ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
When news networks try to explain the state of things in Iraq or Afghanistan, they often interview their own paid consultants, retired military officers. But as a recent New York Times investigation found, in fact the Pentagon cultivated those former officers as a secret weapon to win over hearts and minds of the American audience.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that revelation is making media executives squirm.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Think back to April 2006. A group of retired senior military officers surfaced to blast than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq. It became known as the general's revolt. Rumsfeld retaliated by rallying his own troops for a closed-door meeting.
Fifteen retired senior military officers who were television commentators strategized with Rumsfeld on how to convince the public the military could succeed.
Retired Air Force Major General and CNN consultant Don Shepherd went on the air that very day to talk about the meeting.
Major General DON SHEPHERD (U.S. Air Force, Retired): Our message to them as analysts was, look, you have got to get the importance of this war out to the American people. This is a forward strategy. It is better to fight the war in Iraq than it is the war on American soil.
FOLKENFLIK: In fact, as the New York Times reported last week after getting 8,000 pages of Pentagon e-mails and documents, that meeting was part of an initiative stretching back to 2002 to coop those military analysts, carefully feeding them access to senior defense officials, arranging trips abroad, and issuing talking points. Some who strayed were dropped from the invite list. Others, including CNN's Shepherd, had other reasons to boast of access to Pentagon officials. They worked for or on behalf of military contractors.
Shepherd declined to be interviewed. But retired Army Major General John Batiste sure has strong feelings about all that coziness.
Major General JOHN BATISTE (U.S. Army, Retired): This is a very deliberate attempt on the part of the administration to shape public opinion.
FOLKENFLIK: Batiste commanded the U.S. 1st Infantry Division in Iraq before leaving the military in 2005. He was briefly a commentator for CBS News, but has been outspoken against the Bush administration and did not get invited to the Pentagon briefing sessions. In all, 75 former flag officers were included in the Pentagon initiative, but not all were complete cheerleaders. Yet e-mail show some of them repeatedly sought to help military officials make their case, and Batiste says their upbeat comments often rang false.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: And it also sounded to me as if they were parroting the administration talking points. It sounded very much to me like I was up against an information operation. I had no idea that it was so extensive.
FOLKENFLIK: The Defense Department has suspended the so-called surrogates program while saying it did nothing improper. But the New York Times story has stirred discomfort within network news divisions already bruised by the media's failure to challenge the administration before the invasion over claims Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. News executives and consultants wouldn't comment for this story, but privately say their on-air comments were honestly held beliefs.
Andrew Heyward was president of CBS News until 2005. He says the networks relied on paid consultants for their expertise.
Mr. ANDREW HEYWARD (Former President, CBS News): 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. And based on their experience, they could also provide perspective on different aspects of the war as it unfolded, including policy.
FOLKENFLIK: But Heyward says the Defense Department exploited the network's hunger for military know-how.
Mr. HEYWARD: There was a deliberate attempt to deceive the public by having 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 to the public.
FOLKENFLIK: Retired Army General Robert Scales was a Fox News channel analyst and a consultant for NPR from 2003 till 2004. Since then, NPR has interviewed him without pay. Scales's work for defense contractors has rarely been mentioned on our air. NPR managing editor Brian Duffy says changes are in the works.
Mr. BRIAN DUFFY (NPR): We're reviewing our commentators agreement to basically tighten up the language on that so that we're asking more rigorous questions about anyone that we're paying as a consultant.
FOLKENFLIK: Duffy also says Scales did nothing wrong and that a review of his remarks in which he was often critical of progress in Iraq found 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 its military leadership for far too long. And that failure of scrutiny extended to its own consultants.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.