Military Sock Puppets

Military Sock Puppets

Last year the New York Times sued the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act to get the records of its interaction with the TV Military analysts who were so crucial in the run up to the War in Iraq and its subsequent prosecution. This morning they released their analysis of the documents. The supposedly objective ex-Generals were actually part of a sophisticated psy-ops operation on the American public.

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.

I have written before about Walter Lippmann’s notion of the “Manufacture of Consent” and the long Times article lays out myriad examples of the cozy dynamic between the Pentagon and these military analysts, many of who were also lobbyists or officers of major military contracting companies. The conflicts of interest are mind-boggling.

John C. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. “You can’t help but look for that,” he said, adding, “If you know a capability that would fill a niche or need, you try to fill it. “That’s good for everybody.”

The Pentagon referred to these TV sock puppets as “surrogates”. Brent Kruegar, a senior aide to Torrie Clarke (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs) has since left the Pentagon and was willing to be candid with the Times.

“You could see that they were messaging,” Mr. Krueger said. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over.” Some days, he added, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’ ”

As crucial as the retired Generals were in building the case for the invasion of Iraq, there value once the occupation started to go south was even more important.

“I saw immediately in 2003 that things were going south,” General Vallely, one of the Fox analysts on the trip, recalled in an interview with The Times.

The Pentagon, though, need not have worried.

“You can’t believe the progress,” General Vallely told Alan Colmes of Fox News upon his return. He predicted the insurgency would be “down to a few numbers” within months.

If of course a military analyst sought to dissent from what one called the “mindwar”, he was quickly cashiered. Lt. Col Bill Cowan found out quickly the cost of dissent.

On Aug. 3, 2005, 14 marines died in Iraq. That day, Mr. Cowan, who said he had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the “twisted version of reality” being pushed on analysts in briefings, called the Pentagon to give “a heads-up” that some of his comments on Fox “may not all be friendly,” Pentagon records show. Mr. Rumsfeld’s senior aides quickly arranged a private briefing for him, yet when he told Bill O’Reilly that the United States was “not on a good glide path right now” in Iraq, the repercussions were swift.

Mr. Cowan said he was “precipitously fired from the analysts group” for this appearance. The Pentagon, he wrote in an e-mail message, “simply didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t carrying their water.”

Although I have faulted Lippmann for his cynical belief in the role of elites to “move the mob”, his analysis is not without some candor.

When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute.

Until a truly free press made up of newspapers, TV networks and the blogosphere refuses to participate in this charade of propaganda dissemination, we will not be able to reclaim our democracy.

This entry was posted in Advertising, Defense Policy, Foreign Policy, Iraq War, Journalism, Politics, Television, Terrorism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Military Sock Puppets

  1. Pete Wolf says:

    The important question is what would a free press look like?

    When we talk about a ‘free press’ what we often seem to mean is a group of journalists who have a certain set of values which commit them to the pursuit of truth and unbiased original reporting.

    This is of course an admirable dream: a press populated by people whose very character guarantees its freedom from the influence of those with power. However, as much as my favorite journalism is perpetrated by precisely these kind of people, this is not a recipe for a ‘free press’, it gives us know idea of how such a state of affairs could be achieved and most importantly how it could be maintained.

    I would really like to hear your, or anyone else’s thoughts on how a ‘free press’ could be established and maintained, beyond simply hoping for journalists of strong character.

  2. Patrick Freeman says:

    This should be no surprise to any career military officer. Very senior Generals and Admirals, “flag officers,” live in a cocoon of tender care much like that of our most senior elected officials. They like to portray themselves as tough, no-nonsense types, but they relish the devoted attention they receive from their subordinates. The civilian world is much less kind to them when they are no longer in uniform.

    It should certainly be no surprise that they take on lucrative roles in commerce. They have, for a few years, important contacts within the military establishment, and are obviously valuable marketing assets to the companies who hire them. Some even make the transition to civilian-style leadership and management and become valuable in management roles within their companies. But almost all of them, and their civil service counterparts within the DOD, are eager to return to the environment where they feel most comfortable, and most appreciated. Thus, when the Pentagon comes calling, offering “access,” especially if they have set themselves up as military analysts for the “news” media, they are ripe for plucking. Most would never characterize their behavior as exhibiting a conflict of interest, as only a couple in the NYTimes article seem to have. They see it as a continuation of their service to the nation, despite the fact that they are knowingly being manipulated by their old organization for propaganda purposes.

    As an aside, as a retired AF officer myself, I am often amused by the ridiculous assertions some of these people will make on the air. They remind me of an op-ed piece written by the novelist Tom Clancy concerning B-2 bombers and how they were essential to destroying mobile Soviet missiles hidden in endless forests. This when we could not find Saddam Hussein’s scuds in the Iraqi desert. Clancy signed off his piece as “Tom Clancy, Military Analyst.”

  3. Ken Ballweg says:

    Pete, The independent Fourth Estate is more myth than reality. Newspapers in Colonial America were created to be bully pulpits for a specific political agenda. A fine old tradition that continues to this day.

    A truly free press would look a lot like the current blogosphere: meaning extremely high noise to signal ratio, and a clustering of like minded people around the ones that reinforce their world view.

  4. Mark Murphy says:

    What the world needs is a few crowdsourced FactCheck.org’s.

    Journalism may never be neutral, only because individual persons are imperfect, have biases, and let those biases affect their writing (by intent or by accident).

    FactCheck.org aims to be scrupulously neutral and provides citations backing up all of their assertions. However, they are still just a handful of people, and so biases are inevitable, despite their scrutiny.

    Now, imagine we harness the collective power of the nation’s civics, journalism, English composition, library science, political science, and law courses, at the collegiate and high school levels. Students, as part of their coursework, are required to contribute to… ummm… FactBalance.org. FactBalance.org staff prepare newsworthy topics for research, along the lines of “areas of dispute” that FactCheck.org and Mr. Taplin’s blog analyze. Students select topics and do the legwork, coming up with citations to sources and some amount of analysis. Bonus points to those who come up with quality sources that few others find (vs. the same-old things you’d find on the first page of a rudimentary Google search). While the student analyses will range from insightful to drivel, the net collection of sources should be pretty impressive, if there’s significant participation in the project. FactBalance.org staff “net and vet” the sources, coming up with a unique list of sources and validating that the sources are, indeed, useful. Students own their own contributions (useful as part of a portfolio of writing for job searches), FactBalance.org owns the compilation, and teachers get each student’s contributions (scored set of sources plus the analysis) and can assign a grade based on the results.

    What society gets out of it is a quality set of source material for issues of the day, with minimal selection bias. Individual selection biases wash out with a statistically significant set of contributors. We’re left with cultural selection biases and biases innate in the available source material, but there ain’t a lot we can do about those any time soon. This source material is, in effect, what the journalists, analysts, and armchair pundits of the world get to use to come up with their take on what the “truth” is, and anybody who cares to can compare pundits’ take on the “truth” with the source material to see who’s spinning who. The hope is that with sufficient source material, it will be more difficult for journalists, et. al. to come up with fabrications out of whole cloth. And, long term, we might get future generations to ask pundits and power-brokers “where’s the beef?” when “facts” are tossed out without evidence.

    Now, I’m not a teacher, and it’s been a disturbingly long time since I’ve been a student, so I may be over-optimistic as to how well this sort of thing can be packaged to interest both of those groups.

  5. Jon Taplin says:

    Mark- I guess we are engaged in a sort of de facto version of what you suggest. But you are right that the cooperative tools of Web 2.0 could probably be applied to the task of keeping the press honest in a stronger fashion.

  6. Patrick Freeman says:

    I’m not so sure that lay “fact checkers” can really do justice to specialized areas of knowledge. Military operations, like science, medicine, and even the arts, require more than just enthusiasm for seeking the truth. What is needed is experienced, skilled analysts, in any field, who are independent. Whenever a retired military officer, like a retired politician or retired scientist, is paid for his opinion, then there is likely to be some conflict of interest (“Nine out of ten doctors smoke Kools”). The Times just uncovered a crowd of experts who are available in wholesale lots and who see nothing wrong with their actions. Their employers, the MSM, are not engaged in journalism to any noticeable extent. Just ask Mr. Moot, my high school journalism teacher.

  7. Pete Wolf says:

    Mark, I applaud the originality of the idea, and it does of course tackle the root of the problem – the ability of policy and the reasoning given for it to deviate wildly from the facts as uncovered by experts in the relevant fields.

    However, I don’t think that it’s a feasible solution. Even with the cooperative tools and administrative techniques developed in the web 2.0 era, I don’t think that there’s any way of getting anything like consistent ‘facts’ out of that many people coming at issues from different angles. At best you’ll get a very detailed index of the whole variety of different opinions on a given issue. This itself would be good, but it wouldn’t provide the kind of authoritative reference point you’re looking for.

    However, we do need some way of making the ‘facts’ or at least the the essential aspects of the important arguments readily accessible for contrast with the reasons of politicians. This involves somehow bringing authentic experts to the fore while avoiding the politicisation of said experts. This is very difficult. I have a somewhat far-fetched potential solution for this in the UK, but I’m not sure how it can be achieved in the US.

  8. Morgan Warstler says:

    There are some different things going on here…

    Free Press: Ken is absolutely right. The form and function of push media is exactly that and has been since the country began… to push an opinion. The only reason anyone has ever claimed to be or even grudgingly tried to be some weird “unbiased press” is to sneak their opinion past you on other stuff.

    Quality of media: NEVER has the quality of media been better than today. Your own opinions are judged based on whether you agree with this. Most people are unaware at the amount of data available on the Internet. Most reporters do nothing except read the Internet to write an article, most calls made to get quotes, are made after the friggin article is written. Precisely because there is TRUTH, the press should freely admit they are biased. The only true lie is saying they aren’t. Since all are biased, it behooves the consumer to choose carefully and think for themselves. An example manifests itself here: Jon is limited by drawing so heavily from the NYT, it is a safe left of center choice from a media source that is slowly dying.

    Tech: Hell yes, what is coming out with computational linguistics will make applying the value of social media to our reading seem silly (and it was helpful). In years coming soon enough, we will be able to tell what is actually happening in a place based on every first hand report, with all context generated by the machine.

    Military communications strategy: Jon wouldn’t care at all or even notice if this was done by a team of professors repping for the Dept. Of Education. Or the IPCC. Jon doesn’t like the military or the war, so he perceives something unholy going on. Good lord professor, you want the Pentagon engaged in winning a war to send out military experts to say their own opinion? I’m just glad you aren’t teaching PR at USC.

  9. garyb50 says:

    Morgan phones it in.

    How uncharacteristic.

  10. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- If these “Independant Military Analysts” had said they were representing Don Rumsfeld and worn their uniform, I would be happy. They tried to pawn their DOD scripted opinions off on the public as their own. The networks were complicit in this charade.

  11. Morgan Warstler says:

    I’m fine with calling them, Pentagon Military Analysts. I’m sure the networks will as well.

  12. Dan says:

    It came as no surprise to me to learn that TV news is crooked. Watching CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the broadcast networks for news is a bad idea.

    But most people do, I guess.

  13. Mark Murphy says:

    @Mr. Freeman:

    “Military operations, like science, medicine, and even the arts, require more than just enthusiasm for seeking the truth.”

    No, but enthusiasm can be useful for surfacing the already-published truths. Lots of stuff is written up every day. All I’m looking for is
    a way to build an issue-by-issue index of that material, and help correlate those sources.

    “What is needed is experienced, skilled analysts, in any field, who are independent.”

    They need to be the ones writing the truth. A federated portion of the masses can help coordinate making sure that truth sees the light of day.

    @Mr. Wolf:

    “Even with the cooperative tools and administrative techniques developed in the web 2.0 era, I don’t think that there’s any way of getting anything like consistent ‘facts’ out of that many people coming at issues from different angles.”

    FactBalance is probably a poor choice of names — I was trying to use it as a counterpoint to FactCheck.org which, while valuable, isn’t scalable in its present form.

    “At best you’ll get a very detailed index of the whole variety of different opinions on a given issue. This itself would be good, but it wouldn’t provide the kind of authoritative reference point you’re looking for.”

    True, but it’s a starting point.

    “However, we do need some way of making the ‘facts’ or at least the the essential aspects of the important arguments readily accessible for contrast with the reasons of politicians.”

    Ding! Ding! Ding! That’s what I was aiming for. You stated it much more clearly, though. You probably had more sleep, natch… ;-)

    “This involves somehow bringing authentic experts to the fore while avoiding the politicisation of said experts. This is very difficult.”

    I’m somewhat less worried about this than you appear to be. I suppose it’s a question of how you define “politicisation”. If you mean coercion by governments, I think there are too many experts for a democracy to adequately control. In the past 7.5 years, for example, the current US administration tried to squelch “climate change”…and a Nobel Peace Prize was given for work on that very subject. Certainly, a sufficiently repressive regime can stymie any experts it wants.

  14. John Hurt says:

    Q How about this gentleman’s question, Dana? How about him? He’s had his hand up all this time.

    MS. PERINO: Yes, I’m well aware. I am sure it will be a great question. Go ahead.

    Q The New York Times has reported that over the last —

    MS. PERINO: Definitely going to be a good question. (Laughter.)

    Q — over the last six years the Pentagon conducted a secret operation designed to sell the war in Iraq and the war on terror to the American people. It recruited more than 75 ex-military officers, many with financial ties to the defense industry, provided them with talking points and an extraordinary degree of access not available to ordinary members of the press, including meetings with the Secretary of Defense, and it got them higher supposedly independent military analysts by every U.S. television network. One of its participants described it —

    MS. PERINO: Do you have a question?

    Q One of its participants described the program as “psyops on steroids” and others said that if they —

    MS. PERINO: Is this your opinion?

    Q I’m describing the program.

    MS. PERINO: What’s your question?

    Q Others said that if they departed from the Pentagon’s talking points, their access was cut off. And my question is, did the White House know about and approve of this operation?

    MS. PERINO: Look, I didn’t know — look, I think that you guys should take a step back and look at this — look, DOD has made a decision, they’ve decided to stop this program. But I would say that one of the things that we try to do in the administration is get information out to a variety of people so that everybody else can call them and ask their opinion about something.

    And I don’t think that that should be against the law. And I think that it’s absolutely appropriate to provide information to people who are seeking it and are going to be providing their opinions on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those military analysts ever agreed with the administration. I think you can go back and look and think that a lot of their analysis was pretty tough on the administration. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk to people.

    Q Thank you.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/04/20080430-5.html

  15. John Hurt says:

    Q How about this gentleman’s question, Dana? How about him? He’s had his hand up all this time.

    MS. PERINO: Yes, I’m well aware. I am sure it will be a great question. Go ahead.

    Q The New York Times has reported that over the last —

    MS. PERINO: Definitely going to be a good question. (Laughter.)

    Q — over the last six years the Pentagon conducted a secret operation designed to sell the war in Iraq and the war on terror to the American people. It recruited more than 75 ex-military officers, many with financial ties to the defense industry, provided them with talking points and an extraordinary degree of access not available to ordinary members of the press, including meetings with the Secretary of Defense, and it got them higher supposedly independent military analysts by every U.S. television network. One of its participants described it —

    MS. PERINO: Do you have a question?

    Q One of its participants described the program as “psyops on steroids” and others said that if they —

    MS. PERINO: Is this your opinion?

    Q I’m describing the program.

    MS. PERINO: What’s your question?

    Q Others said that if they departed from the Pentagon’s talking points, their access was cut off. And my question is, did the White House know about and approve of this operation?

    MS. PERINO: Look, I didn’t know — look, I think that you guys should take a step back and look at this — look, DOD has made a decision, they’ve decided to stop this program. But I would say that one of the things that we try to do in the administration is get information out to a variety of people so that everybody else can call them and ask their opinion about something.

    And I don’t think that that should be against the law. And I think that it’s absolutely appropriate to provide information to people who are seeking it and are going to be providing their opinions on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those military analysts ever agreed with the administration. I think you can go back and look and think that a lot of their analysis was pretty tough on the administration. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk to people.

    Q Thank you.

    END 1:00 P.M. EDT

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/04/20080430-5.html

  16. Morgan Warstler says:

    I’m fine with calling them, Pentagon Military Analysts. I’m sure the networks will as well.

  17. John Hurt says:

    Where would the balance come from?

  18. John Hurt says:

    Hugo

    Check this out.

    http://www.slatev.com/player.html?id=1151557602

    “When a crow flies over Kandahar, he flaps one wing. With the other wing he covers his tail.”

Leave a Reply