Retired Officers, Still Doing The Pentagon's Work on TV?
Monday, April 21, 2008
Talk about marching orders.
John Garrett, a retired Army colonel and a Fox News military analyst, was in regular touch with the Pentagon as President Bush prepared to announce his Iraq troop surge last year.
"Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay," Garrett wrote.
That note was one of numerous documents published yesterday in a lengthy New York Times investigation of the close ties between the parade of former officers who serve as television analysts, Defense Department officials who feed them information, and corporations who hire them to win federal contracts.
It's hardly shocking that career military men would largely reflect the Pentagon's point of view, just as Democratic and Republican "strategists" stay in touch with aides to the candidates they defend on the air. But the degree of behind-the-scenes manipulation -- including regular briefings by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials -- is striking, as is the lack of disclosure by the networks of some of these government and business connections.
With an aura of independence, many of the analysts used their megaphones, and the prestige of their rank, to help sell a war that was not going well. Not all marched in lock step, of course, and a half-dozen former generals broke with the Pentagon in 2006 to call for Rumsfeld's resignation. But the networks rarely if ever explored the outside roles of their military consultants.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in an interview yesterday that the former officers are "highly educated, experienced in their field. To suggest they could be puppets of the Defense Department is a little insulting to all of them. . . . Not all of them are advocates for everything the department is doing." The department, he added, provides information not just to retired officers but to corporate, educational and religious leaders as well as journalists.
Marty Ryan, a Fox News executive producer, said yesterday that the analysts are hired not just for their expertise but also as people "who have access to and know what the thinking of the Pentagon is. That makes them valuable to us."
With so many military commentators retained in wartime, "it's a little unrealistic to think you're going to do a big background check on everybody," Ryan said. "Some of the business ties aren't necessarily relevant when you're asking them about a specific helicopter operation."
The credibility gap, to use an old Vietnam War phrase, was greatest when these retired officers offered upbeat assessments of the Iraq war even while privately expressing doubts.
Defense officials arranged for a number of the analysts to visit Iraq in September 2003, the Times reported. "You can't believe the progress," retired Gen. Paul Vallely, then a Fox analyst, told viewers, although he told the Times that he recognized at the time that "things were going south."
Ken Allard, a retired colonel and former NBC military analyst, told the Times there was a "night and day" difference between what Pentagon briefers told him and the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. "I felt we'd been hosed," Allard said.