Alex Constantine - April 20, 2008
In the summer of 2005, the administration of President George W. Bush confronted a fresh wave of criticism over Guantánamo Bay. The detention center had just been branded "the gulag of our times" by Amnesty International, there were new allegations of abuse from UN human rights experts and calls were mounting for its closure.
The administration's communications experts responded swiftly.
Early one morning, they put a group of retired military officers on one of the jets normally used by Vice President Dick Cheney and flew them to Cuba for a carefully orchestrated tour of Guantánamo. To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as "military analysts" whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about pressing issues.
Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.
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.
Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military 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 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.
Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse - an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.
Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general, and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser.
In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Several analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.
A few expressed regret for participating in what they regarded as an effort to dupe the American public with propaganda dressed as independent military analysis.
"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 analyst, said.
Kenneth Allard, a former NBC military analyst who has taught information warfare at the National Defense University, said the campaign amounted to a sophisticated information operation. "This was a coherent, active policy," he said.
As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, Allard recalled, he saw a yawning gap between what analysts were told in private briefings and what subsequent inquiries and books later revealed.
"Night and day," Allard said, "I felt we'd been hosed."
The Pentagon defended its relationship with military analysts, saying they had been given only factual information about the war.
"The intent and purpose of this is nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people," Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
It was, Whitman added, "a bit incredible" to think retired military officers could be "wound up" and turned into "puppets of the Defense Department."
Several analysts strongly denied that they had either been co-opted or had allowed outside business interests to affect their on-air comments, and some have used their platforms to criticize the conduct of the war. Several, like Jeffrey McCausland, a CBS military analyst and defense industry lobbyist, said they kept their networks informed of their outside work and recused themselves from coverage that touched on business interests.
"I'm not here representing the administration," McCausland said.
Some network officials, meanwhile, acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts' interactions with the administration.
They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said. And whatever the contributions of military analysts, they also noted the many network journalists who have covered the war for years in all its complexity.
Five years into the Iraq war, most details of the architecture and execution of the Pentagon's campaign have never been disclosed. But The New York Times successfully sued the Defense Department to gain access to 8,000 pages of e-mail messages, transcripts and records describing years of private briefings, trips to Iraq and Guantánamo and an extensive Pentagon talking points operation.
These records reveal a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.
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."
Though many analysts are paid network consultants, making $500 to $1,000 per appearance, in Pentagon meetings they sometimes spoke as if they were operating behind enemy lines, interviews and transcripts show. Some offered the Pentagon tips on how to outmaneuver the networks, or as one analyst put it to Donald Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, "the Chris Matthewses and the Wolf Blitzers of the world."
Some warned of planned stories or sent the Pentagon copies of their correspondence with network news executives. Many - although certainly not all - faithfully echoed talking points intended to counter critics.
"Good work," Thomas McInerney, a retired air force general, consultant and Fox News analyst, wrote to the Pentagon after receiving fresh talking points in late 2006. "We will use it."
Again and again, records show, the administration has enlisted analysts as a rapid reaction force to rebut what it viewed as critical news coverage, some of it by the networks' own Pentagon correspondents. For example, when news articles revealed
that troops in Iraq were dying because of inadequate body armor, a senior Pentagon official wrote to his colleagues: "I think our analysts - properly armed - can push back in that arena."
The documents released by the Pentagon do not show any quid pro quo between commentary and contracts. But some analysts said they had used the special access as a marketing and networking opportunity or as a window into future business possibilities.
John Garrett is a retired army colonel and unpaid analyst for Fox News TV and radio. He is also a lobbyist at Patton Boggs who helps firms win Pentagon contracts, including in Iraq. In promotional materials, he states that as a military analyst he "is privy to weekly access and briefings with the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high level policy makers in the administration." One client told investors that Garrett's special access and decades of experience helped him "to know in advance - and in detail - how best to meet the needs" of the Defense Department and other agencies.
In interviews, Garrett said there was an inevitable overlap between his dual roles. He said he had gotten "information you just otherwise would not get," from the briefings and three Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq. He also acknowledged using this access and information to identify opportunities for clients.
At the same time, in e-mail messages to the Pentagon, Garrett displayed an eagerness to be supportive with his Fox commentary.
"Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay," he wrote in January 2007, before Bush went on TV to describe the surge strategy in Iraq.
Conversely, the administration has demonstrated that there is a price for sustained criticism, many analysts said. "You'll lose all access," McCausland said.
With most Americans calling the war a mistake despite all administration attempts to sway public opinion, the Pentagon has focused in the past couple of years on cultivating in particular analysts frequently seen and heard in conservative news outlets, records and interviews show.
Some of these analysts were on the mission to Cuba on June 24, 2005 - the first of six such Guantánamo trips - that was designed to mobilize analysts against the growing perception of Guantánamo as an international symbol of inhumane treatment. On the flight to Cuba, for much of the day at Guantánamo and on the flight home that night, Pentagon officials briefed the 10 or so analysts on their key messages - how much had been spent improving the facility, the abuse endured by guards, the extensive rights afforded detainees.
The results came quickly. The analysts went on TV and radio, decrying Amnesty International, criticizing calls to close the facility and asserting that all detainees were treated humanely.
"The impressions that you're getting from the media and from the various pronouncements being made by people who have not been here in my opinion are totally false," Donald Shepperd, a retired air force general, reported live on CNN by phone from Guantánamo that same afternoon.
The next morning, Montgomery Meigs, a retired army general and NBC analyst, appeared on "Today." "There's been over $100 million of new construction," he reported. "The place is very professionally run."
Within days, transcripts of the analysts' appearances were circulated to senior White House and Pentagon officials, cited as evidence of progress in the battle for hearts and minds at home.
Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon's dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called "information dominance." In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent.
And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit "key influentials" - movers and shakers from all walks who might be counted on to generate support for Rumsfeld's priorities.
In the months after Sept. 11, as every network rushed to retain its own all-star squad of retired military officers, Clarke and her staff sensed a new opportunity. To Clarke's team, the military analysts were the ultimate "key influential" - authoritative, most of them decorated war heroes, all reaching mass audiences.
Don Meyer, an aide to Clarke, said a strategic decision had been made in 2002 to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war. Journalists were secondary. "We didn't want to rely on them to be our primary vehicle to get information out," Meyer said. The Pentagon's regular press office would be kept separate from the military analysts. The analysts would instead be catered to by a small group of political appointees, with the point person being Brent Krueger, another senior aide to Clarke.
From the start, interviews show, the White House took a keen interest in which analysts had been identified by the Pentagon, requesting lists of potential recruits and suggesting names. Clarke's team wrote summaries describing their backgrounds, business affiliations and where they stood on the war.
"Rumsfeld ultimately cleared off on all invitees," Krueger said.
(Through a spokesman, Rumsfeld declined to comment for this article.)
Over time, the Pentagon recruited more than 75 retired officers, although some participated only briefly or sporadically. The largest contingent was affiliated with Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN, the other networks with 24-hour cable outlets. But analysts from CBS and ABC were included, too.
Some recruits, though not on any network payroll, were influential in other ways - either because they were sought out by radio hosts, or because they often published op-ed articles or were quoted in magazines, Web sites and newspapers. At least nine of them have written op-ed articles for The New York Times, the parent company of the International Herald Tribune.
In interviews, participants described a seductive environment - the uniformed escorts to Rumsfeld's private conference room, the best government china laid out, the embossed name cards, the solicitations of advice and counsel, the warm thank you notes from Rumsfeld himself.
"Oh, you have no idea," Allard said, describing the effect. "You're back. They listen to you. They listen to what you say on TV."
"It's not like it's, 'We'll pay you $500 to get our story out,' " he added. "It's more subtle."