By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The article, by David Barstow, was based on 8,000 pages of internal Pentagon documents obtained in a lawsuit by the newspaper.
Garrett, an unpaid Fox analyst, told the Times there was an unavoidable overlap between his roles as commentator, retired officer and Patton Boggs lobbyist who seeks to help clients win defense contracts.
James "Spider" Marks, a retired general who served as a CNN analyst from 2004 to 2007, also pursued military contracts as an executive with McNeil Technologies. He told the Times he reported that income to CNN, which acknowledged being slow in asking follow-up questions.
"When we learned the extent of Spider Marks's dealings -- in a review of his financial disclosure form in July 2007 -- we immediately ended our relationship with him," a CNN spokeswoman said in a statement yesterday.
Marks was not alone. Retired Gen. Thomas McInerney, a Fox analyst, sits on the boards of such military contractors as Nortel Government Solutions. William Cohen, the former defense secretary and now a CNN analyst, heads the Cohen Group, which says it "provides global business consulting services and advice on tactical and strategic opportunities in virtually every market." Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC analyst, runs BR McCaffrey Associates, which "provides strategic, analytic, and advocacy consulting services to businesses, non-profits, governments, and international organizations."
The Pentagon arranged several trips for the analysts to the widely criticized military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After a 2005 visit, retired Gen. Don Shepperd, a CNN consultant, said the media's portrayal of the prison had been "totally false." Retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, an NBC analyst, said on "Today" that "there's been over $100 million in new construction."
NBC said in a statement that the network has "clear policies in place" to ensure that its analysts "have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest."
The advocacy of these retired military men extended to print; at least nine wrote op-ed pieces for the Times. Vallely wrote the Pentagon in 2006, after several former generals (none of them TV commentators) turned on Rumsfeld, asking for "any input for the article" that he, McInerney and two other former officers were writing for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Rumsfeld's office provided statistics, and a Pentagon official wrote his colleagues that "Vallely is going to use the numbers."
The Journal piece was headlined "In Defense of Donald Rumsfeld."
Were these military men subject to intimidation? Fox News analyst Bill Cowan, a retired colonel who runs a small military consulting firm, said on "The O'Reilly Factor" in August 2005 that it had been "a bad week" in Iraq and that many military people he consulted were "expressing a lot of dismay and disappointment at the way things are going."
"Suddenly, boom, I never got another telephone call, I never got another e-mail from them," Cowan, who had been meeting regularly with Rumsfeld, recalled in an interview. "I was just booted off the group. I was fired." Whitman said he knew of no one who had been "dismissed, dropped, fired or disinvited" from the group.
Cowan, who took several Pentagon-orchestrated trips to Iraq, said the military gave him special access only "as long as they thought I was serving their purposes. . . . I drink nobody's Kool-Aid."
But others may have sipped it. Military pundits obviously come at their subject with a viewpoint sympathetic to their longtime profession. What has been obscured is the extent to which many are still part of the military's web and entangled with companies trying to milk the Pentagon for profit.Sticking It to Obama
In last week's Democratic debate, ABC News presented Nash McCabe as a typical voter with a particular concern. She asked Barack Obama on a video "if you believe in the American flag," and if so, why he doesn't wear a flag pin.
But the Latrobe, Pa., woman was hardly neutral. ABC found her because she had been cited in the New York Times two weeks ago as a Democrat who maintained she could not vote for the Illinois senator, saying: "How can I vote for a president who won't wear a flag pin?"
Viewers had no way of knowing that McCabe had indicated in advance that she could not back Obama against Hillary Clinton. Her question, expanded upon by moderator Charlie Gibson, forced Obama to defend his patriotism during a 40-minute sequence in which Gibson and George Stephanopoulos directed most of the tough questions to Obama.
Asked about the use of McCabe, first noted by McClatchy Newspapers, ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider says another questioner "made clear that Clinton had lost his vote over her explanation of her trip to Bosnia. . . . These questions were representative of what we heard again and again from voters regarding the importance of credibility and electability as central issues in this campaign."
Howard Kurtz holds CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."