By Diane Farsetta, Sheldon Rampton, Daniel Haack, and John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy
Public diplomacy is a catchall term for the various ways in which the United States promotes itself to international audiences (as opposed to “regular” diplomacy, which targets foreign governments). These include international media, such as the Voice of America; cultural and educational exchanges, such as the Fulbright Program; and a wide range of information activities, including foreign press centers, speaking events and publications. As the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy notes, the term “was developed partly to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations.”
In the United States, public diplomacy’s legislative history also involves propaganda. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which provided a legal framework for public diplomacy activities, forbids the government from disseminating within the United States information intended for foreign audiences. Other legislation, such as appropriation bills, theoretically reinforces the ban on using taxpayer money for “publicity or propaganda purposes.”
From 2002 to 2008, the Defense Department secretly cultivated more than seventy 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 US 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 US military operations in Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to warrantless wiretapping.
David Barstow of the New York Times wrote on April 20, 2009, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” a stunning exposé of the Bush administration’s most powerful propaganda weapon used to sell and manage the war on Iraq. This involved the embedding of military propagandists directly into the TV networks as on-air commentators. We and others have long criticized the widespread TV network practice of hiring former military officials to serve as analysts, but even in our most cynical moments we did not anticipate how bad it was. Barstow painstakingly documented how these analysts, most of them military industry consultants and lobbyists, were directly chosen, managed, coordinated and given their talking points by the Pentagon’s ministers of propaganda.
Thanks to the two-year investigation by the New York Times, we today know that Victoria Clarke, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, launched the Pentagon military analyst program in early 2002. These supposedly independent military analysts were in fact a coordinated team of pro-war propagandists, personally recruited by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and acting under Clarke’s tutelage and development.
One former participant, NBC military analyst Kenneth Allard, has called the effort “psyops on steroids.” As Barstow reports, “Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as ‘message force multipliers’ or ‘surrogates’ who could be counted on to deliver administration ‘themes and messages’ to millions of Americans ‘in the form of their own opinions.’ . . . Don Meyer, an aide to Ms. Clarke, said a strategic decision was made in 2002 to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war.”
Clarke and her senior aide, Brent T. Krueger, eventually signed up more than seventy-five retired military officers who penned newspaper op/ed columns and appeared on television and radio news shows as military analysts. The Pentagon held weekly meetings with the military analysts, which continued as of April 20, 2008, when the New York Times ran Barstow’s story. The program proved so successful that it was expanded to issues besides the Iraq War. “Other branches of the administration also began to make use of the analysts. Mr. Gonzales, then the attorney general, met with them soon after news leaked that the government was wiretapping terrorism suspects in the United States without warrants, Pentagon records show. When David H. Petraeus was appointed the commanding general in Iraq in January 2007, one of his early acts was to meet with the analysts.”
The use of these analysts was a glaring violation of journalistic standards. As the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists explains, journalists are supposed to
* Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
* Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
* Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office, and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
* Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
* Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
* Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
* Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
The networks using these analysts as journalists shamelessly failed to vet their experts and ignored the obvious conflicts of hiring a person with financial relationships to companies profiting from war to be an on-air analyst of war. They acted as if war was a football game and their military commentators were former coaches and players familiar with the rules and strategies. The TV networks even paid these “analysts” for their propaganda, enabling them to present themselves as “third party experts” while parroting White House talking points to sell the war.
Since the 1920s there have been laws passed to stop the government from doing what Barstow has exposed. It is actually illegal in the United States for the government to propagandize its own citizens. As Barstow’s report demonstrates, these laws have been repeatedly violated, are not enforced and are clearly inadequate. The US Congress therefore needs to investigate this and the rest of the Bush propaganda campaign that sold the war in Iraq.
The Iraq war would likely never have been possible had the mainstream news media done its job. Instead, it has repeated the Big Lies that sold the war. This war would never have been possible without the millions of dollars spent by the Bush administration on sophisticated and deceptive public relations techniques such as the Pentagon military analyst program that David Barstow has exposed. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Victoria Clarke, who designed and oversaw this Pentagon propaganda machine, now works as a commentator for TV network news. She may have changed jobs and employers since leaving the Pentagon, but her work remains the same.
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, 2009, 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.
“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.
There is a long history of various administrations seeking to propagandize the American people. The Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before it, funded video news releases (VNRs) that television stations across the United States aired as independent “reports” during their news programming. Not surprisingly, the VNRs portrayed government actions and policies in a favorable light. One on educational assistance under No Child Left Behind concluded, “This is a program that gets an A-plus.”
Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), repeatedly ruled that government VNRs are illegal covert propaganda unless their source is made clear to viewers. The Bush administration rejected the GAO’s rulings, substituting their own intent-based standard. They argued that government VNRs are permissible, whether disclosed or not, as long as the intent behind them is to inform, not to persuade.
The Department of Defense has also relied on intent to dismiss concerns about propaganda blowback. The Department’s 2003 Information Operations Roadmap admits, “Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and PSYOP [psychological operations], increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa.” However, it argues that, “the distinction between foreign and domestic audiences becomes more a question of USG [US government] intent rather than information dissemination practices.”
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 Department of Defense later made public, reveal the daily operations of the program.
The morning of June 20, 2006, an email message circulated amongst US Defense Department officials.” Jed Babbin, one of our military analysts, is hosting the Michael Medved nationally syndicated radio show this afternoon. He would like to see if General [George W.] Casey would be available for a phone interview,” the Pentagon staffer wrote. “This would be a softball interview and the show is 8th or 9th in the nation.”
Why would the Pentagon help set up a radio interview? And how did they know that the interview would be “softball”?
From early 2002 to April 2008, the Department of Defense offered talking points, organized trips to places such as Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and gave private briefings to a legion of retired military officers working as media pundits. The Pentagon’s military analyst program, a covert effort to promote a positive image of the Bush administration’s wartime performance, was a multi-level campaign involving quite a few colorful characters.
One Pentagon pundit arguably steals the spotlight: Jed Babbin. A former Pentagon official himself, the retired Air Force officer served as a deputy undersecretary of defense with the George H.W. Bush administration. Since then he has kept busy authoring books, serving as a contributing editor to the conservative monthly American Spectator, frequently filling in for right-wing radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham and Hugh Hewitt, and appearing as a military pundit on cable television.
Babbin repeatedly appears in the Pentagon pundit documents, usually either emailing his American Spectator articles to Pentagon officials, or using his special access to arrange interviews with high-ranking government and military officers for his articles and radio guest host gigs.
In February 2006, Babbin emailed Pentagon legal advisor Thomas Hemingway. “I’m subbing for Hugh Hewitt again tomorrow and want to bash the UN report,” he wrote, referring to an inquiry into conditions at Guantánamo Bay that led the United Nations to call for the detention center to be closed. “I asked for [US Army Major General] Jay Hood and got the answer that the military isn’t going out on that now. Can you do it? Please call asap.” Babbin didn’t just use Pentagon public affairs staffers as his radio bookers. He also asked them for their thoughts on what he should say, as a pundit.
“I just got a call from Jed Babbin,” wrote one Pentagon public affairs officer in October 2006. “He is going to be on [the CNBC show] Kudlow [& Company] tonight and want [sic] to be prepared if they ask him about the [Al-Qaeda] threat to Saudi oil fields. . . . Anything we could share with him??”
The Pentagon was also more than proactive. “[Fox News’] Hannity and Colmes is having Jed Babbin on today to talk about North Korea,” emailed Pentagon public affairs staffer Dallas Lawrence to Ruff and Whitman in February 2005. “We are getting Jed a one pager on the status of forces in the Korean Peninsula (the message being, we still have a massive deterrent there for [North Korea]). We will also put him into touch with State for talking points on the 6 party talks.”
In a phone interview, Babbin defended his communications with the Pentagon. “I am a journalist,” he told me. “I have information that’s given to me by sources of all sorts. Private information is what you normally do in Washington. You get confidential sources and you rely on them. I’m not compromised. I can’t speak for anybody else other than myself, but I have no relationship with defense contractors, I have no contracts with the Pentagon. There’s no conflict there.”
But Babbin’s contacts with the Pentagon are still problematic, according to Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute for media studies. “When you hire a former general [as a media commentator], you’re hiring him for his expertise and his ability to independently analyze what’s going on,” she explained. “If you’re assuming because he’s retired he has a measure of independence and then you find out, no, he’s actually been to all these trainings where he’s received talking points, that’s a problem. You have promised your audience that you’re going to deliver them independent analysis—not a mouthpiece for the Pentagon.”
That raises the question of whether the responsibility to ensure the integrity and independence of military analysts lies with the pundits themselves or with the media outlets that hired them. In this case, says McBride, it’s the latter.
“The journalists had the obligation to figure out if their sources were independent,” she said. “Each show decided how they were going to use these people, and at that point, somebody should’ve been having a conversation about what they’re bringing to the product and how that works, and then finally, there should be an overall standard that says when we hire people, here is what we should ask of them.”
In his defense, Babbin said that “everyone I wrote for and so forth knew I was talking to people in the Pentagon.” Babbin also went on government-funded trips to Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, but said he doesn’t believe that any of the media outlets he writes or appears on-air for have policies against such activity. So, Babbin concludes that he had no conflicts of interest.
Do the media outlets that Babbin appeared on feel the same way? Salem Radio Network, which produces both “The Hugh Hewitt Show” and “The Michael Medved Show,” radio programs that Babbin appeared on while participating in the Pentagon’s pundit program, refused comment. Phone calls to the American Spectator and WMET of Washington, DC were not returned.
Todd Meyer, a producer for Greg Garrison’s show on Indianapolis radio station WIBC, one of Babbin’s more frequent stomping grounds, said, “I’m not sure if Jed mentioned he was a part of [the Department of Defense’s military analyst program]. He might at some point. He said over the years, though, that he’s been part of many, many briefings at the Pentagon, most when he was actually working there under Bush.”
Meyer added that Babbin was never presented on the show as an independent analyst. “Jed Babbin is the editor of Human Events, he wrote for National Review, he wrote for American Spectator. He’s conservative,” stressed Meyer. “We’re a conservative talk show. Mr. Babbin’s been on our show many, many times over the years and he comes from a conservative background. He was privy to a number of briefings. We took advantage of hearing what was in those briefings.”
But is being conservative synonymous with being a mouthpiece for the Pentagon?
Babbin contends that he was nothing of the sort. “If they were buying my loyalty, they got a pretty bad bargain. If they thought they were buying my reporting, they really had a very poor investment. Look at my stories, look at what I’ve written. I’ve been very highly critical at times of the president and a lot of the people who conduct the war.”
Judging by the Pentagon pundit documents, the Department of Defense sees Babbin as an ardent supporter. “Babbin will do us well,” Pentagon PR staffer Bryan Whitman wrote in a March 2005 email. In June 2005, Larry Di Rita told fellow Pentagon public affairs officers, “We really should try to help [Babbin secure guests for his radio hosting gigs]. . . . He is consistently solid and helpful.” Another message, this one from Thomas Hemingway to Eric Ruff in June 2006, reads: “I’m sure all your folks are familiar with the tremendous support we’ve received from Jed.” And that’s in addition to the aforementioned “softball interview” comment.
While Jed Babbin was only one of some seventy-five retired military officers that the Department of Defense used as their so-called “message force multipliers” and “surrogates,” and while he wasn’t seeking defense contracts like some of his fellow pundits, his case is representative of the breakdown of transparency and accountability consequent to the Pentagon’s covert program. Babbin’s experience also shows that someone could consistently parrot the administration’s talking points, while believing himself to be independent and even, at times, critical of the official narrative.
But the pundits weren’t just selling government talking points. As Robert Bevelacqua, William Cowan and Carlton Sherwood enjoyed high-level Pentagon access through the analyst program, their WVC3 Group sought “contracts worth tens of millions to supply body armor and counterintelligence services in Iraq,” reported Barstow. Cowan admitted to “push[ing] hard” on a WVC3 contract, during a Pentagon-funded trip to Iraq.
Then there’s Pentagon pundit Robert H. Scales Jr. The military firm he co-founded in 2003, Colgen, has an interesting range of clients, from the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Command, to Pfizer and Syracuse University, to Fox News and National Public Radio.
Of the twenty-seven Pentagon pundits named publicly to date, six are registered as federal lobbyists. That’s in addition to the less formal—and less transparent—boardroom to war-room influence peddling described above. (There are “more than seventy-five retired officers” who took part in the Pentagon program overall, according to Barstow.)
The Pentagon pundits’ lobbying disclosure forms help chart what can only be called a military-industrial-media complex. They also make clear that war is very good for at least some types of business.
Fox News analyst Timur J. Eads works for the military contractor Blackbird Technologies. His job title there, “vice-president of government relations,” is often used to describe someone who crafts lobbying strategies but may not take part in lobbying meetings. So, it’s not surprising that Eads isn’t listed on Blackbird’s lobbying disclosure forms. (In 2007 and 2008, Blackbird lobbied Congress on “communications technologies” and the National Guard on “information systems.”)
From 2001 to 2003, Eads was in the lobbying trenches for EMC Corporation, a multinational “information infrastructure” company. Eads helped lobby Congress and a long list of federal agencies—including the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard—for “funding for data storage infrastructure.” EMC’s annual report (PDF) for 2003 lists the Air Force Materiel Command and Pentagon Renovation and Construction Program Office among its US government clients.
Prior to EMC, Eads lobbied for the major defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). In 1999 and 2000, he was on SAIC’s million-dollar-plus lobbying team, influencing federal spending on the armed services, foreign operations, national security and Veterans Administration, among many other appropriations bills.
A January 2009 public diplomacy conference was organized in Washington, DC to critically reconsider Smith-Mundt. Many presenters supported changing the Act; specifically, removing or watering down its restriction on domestic dissemination. Among the reasons given were that the restriction, which effectively divides the world into US residents and everyone else, is outdated in the global information age; that it hampers public diplomacy efforts; that it suggests to foreign audiences that U.S. government-provided information is suspect, since it can’t be shared with US residents; that it denies US residents useful information; and that it keeps US residents from accessing information necessary to evaluate work done overseas, in their name and with their tax dollars. On the other side, there were conference attendees who argued that the Smith-Mundt restriction doesn’t impact work in the field, and that it helps insulate sensitive international work from domestic political pressures.
It was an informed, in-depth debate, led by people with extensive State Department and military experience. But until Rep. Hodes spoke—during the last session of the day—no one mentioned that, until just nine months ago, there had been an active covert campaign to influence US public opinion: the Pentagon’s pundit program.
Let me posit what I believe should be the rule,” said outgoing Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman, a keynote speaker at the conference. Domestic dissemination should be permissible, he suggested, “if the intent of the work involving domestic audiences is to influence foreign audiences.” According to Glassman the government’s motivation behind engaging US residents is key. “The reasonable way to judge whether the State Department should be prohibited from disseminating a film, or a television program, or a speech, or a magazine, is the intention of the department,” he declared. While “traditional American concerns about government involvement—not merely in influence, but in information—are deeply rooted and appropriate . . . intent should be our guide. If our target is foreign audiences, as it must be in public diplomacy, then we should be able to engage domestic individuals and groups in this effort.”
Glassman’s emphasis on intent is nothing new. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether material designed to influence foreign audiences—including, in the case of military information operations and psychological operations campaigns, material that may be misleading—is conveyed to US residents as “news.” All that matters is that the responsible government officials’ hearts are pure.
We know that the conveniently slippery standard of intent has already resulted in fake TV news that would make Soviet-era propagandists proud. As professor Marc Lynch noted at the conference, “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men? The Shadow knows, but State Department lawyers don’t, which makes it very difficult to build a regulatory foundation on questions of intent, particularly when . . . intent can be multi-faceted and highly complex.”
The State Department—and the US Information Agency, before it was folded into State—used to be responsible for public diplomacy. In 1999, then-President Clinton tasked numerous federal agencies with “influenc[ing] foreign audiences.” He established an International Public Information group, comprised of officials from the State, Defense, Justice, Commerce, and Treasury departments, along with the FBI and CIA. Post-9/11, the Pentagon’s budget ballooned and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that communications must be “a central component of every aspect of this struggle.” As a result, the US military has become increasingly involved in public diplomacy.
On the question of Smith-Mundt, its ban on domestic dissemination has clearly been rendered moot by Google. Instead of using that as an excuse to burn down firewalls, the US government should follow strict media ethics standards, regardless of whether its intended audience is in Iowa or Islamabad. All public diplomacy communications and activities should be clearly attributed. Information operations and psychological operations, which require a lack of transparency, should be kept completely separate from public diplomacy and public affairs. Lastly, the military’s role in public diplomacy should be decreased and, perhaps, ended.
Instead of loosening propaganda restrictions by relying on intent, why not adjust to the global information era by ensuring clear attribution of all government communications? Truth is an obvious second standard, but public diplomacy, by definition, deals with issues in which the US government is an interested party. It’s therefore naive to claim that a standard of “truth”—which must transcend, or at least fairly acknowledge, competing interests—could be upheld.
Today, the broadcast and cable networks are steadfastly refusing to cover or otherwise address the Pentagon military analyst program, with very few exceptions. In this case, though, the pundits’ undeclared financial interests are only part of a larger and much more serious problem. These officers participated in a covert government program designed to shape US public opinion—an illegal program, and one that relied on the willingness of major media to play along, without asking too many questions. And that’s exactly what happened. The media outlets that featured the Pentagon’s pundits need to address both aspects of this debacle: that they failed to identify or disclose conflicts of interest, and that they helped propagandize US news audiences.
Increasingly, news audiences are realizing the many ways in which interested parties skew media coverage. Media outlets need to wake up to that reality and work to strengthen their safeguards in defense of the public interest. Their only alternative is to start composing their next weak and belated mea culpa, in a desperate attempt to protect their ever-dwindling credibility.
Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher.
Searchable versions of the Pentagon pundit documents available at http://www.prwatch.org/pentagonpundits.
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