When news networks seek to explain how things are going in Iraq, they often interview their own paid consultants — a cadre of retired military officers conferring expertise and credibility on their television employers.
But it turns out the Pentagon has cultivated those network analysts as a hidden weapon in a sophisticated campaign for the minds of the American people. And that revelation has made media executives squirm.
"There was a deliberate attempt to deceive the public," says Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News from 1996 to 2005. "Analysts whose real allegiance was to the Pentagon and who apparently were given at least special access for that allegiance were presented as analysts whose allegiance was to the networks and, therefore, the public."
The New York Times successfully sued the Pentagon and obtained 8,000 pages of Pentagon e-mails and documents. It reported last week there had been an initiative stretching back to 2002 to co-opt those military analysts by doling out access to senior Defense officials, arranging trips abroad and issuing talking points. Some who strayed from the message were dropped from the invite list.
Others had an even stronger reason to want to be able to boast of access to Pentagon officials — they worked for, or on behalf of, military contractors. CNN last year dropped one analyst after belatedly discovering his work for a contractor, included bidding on a multibillion dollar contract. Several former military officers tell NPR their peers pulled their punches in public in order to stay in the Defense Department's good graces.
"This is a very deliberate attempt on the part of the administration to shape public opinion," says former Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste.
Batiste commanded the U.S. First Infantry Division in Iraq before leaving the military in 2005 to speak out against Bush administration policy there. Although he was a commentator for CBS News for a time, he did not get invited to the Pentagon briefing sessions. (CBS dropped Batiste after he appeared in an anti-Bush ad — a split Batiste says was amicable. Batiste says he donated his fees from television appearances to charities aiding veterans and that he does no military contracting or other work directly related to the defense industry. He's now head of a steel processing company in Rochester, N.Y.)
In all, 75 former flag officers were included in the Pentagon initiative. Not all were cheerleaders. Yet e-mails obtained through the Times' suit show some repeatedly sought to help military officials. And Batiste says their upbeat comments during dark days often rang false.
"It also sounded to me as if they were parroting administration talking points," Batiste says now. "It sounded very much to me like I was up against an information operation. I had no idea that it was so extensive."
Here's an example of how it worked: Back in April 2006, a group of retired senior military officers surfaced to blast then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq. The episode became known as the Generals Revolt, and it undermined Rumsfeld's public standing.
He retaliated by rallying his own troops for a closed-door meeting — in his case, 15 or so retired senior military officers who were television commentators. A transcript shows they strategized with Rumsfeld and his aides on how to convince the public the military would succeed in Iraq.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. and CNN consultant Don Shepperd was among those who went on the air that very day to talk about the meeting
"Our message to them as analysts was, 'Look, you got to get the importance of this war out to the American people," Shepperd said on CNN. "The important message is, this is a forward strategy, it is better to fight the war in Iraq than it is a war on American soil."
The line between network analyst and Pentagon adviser, between those being briefed, and those doing the briefing, seems blurred.
Shepperd, who has also had military contractors as clients, declined to be interviewed, as did officials for CNN and every other major television news outlet.
But The New York Times story has stirred discomfort within television news divisions already bruised by the media's failure to challenge the administration before the invasion over claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. News executives and consultants wouldn't comment for this story, but say privately that their on-air comments were honestly held.
The Defense Department has suspended the so-called "surrogates program" while saying it did nothing improper. Former CBS News chief Andrew Heyward says the networks relied on paid consultants for their expertise.
"They all had sources inside the military — and often were able to get access to information that supplemented the information that our own correspondents were gathering," Heyward says. "Based on their experience, they also could provide perspective on different aspects of the war as it unfolded — including policy."
But Heyward says the Defense Department exploited the networks' hunger for technical military know-how.
Retired Army Gen. Robert Scales was a Fox News Channel analyst and also a consultant for NPR from 2003 to 2004. Since then, NPR has interviewed him without pay. Scales' work for defense contractors has rarely been mentioned on our air. NPR managing editor Brian Duffy says the revelations in the Times have stirred changes at NPR.
"We're reviewing our commentators' agreement to basically tighten up the language on that, so that we are asking more rigorous questions about anyone that we're paying as a consultant," Duffy says.
Duffy also says Scales did nothing wrong. NPR reviewed his remarks on the air, in which he was often critical of progress in Iraq and determined he wasn't unduly influenced by the Pentagon.
But Retired Major General John Batiste argues the media, like the rest of the country, was unduly uncritical of America's military and political leaders for too long — and that failure of scrutiny extended to its own consultants.