outreach” should proceed; nor did it keep serious records of what actually occurred. The inspector general deserves a lot of credit for reconstructing a partial account on the basis of a wide-ranging review of the documentary evidence and extensive interviews with participants.

But its conclusions are unpersuasive. The report reconstructs attendance at 21 “outreach” sessions involving the five major television news channels between 2002 and 2008. Only Fox had its retired military pundits at all 21; in contrast, ABC, CNN, and NBC were represented only half the time, and CBS pundits went to 75 percent of the meetings. Nevertheless, the Inspector General dismissed the idea that the Pentagon gave special access to Fox pundits because “about half” of the events had “representatives from three or more of the five major TV news outlets.” According to the instpector general, these figures satisfied DOD regulations requiring “broad participation.”

Worse yet, the report acknowledges that General Barry McCaffrey, who won a Distinguished Service Medal in Desert Storm, was excluded from meetings as punishment after he publicly criticized the Iraq war: “I was told … that this was the Secretary’s decision,” explained an unnamed official at the public relations office. When asked about this at an interview, Secretary Rumsfeld responded, “I don’t know for sure.” Despite this memory lapse, the inspector general found that the exclusion was politically motivated, citing a “preponderance of the evidence.” But the report concludes that troubling incidents involving other leading generals were insufficiently substantiated to add up to a general pattern of political animus. Even so, the inspector general fails to put the McCaffrey affair into the larger politicized context: the privileged access offered to Fox News commentators espousing right-wing views friendly to the Bush administration.

This blinkered approach continues throughout the report. While DOD regulations only authorize  “the free flow of news and information,” the outreach sessions involved much more. They were, as the report itself notes, occasions for the distribution of “talking points” that outlined the best way to defend Administration policies. But once again, the inspector general sees no problem. After all, “the talking points only included opinions if [they had been] expressed by the leadership.” Moreover, the generals had “not been paid to be news readers or to otherwise deliver text … provided by DOD.” This is true, but the talking points still violated policy by trying to guide the officers to take positions favored by “leadership,” rather than simply to “inform” them.  

The report also dismisses the fact that 43 of the 63 retired generals in the program were involved with defense contractors. It discounts this potential conflict of interest on the basis of its interviews with 35 generals, almost all of whom denied that they used the meetings “to identify new business opportunities.” But this finding ignores a critical dimension: Even if the generals didn’t use their position to gain financially, their ongoing business relations could well have influenced them to back the Pentagon’s talking points. The Department of Defense violated its policy requiring “broad” outreach when it made them into the majority of its group.

This report amounts to a remarkable Christmas present for the Pentagon. What it calls a “broad” program of “information outreach” was a systematic effort to provide talking points to a sympathetic audience, largely associated with defense contractors, who were working for a biased sample of news organizations. In case they didn’t get the message, Barry McCaffrey’s fate made it clear what they could expect if they refused to play the game.

A simple reform can change this reality. The Department should be stripped of its right to determine its own guest list at its high-level media briefings. It should extend invitations to all major news organizations, and give them unfettered freedom to choose their own military experts. This will decisively shift the balance, allowing us to hear authoritative commentary not just from pundits who please the Pentagon, but from experts who represent their organization’s best shot at independent journalism. The distribution of “talking points” should also be banned, and conflict-of-interest rules tightened, but letting the media select its own attendees will make the key difference—enabling the program to express a fuller commitment to the “freedom of … the press” guaranteed by the Constitution.

Unfortunately, initial departmental reaction to the report has been disappointing. Naturally enough, its public affairs division was “pleased that the IG found our outreach activities in compliance with DOD policies.” But it has refused to follow up on the report’s sole recommendation, and take immediate steps to formulate a systematic policy for future PR campaigns. It claims that there is no need to heed the Inspector’s call to develop clear operating principles since it isn’t planning anything like the Bush media offensive.

This is a big mistake. There will be future crises, and future efforts to transform our retired military into cheerleaders for the powers-that-be. The administration’s logic is precisely backward: It should take advantage of the relative calm to impose sensible constraints in this sensitive area of civil-military relations.

The report gives the public affairs division a deadline of Jan. 9to come up with some serious guidelines. But unless there is a sustained critique of the media manipulations of the Bush years, it is unlikely to take the problem seriously, and its regulations will affirm the status quo. Once the division has gained the final approval of the inspector general, the entire matter will be forgotten—only to re-emerge in pathological form after the next terrorist attack.