Remember How the Bush Pentagon Turned Retired Generals into Media Shills? It Could Happen Again.

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Dec. 28 2011 12:58 PM

A Christmas Gift for the Pentagon

Remember how it turned retired generals into media shills? Lax oversight means it could happen again.

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The report also dismisses the fact that 43 of the 63 retired generals in the program were involved with defense contractors. It discounts this potential conflict of interest on the basis of its interviews with 35 generals, almost all of whom denied that they used the meetings “to identify new business opportunities.” But this finding ignores a critical dimension: Even if the generals didn’t use their position to gain financially, their ongoing business relations could well have influenced them to back the Pentagon’s talking points. The Department of Defense violated its policy requiring “broad” outreach when it made them into the majority of its group.

This report amounts to a remarkable Christmas present for the Pentagon. What it calls a “broad” program of “information outreach” was a systematic effort to provide talking points to a sympathetic audience, largely associated with defense contractors, who were working for a biased sample of news organizations. In case they didn’t get the message, Barry McCaffrey’s fate made it clear what they could expect if they refused to play the game.

A simple reform can change this reality. The Department should be stripped of its right to determine its own guest list at its high-level media briefings. It should extend invitations to all major news organizations, and give them unfettered freedom to choose their own military experts. This will decisively shift the balance, allowing us to hear authoritative commentary not just from pundits who please the Pentagon, but from experts who represent their organization’s best shot at independent journalism. The distribution of “talking points” should also be banned, and conflict-of-interest rules tightened, but letting the media select its own attendees will make the key difference—enabling the program to express a fuller commitment to the “freedom of … the press” guaranteed by the Constitution.

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Unfortunately, initial departmental reaction to the report has been disappointing. Naturally enough, its public affairs division was “pleased that the IG found our outreach activities in compliance with DOD policies.” But it has refused to follow up on the report’s sole recommendation, and take immediate steps to formulate a systematic policy for future PR campaigns. It claims that there is no need to heed the Inspector’s call to develop clear operating principles since it isn’t planning anything like the Bush media offensive.

This is a big mistake. There will be future crises, and future efforts to transform our retired military into cheerleaders for the powers-that-be. The administration’s logic is precisely backward: It should take advantage of the relative calm to impose sensible constraints in this sensitive area of civil-military relations.

The report gives the public affairs division a deadline of Jan. 9to come up with some serious guidelines. But unless there is a sustained critique of the media manipulations of the Bush years, it is unlikely to take the problem seriously, and its regulations will affirm the status quo. Once the division has gained the final approval of the inspector general, the entire matter will be forgotten—only to re-emerge in pathological form after the next terrorist attack.

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