“What you came away with, was the feeling that you were watching a sales meeting, that [they] were brainstorming together over the best way to sell this,” — David Barstow, describing transcripts from the briefings between Pentagon officials and ex-generals who were serving as media analysts during the early years of the war.
This morning, Democracy Now! interviewed David Barstow, the NYT investigative reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize last month for his damning 2008 report of the Pentagon’s now-defunct program to cultivate “message force multipliers” and “surrogates” among ex-military generals (most of whom were up to their eyeballs in connections with defense contractors) to sell the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in newspapers and on major network and cable television news outlets. This was Barstow’s first national interview since winning the prize and just four days after the Pentagon made the stunning decision to retract an earlier exoneration of its “public relations” program, citing a string of inaccuracies and omissions (namely, failing to cite generals’ vast ties with defense contractors).
From the NYT: The internal review concluded that the report “did not meet accepted quality standards” and “relied on a body of testimonial evidence that was insufficient or inconclusive.” The review found that the former senior Pentagon officials who devised and managed the program refused to speak with the inspector general’s investigators. It also found that the report’s methodology was so flawed that it “would not reasonably yield evidence” to address the issue of whether analysts used their special access to gain competitive advantage.
So the Pentagon’s program to win over hearts of minds to its war policy is still on the hook (both the GAO and FCC are conducting investigations into whether the program, which was shut down after Barstow’s report, broke federal anti-propaganda statutes). Meanwhile, analysts like Barry McCaffrey, whose myriad connections to defense capital and contracting sources made him possibly the most compromised analyst of them all, is still lending his brand of disposable punditry to NBC (and with little exception the network still refuses to disclose McCaffrey’s many professional conflicts, like running his own military consulting business, and being a paid board director for DynCorp International, one of the most prominent U.S contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning $2.1 billion in revenues in 2008 alone. It certainly doesn’t talk about his ties to the Message Force Multipliers program, since it never saw fit to address Barstow’s investigation directly on-air in the first place. None of the major networks did).
“(McCaffrey) has been involved in the business affairs of the some of the major defense contractors operating in both those (Iraq and Afghanistan) war zones and more so … those ties were never disclosed,” Barstow said this morning. “In addition, General McCaffrey works as a consultant, he has a consulting firm and what it does it is helps defense contractors gain access to defense contracts. He’s also representing companies that are trying to very hard to get into that market … What we did was look very closely at how all those different roles intersect.”
According to Barstow, NBC officials told him they are not required to disclose McCaffrey’s potential conflicts because he is a “consultant” and therefore not subject to the network’s standard ethics rules for journalists. Good for McCaffrey, who still gets to revel, untainted by this whole affair, in his role as sage general bestowing strategic and tactical nuance to the benighted viewing audience. And good for NBC, which needn’t muddy the waters by explaining that McCaffrey might have been delivering Pentagon talking points directly from the war room, and worse, benefiting from it personally. Not so good for you, the American citizen who is paying for this ongoing two-front war, in blood and money.
The audience never knew, Barstow points out, “whether the positions General McCaffrey took were taken specifically to advantage the undisclosed interests of these contractors,” to advance the war aims of the administration, “or they were the positions that he would hold as an ordinary man,” during the darkest days of the war.
But these were not ordinary men, in the sense that these Message Force Multipliers had direct access to senior Pentagon officials and current operations in the field. When they did feel they were getting the white-wash, and began relating their uncertainties about the war on the air, Barstow said, their access was shut off, like a spigot. And that can be murder for an ex-military guy in the contracting business. “Access to people and information is really coin of the realm,” he noted.
So the relationship was a purely symbiotic one — which was greasy enough, except that “time and time again (the generals) were given information that deeply contradicted what we now know is the truth,” to spin the war, win over support and to “neutralize” bad news like Abu Ghraib and the lack of body armor for the troops, said Barstow.
For its part, the major mainstream media was unwilling to recognize, or deliberately ignored, these gross conflicts and the possibility they were all being duped. In many cases, anchors fawned over their analysts, said Barstow, becoming “megaphones” for the Bush Administration war policy.
A good interview with a superlative journalist. I will try to attach the transcript when it arrives. UPDATE: It’s on the site now.