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The Most Important News You Haven’t Seen

dfarsettas Icon Posted by Diane Farsetta

December 8th, 2008

It’s a story of covert propaganda, secretly advancing business interests and helping lead the United States into war. It’s got serious implications for our media system and our democracy. So why isn’t it getting more attention?

In April 2008, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter David Barstow exposed a secret Pentagon program, to recruit retired military officers who frequently serve as media commentators as the Bush administration’s “message force multipliers.” Barstow’s recent follow-up article details how one pundit — retired general, NBC News analyst and industry consultant Barry McCaffrey — served multiple undisclosed interests. McCaffrey is truly a one-man “military-industrial-media complex,” using his Pentagon and media access to benefit his military and security contractor clients and enrich himself.

The Pentagon pundit program was launched in early 2002, at the urging of former PR executive turned Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke (now a network pundit herself). The Pentagon wooed the pundits with access to high-level government officials, special briefings and conference calls, and free trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida. In return, the pundits used their media appearances to cheerlead for the Iraq War, often contradicting their own privately-expressed concerns. They also parroted Bush Administration talking points on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping.

While unparalleled and illegal, the Pentagon program has received little attention. Network and cable television, in particular, have nearly totally censored the story of how they helped the Pentagon propagandize their viewers.

Even MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a darling of progressives, gave Pentagon pundit McCaffrey a pass. In a September 2008 segment — months after the intial report on the Pentagon program and McCaffrey’s involvement in it — Maddow failed to disclose the retired general’s many conflicts of interest to her viewers.

Diving into the 8,000 pages of available documents on the pundit program, I found some striking examples of how the Pentagon worked to massage McCaffrey’s message:

On Friday, August 26, 2005, Pentagon PR staffer Larry Di Rita emailed his colleagues that McCaffrey (along with Pentagon pundits Montgomery Meigs and Wayne Downing) were scheduled to appear on influential political talk shows that Sunday. “Would it make sense to see if general petreaus [sic] were willing to speak with them between now and then?” DiRita asked. “YES,” responded Captain Frank Thorp, the PR assistant to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers. “Not a bad idea,” responded another Pentagon PR staffer, Bryan Whitman, who was heavily involved with the pundit program.

On Saturday, August 27, Whitman emailed Petraeus, asking him to call McCaffrey and the other two pundits. “If past experience is any indication, it really helps their commentary if they have the opportunity to spend a few minutes to hear from somebody who is actually out there doing it,” Whitman explained. Di Rita then asked Petraeus to keep in mind that the pundits “want to be extremely critical of the policy, of the secdef and his supposed bad plans, but very supportive of their fellow generals. … It’s b.s., and you might want to help these guys better understand the situation in this regard.”

If we truly don’t want to be fooled into war again, we must challenge war propaganda. First and foremost, that means demanding accountability for the Pentagon pundit program, from government officials and media outlets alike.

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