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TV Analysts’ Collusion With the Military: Disgraceful but Legal?

(Photo: james_gordon_los_angeles / Flickr)

Part of the Series

I wasn’t going to look at the news on Christmas Day. I had just had successfully prepared a Christmas Eve dinner for my extended family and was up late singing at a Christmas Eve church service. On Christmas day, I was taking more food to another relative’s house to have another family dinner. But I was lying in bed Christmas morning and, as most news junkies will understand, just decided to do a quick peek of the headlines on my iPad.

And there it was. The New York Times was reporting that the Department of Defense’s Inspector General’s (DoD IG) office had finished a report saying no harm, no foul when Rumsfeld’s Pentagon used 74 military analysts, mainly retired generals, to push for the Iraq war and advocate more war spending and more DoD budget spending as national television commentators.

The first time the DoD IG approached this subject and had a draft report, there was an outcry over its conclusions that nothing was wrong and the DOD IG went back for a second look. The investigation had been triggered by New York Times reporter David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles on this cabal of retired generals and other retired military officers who were getting talking points, tours and special treatment by the DoD while serving as network commentators. To make it worse, many of them were also working for defense companies at the time. Little of this was made known to the television viewers as they spoke under the guise of retired military men with supposedly only concern for the troops and the execution of the war.

The Washington Times had first reported that the DoD IG report cleared the retired generals on December 1, but the report had not leaked to other news agencies. On Christmas day, the New York Times ran an article on the report with more details on what the DoD IG had found.

As I read the New York Times version on Christmas morning, I was smacking my head on how the IG investigated this problem. The New York Times and Washington Times articles were based on the partly redacted DoD IG report, number DODIG 2012-025. Looking at the report and the New York Times article, it was clear that there was a great push and investigation by the IG to, as one of my best sources says, “to find no evidence.”

The best way to comment on the investigation is for me to reproduce sections of the New York Times article, “Pentagon Finds No Fault in Ties to TV Analysts,” and comment on the various claims of the IG (The New York Times article is in italics and my comments in plain text):

The inquiry found that from 2002 to 2008, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon organized 147 events for 74 military analysts. These included 22 meetings at the Pentagon, 114 conference calls with generals and senior Pentagon officials and 11 Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Twenty of the events, according to a 35-page report of the inquiry’s findings, involved Mr. Rumsfeld or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or both.

The inspector general’s investigation grappled with the question of whether the outreach constituted an earnest effort to inform the public or an improper campaign of news media manipulation.

In the highly charged political atmosphere in the run up to the Iraq war and the long slog that developed once we got there, it is hard to believe that anyone could say with a straight face that they weren’t sure that this was “an improper campaign of news media manipulation” or just an innocent effort by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon to keep all of us informed.

In the 1980s, I exposed fraudulent pricing of weapons by using overpriced spare parts, such as the $7622 coffee brewer and $435 claw hammer to show that the weapon pricing formulas were making us pay way too much for weapons. The DoD at the time tried to trivialize the exposes by making fun of me, but as these stories started to resonate with the public and Johnny Carson started making spare parts jokes, I saw the DoD’s “earnest effort to inform the public” up close. They made up fake, nonexistent pricing schemes to show that only the spare parts, not whole weapon systems, were overpriced. They passed this fiction on to various economists and columnists who dutifully repeated the lie, and made sure that their congressional allies and even President Reagan were ready with “talking points” to try to pacify the public’s anger. I made up a “truth package” for the press and the Congress with real provable facts and actual documentation to counter their utter fiction on weapons pricing and spent months sending these packets to anyone who thought about buying in to their fabrication.

When Reagan was asked about the $7622 (in current dollars it would be over $15,000) coffee brewer on the C-5 cargo plane during a press briefing, he squirmed in his seat but then said that this was a unique unit that made coffee for 90 soldiers and could also make soup. Even if that was true, it still would not justify its outrageous price, but the information was false. The Air Force said that it made coffee for 90 soldiers because that was how many troops could fit in the passenger section of the C-5, but it only could make 12 cups of coffee at a time and to make soup, you would just run the water through without the coffee to heat the water to add to reconstituted soup. I remember being embarrassed for Reagan at the time because he didn’t explain it well and looked bemused while he was talking. I suspect that he realized that this information from the Air Force flak shop was weak and silly because there was no decent explanation for the exorbitant price.

The flak shop, i.e. public affairs in the Air Force, went so far to outright lie and expend enormous amounts of time and effort to try to prove me wrong when, if they would have just admitted the problem and put in an effort to fix it, they could have been heroes instead of the goat. “They lie instinctively, even when the truth would serve them better,” was the comment from famous Air Force whistleblower Ernest Fitzgerald at the time.

The inquiry confirmed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff frequently provided military analysts with talking points before their network appearances. In some cases, the report said, military analysts “requested talking points on specific topics or issues.” One military analyst described the talking points as “bullet points given for a political purpose.” Another military analyst, the report said, told investigators that the outreach program’s intent “was to move everyone’s mouth on TV as a sock puppet.”

The inquiry also confirmed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff hired a company to track and analyze what the military analysts said during their media appearances. According to the report, four military analysts reported that they were ejected from Mr. Rumsfeld’s outreach program “because they were critical” of the Pentagon.

If it weren’t clear to these retired brass that they needed to mindlessly push the Pentagon’s talking points at first, ejecting people who didn’t go along with the gag would definitely show them what they had to do to not get voted off the island. How is that not considered propaganda? In the rarified air of the Pentagon, it must be considered true because a general said it and if you still want to be part of the military officer tribe when you retire, you better keep to the story. What many people don’t know is that if you are a general, you don’t really ever retire from the military; you are in a retired status and can get called back. That is one of the reasons that military brass should not go work for defense companies because it really blurs the line between the DoD and the contractors.

Given the conflicting accounts, the inspector general’s office scrutinized some 25,000 pages of documents related to the program. But except for one “unsigned, undated, draft memorandum,” investigators could not find any documents that described the strategy or objective of the program. Investigators said that to understand the program’s intent, they had to rely on interviews with Mr. Rumsfeld’s former public affairs aides, including his spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke. Based on these interviews, the report said, investigators concluded that the “outreach activities were intended to serve as an open information exchange with credible third-party subject-matter experts” who could “explain military issues, actions and strategies to the American public.”

This is really inane from an investigator’s point of view. Doesn’t it raise a red flag that after slogging through 25,000 documents the investigators could only find one unsigned and undated draft document that even described the strategy or objective of a major Rumsfeld initiative? Either, the other emails and channeled documents were destroyed or the DoD knew that this was bordering on illegal or improper so they didn’t write anything down. Many prosecutors would use this to show “consciousness of guilt.” Believe me, if it was completely legitimate and ethical and beyond reproach, there would be dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of DoD documents talking about it. The DoD loves to “staff and channel” everything to death.

I am sure that Victoria Clarke is a lovely person that you would like to have as a neighbor, but did these DoD IG investigators really think that she was going to say that Rumsfeld and she were callously using these retired generals to politically flak for this war, and in that effort, perhaps broke rules, regulations or laws? There was already blowback from the New York Times articles, especially since they won a Pulitzer Prize and it is irrational to believe that these political appointees and their vulnerable career staff under them would be likely to say anything else.

The inspector general’s office looked into the issue of whether military analysts with ties to defense contractors used their access to senior Defense Department officials to advance their business interests.

The report found that at least 43 of the military analysts were affiliated with defense contractors. The inspector general’s office said it asked 35 of these analysts whether their participation in the program benefited their business interests. Almost all said no. Based on these answers, the report said, investigators were unable to identify any analysts who “profited financially” from their participation in the program.

The report, however, said that these analysts may have gained “many other tangible and intangible benefits” from their special access. (Eight analysts said they believed their participation gave them better access to top Defense Department officials, for example.) The report said that a lack of clear “internal operating procedures” may have contributed to “the perception” that participation by military analysts with ties to defense contractors “provided a financial benefit.”

“Almost all said no.” Really? I am shocked. What else are they suppose to say under pressure from an IG investigation? But what is really amazing and depressing from an investigator’s point of view is the sentence, “Based on these answers, the report said, investigators were unable to identify any analysts who ‘profited financially’ from their participation in the program.” (Emphasis added)

This type of investigating is as preposterous as if a police department questioned possible suspects in a robbery and when they all said that they didn’t do it, believed them and didn’t bother to look at the DNA evidence. If they were interested in real investigation (the combined investigations took three years!) they would have picked out the most highly connected military analysts who had the most hours on television, found out what defense companies they were working or consulting for, looked to see if their consulting business got more DoD customers or larger contracts as they appeared more and more on television or seen if they got quick promotions from within the defense companies they worked for.

You could also follow the companies that they were affiliated with while they were doing this work from 2002-2008 to see if there were unusual upward spikes of contracts to these companies near the times that these military analysts were being heavily used by the networks. You could put these two types of data in a computer program and then do a trend analysis to see if, more often than not, the analysts or the companies appeared to take advantage of their close relationship with the DoD or cash in on their higher public profile from appearing on the television as “military war experts.”

So why do I say that finding no problem with this activity will make it harder to cut the defense budget? First is that the public sees these retired generals as military men who wage war and are only concerned with winning and protecting the troops, rather than polished toadies for DoD politics and budget requests. When the proposed cuts for the Pentagon get closer and closer, the DoD will have no compunction to send these “warfighter” warrior retired generals out to insist that cutting any of the Pentagon will leave us in great peril. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is already doing it and so it isn’t much of a stretch to believe he will once again call on the retired generals to do the same hype that was so successful for the even unlikeable Rumsfeld.

Second, if this is the caliber of the DoD Inspector General’s investigative abilities, we are in real trouble if we want to keep the weapons procurement process free from cronyism and overpricing. The accounting chaos is already a detriment to successful investigation, but rounding up an “Amen” chorus of people as your major proof will not keep the system even rudimentarily clean of fraud and waste. It is also very disconcerting how many people in the system don’t see anything wrong with what Rumsfeld did. They either don’t know any better or are terribly jaded. I suspect that the people at the bottom have been taught that this behavior is standard operating procedure by the cynical people at the top because they can get away with it.

The solution? As I have written in other Solutions columns, you have to get the military out of the political and money procurement systems and make sure that they only do military strategy and war requirements for weapons. We are corrupting our general officers and will pay a price in future conflicts. Once they retire, we need to forbid them from playing in the military procurement influence games and they should not be allowed to comment on the politics of the war and on the money for the war and weapons. They should be narrowly allowed to talk about war strategy. Because of their special rank and influence in the military, they should also not be allowed to work for or consult (or be a historian) for any company doing business with the Pentagon. Anything less makes them sycophants for the DoD and can lead to potential corruption for weapons companies to employ them.

Oh, also, let’s get some real seasoned investigators into the DoD IG to teach the rest of their staff how to really investigate. If anyone from the IG office is reading this, call me, I know some good ones.

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