“MindWar”: The Bush Propaganda Machina

Though not surprising, this is incredibly disturbing — and indicative of yet another failure of a lazy corporate media and a twisted, absolutist government that seems to be taking its cues from fascist regimes:

In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration confronted a fresh wave of criticism over Guantánamo Bay. The detention center had just been branded “the gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, there were new allegations of abuse from United Nations human rights experts and calls were mounting for its closure.

The administration’s communications experts responded swiftly. Early one Friday morning, they put a group of retired military officers on one of the jets normally used by Vice President Dick Cheney and flew them to Cuba for a carefully orchestrated tour of Guantánamo.

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.

Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.

Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Mr. Cheney, Alberto R. Gonzales and Stephen J. Hadley.

In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.


Of course, the military officers who were paid administration shills should also be held accountable. But it’s not all that hard to follow the money trail or to investigate the pro-Bush talking points — and the corporate media simply didn’t do that.

Administration spokespeople claim that they weren’t influencing media coverage; some of the military officials also say that they weren’t speaking for the Bush administration, but were simply giving their opinions. I’m sure that’s true — if by “opinion” you mean “Bush administration talking point, repeated in the first person.”

Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” who could be counted on to deliver administration “themes and messages” to millions of Americans “in the form of their own opinions.”

Though many analysts are paid network consultants, making $500 to $1,000 per appearance, in Pentagon meetings they sometimes spoke as if they were operating behind enemy lines, interviews and transcripts show. Some offered the Pentagon tips on how to outmaneuver the networks, or as one analyst put it to Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, “the Chris Matthewses and the Wolf Blitzers of the world.” Some warned of planned stories or sent the Pentagon copies of their correspondence with network news executives. Many — although certainly not all — faithfully echoed talking points intended to counter critics.

“Good work,” Thomas G. McInerney, a retired Air Force general, consultant and Fox News analyst, wrote to the Pentagon after receiving fresh talking points in late 2006. “We will use it.”

Again and again, records show, the administration has enlisted analysts as a rapid reaction force to rebut what it viewed as critical news coverage, some of it by the networks’ own Pentagon correspondents. For example, when news articles revealed that troops in Iraq were dying because of inadequate body armor, a senior Pentagon official wrote to his colleagues: “I think our analysts — properly armed — can push back in that arena.”

Do read the whole article — it’s infuriating.

Certainly the media has to be held accountable for this one — but the administration does, too. The large-scale failures in Iraq (and the regressions in Afghanistan) haven’t just come from improper planning and, with Iraq, an insane preemptive war; they’ve come from an utter failure to recognize the reality of the situation. We see the Bush administration’s anti-fact, anti-science, anti-reality bent in many of their policies, but it’s perhaps most striking in a war situation. This is something that AJ from AmericaBlog covers really well in his book — the ideological manipulation of intelligence and analysis, and its horrific consequences.

After eight years of Bush, I think a lot of us have become disturbingly accustomed to the politicization of every branch of government, from justice to defense. And yes, with every administration there will be political appointments, and certain sectors of the government are going to turn over.

But it shouldn’t work that way with intelligence analysis. Intel is not a political pawn; it is crucial to our national security and our most basic interests. When you pervert analysis — when you take the facts and you twist them or remove them in order to stay “on message” or tell the higher-ups what they want to hear — you compromise all of our safety. And the situation in Iraq is a mess in part because the reality on the ground was simply not being dealt with, and the good intel analysis was not going up the chain. The message was more important than the facts. And as a result, we’ve been constantly surprised when things in Iraq don’t work out the way we had planned — even when analysts had tried to sound the alarm bell.

This is a similar situation. And while on its face it doesn’t seem as grave — media manipulation can hardly be as bad as manipulating actual intelligence to please the people with actual power, right? — its effects are just as detrimental. People voted based on this information — and not just for President, but for Congresspeople too. They continued to support a failing war. They backed off from pressuring the administration to change its tactics.

The journalistic establishment is supposed to be a check on government, not a mouthpiece for it. And while we must come down hard on the journalists, they’ve been manipulated, too. The job of the journalist is to become a quick expert on a subject, and to turn to other people who are well-versed in whatever you’re writing or talking about this week — and when you’re talking about Iraq, you naturally turn to military men and women. The administration knows that, and they’ve responded accordingly:

Other administrations had made sporadic, small-scale attempts to build relationships with the occasional military analyst. But these were trifling compared with what Ms. Clarke’s team had in mind. Don Meyer, an aide to Ms. Clarke, said a strategic decision was made in 2002 to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war. Journalists were secondary. “We didn’t want to rely on them to be our primary vehicle to get information out,” Mr. Meyer said.

The Pentagon’s regular press office would be kept separate from the military analysts. The analysts would instead be catered to by a small group of political appointees, with the point person being Brent T. Krueger, another senior aide to Ms. Clarke. The decision recalled other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism. Federal agencies, for example, have paid columnists to write favorably about the administration. They have distributed to local TV stations hundreds of fake news segments with fawning accounts of administration accomplishments. The Pentagon itself has made covert payments to Iraqi newspapers to publish coalition propaganda.

Rather than complain about the “media filter,” each of these techniques simply converted the filter into an amplifier. This time, Mr. Krueger said, the military analysts would in effect be “writing the op-ed” for the war.

They’ve also made sure that the “analysts” were had financial, ideological and practical interests in promoting the war:

Over time, the Pentagon recruited more than 75 retired officers, although some participated only briefly or sporadically. The largest contingent was affiliated with Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN, the other networks with 24-hour cable outlets. But analysts from CBS and ABC were included, too. Some recruits, though not on any network payroll, were influential in other ways — either because they were sought out by radio hosts, or because they often published op-ed articles or were quoted in magazines, Web sites and newspapers. At least nine of them have written op-ed articles for The Times.

The group was heavily represented by men involved in the business of helping companies win military contracts. Several held senior positions with contractors that gave them direct responsibility for winning new Pentagon business. James Marks, a retired Army general and analyst for CNN from 2004 to 2007, pursued military and intelligence contracts as a senior executive with McNeil Technologies. Still others held board positions with military firms that gave them responsibility for government business. General McInerney, the Fox analyst, for example, sits on the boards of several military contractors, including Nortel Government Solutions, a supplier of communication networks.

Several were defense industry lobbyists, such as Dr. McCausland, who works at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a major lobbying firm where he is director of a national security team that represents several military contractors. “We offer clients access to key decision makers,” Dr. McCausland’s team promised on the firm’s Web site.

Dr. McCausland was not the only analyst making this pledge. Another was Joseph W. Ralston, a retired Air Force general. Soon after signing on with CBS, General Ralston was named vice chairman of the Cohen Group, a consulting firm headed by a former defense secretary, William Cohen, himself now a “world affairs” analyst for CNN. “The Cohen Group knows that getting to ‘yes’ in the aerospace and defense market — whether in the United States or abroad — requires that companies have a thorough, up-to-date understanding of the thinking of government decision makers,” the company tells prospective clients on its Web site.

There were also ideological ties.

Two of NBC’s most prominent analysts, Barry R. McCaffrey and the late Wayne A. Downing, were on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an advocacy group created with White House encouragement in 2002 to help make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein. Both men also had their own consulting firms and sat on the boards of major military contractors.

Many also shared with Mr. Bush’s national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.

This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from “enemy” propaganda during Vietnam.

“We lost the war — not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped,” he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars — taking aim at not just foreign adversaries but domestic audiences, too. He called his approach “MindWar” — using network TV and radio to “strengthen our national will to victory.”

MindWar?

To connect the dots a little further, here’s basically how it seems to work: The administration finds sympathetic current and former military officials. They offer them controlled access to information and to places like Guantanamo. They take trips to Iraq and to Cuba. They’re briefed by administration leaders. They’ve given talking points They use the access and information received from the Bush administration to bolster their credibility, and so they get on TV and in the newspapers. But the access and information is valuable to them for reasons beyond a television spot. Many of them work for contractors and military firms — information about Iraq, and the chance to engage with leaders on the ground, has significant financial benefits. Maintaining American support for the war as significant financial benefits. And if they dare speak out against the administration, the access and information they need is cut off.

Some Pentagon officials said they were well aware that some analysts viewed their special access as a business advantage. “Of course we realized that,” Mr. Krueger said. “We weren’t naïve about that.”

They also understood the financial relationship between the networks and their analysts. Many analysts were being paid by the “hit,” the number of times they appeared on TV. The more an analyst could boast of fresh inside information from high-level Pentagon “sources,” the more hits he could expect. The more hits, the greater his potential influence in the military marketplace, where several analysts prominently advertised their network roles.

“They have taken lobbying and the search for contracts to a far higher level,” Mr. Krueger said. “This has been highly honed.”

But analysts aren’t lobbyists. And lobbyists aren’t welcomed on TV as national security experts for a reason.

It’s easy to blame the analysts as well — and I do. They were doing something highly unethical. And it’s really difficult for me to find any pity in my heart for contractors. But I understand that people have to compete in business, and a lot of these guys were going up against an extremely powerful administration who they likely not only felt ideological ties with, but that was also doling out advantages to their competitors — I can understand the feeling of, “Who am I to say no?”

Some analysts said that even before the war started, they privately had questions about the justification for the invasion, but were careful not to express them on air.

Mr. Bevelacqua, then a Fox analyst, was among those invited to a briefing in early 2003 about Iraq’s purported stockpiles of illicit weapons. He recalled asking the briefer whether the United States had “smoking gun” proof.

“ ‘We don’t have any hard evidence,’ ” Mr. Bevelacqua recalled the briefer replying. He said he and other analysts were alarmed by this concession. “We are looking at ourselves saying, ‘What are we doing?’ ”

Another analyst, Robert L. Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works in the Pentagon for a military contractor, attended the same briefing and recalled feeling “very disappointed” after being shown satellite photographs purporting to show bunkers associated with a hidden weapons program. Mr. Maginnis said he concluded that the analysts were being “manipulated” to convey a false sense of certainty about the evidence of the weapons. Yet he and Mr. Bevelacqua and the other analysts who attended the briefing did not share any misgivings with the American public.

Mr. Bevelacqua and another Fox analyst, Mr. Cowan, had formed the wvc3 Group, and hoped to win military and national security contracts.

“There’s no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart,” Mr. Bevelacqua said. “You’re talking about fighting a huge machine.”

And this was no small operation. The Pentagon spent significant amounts of money on its propaganda machine, going so far as to keep track of the effectiveness of each of the analysts:

As it happened, the analysts’ news media appearances were being closely monitored. The Pentagon paid a private contractor, Omnitec Solutions, hundreds of thousands of dollars to scour databases for any trace of the analysts, be it a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor” or an interview with The Daily Inter Lake in Montana, circulation 20,000.

Omnitec evaluated their appearances using the same tools as corporate branding experts. One report, assessing the impact of several trips to Iraq in 2005, offered example after example of analysts echoing Pentagon themes on all the networks.

“Commentary from all three Iraq trips was extremely positive over all,” the report concluded.

In interviews, several analysts reacted with dismay when told they were described as reliable “surrogates” in Pentagon documents. And some asserted that their Pentagon sessions were, as David L. Grange, a retired Army general and CNN analyst put it, “just upfront information,” while others pointed out, accurately, that they did not always agree with the administration or each other. “None of us drink the Kool-Aid,” General Scales said.

Except they were punished when they didn’t.

On Aug. 3, 2005, 14 marines died in Iraq. That day, Mr. Cowan, who said he had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the “twisted version of reality” being pushed on analysts in briefings, called the Pentagon to give “a heads-up” that some of his comments on Fox “may not all be friendly,” Pentagon records show. Mr. Rumsfeld’s senior aides quickly arranged a private briefing for him, yet when he told Bill O’Reilly that the United States was “not on a good glide path right now” in Iraq, the repercussions were swift.

Mr. Cowan said he was “precipitously fired from the analysts group” for this appearance. The Pentagon, he wrote in an e-mail message, “simply didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t carrying their water.” The next day James T. Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, presided over another conference call with analysts. He urged them, a transcript shows, not to let the marines’ deaths further erode support for the war.

“The strategic target remains our population,” General Conway said. “We can lose people day in and day out, but they’re never going to beat our military. What they can and will do if they can is strip away our support. And you guys can help us not let that happen.”

“General, I just made that point on the air,” an analyst replied.

“Let’s work it together, guys,” General Conway urged.

This is disturbing stuff, and I hope the public comes down hard on the Bush administration in response to this piece. But I’m sure they’ll just continue to do business as usual — even when it involves “MindWar.”



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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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12 Responses to “MindWar”: The Bush Propaganda Machina

  1. Danakitty says:

    If McCain gets elected in November, I’m moving out of the country. This is too disheartening.

  2. Walker T says:

    This sounds like it could be part of some great work of fiction. Or maybe that’s just me wishing it was. This is apalling and just imagining what else remains in shadow gets that cold sweat going.

  3. kate says:

    Frankly, while disheartening indeed, the fact is that the press is not “Wooed” by government leaders, celebrities or any others who hold positions of power. Nor is there any excuse for any press anywhere “not being told” of anything as it is their responsibility as journalists to do their research.

    If the entity that found the above information and can offer evidence to back it up, then it stands to reason that the press can too. It is their job to do so and when they don’t, they don’t they are no longer journalists, period.

    Fact is, we need a critical, fact checking, research hounding, root rutting press to keep power in check. Since the American population on average will change the channel when the facts get too thick, the press, all run by corporate entities, will then get lazy and not do its job. Facts don’t pay the bills. Fluff sells.

  4. Arianna says:

    The only thing that’s cheering me up a little, teeeny bit is that the above is from the NYT. A rare case of self-examination, it seems.

  5. MikeEss says:

    The meme of American exceptionalism has always posited that the “bad things” that occur in other countries – unaccountable and dictatorial government, spying on citizens, a legal system that functions only as the servant of government, imperialist foreign policy, suspension of civil rights, suspicious voting practices, and the assumption that any and all “news” and “information” is probably propaganda – those things could NEVER happen in America.

    Somehow, the fact that some people 230+ years ago founded the nation on some then fairly unique principles gives most Americans that feeling that we have been granted a lifetime exemption from governmental tyranny, and it’s not necessary to concern ourselves with monitoring government and making corrections when it goes astray.

    But while most of us have looked down our noses at examples of governments gone astray in other countries, telling ourselves that the citizens of those countries are less evolved, less educated, and that they’re unable to see the evil in men’s (it’s almost always men) hearts – there have been those among us who’ve instead taken notes…

  6. Greup says:

    Jill, a great piece. Im just no agreeing with the “lazy” part of the opening sentence.
    “indicative of yet another failure of a lazy corporate media and a twisted, absolutist government that seems to be taking its cues from fascist regimes:”

    The Corporate media is not lazy, it fulfills the function its tasked to do: to keep america asleep and support for Bushco high. Thats the lesson of the Vietnam war; control of the message is everything.
    Im bettin that the same economic pressures on examplified above also applies to the reporters and news anchors. Ask the wrong questions and your career is over. Play along and your lavishly rewarded.

  7. Danakitty says:

    Let’s not forget that the government is a powerful entity that has ways of making it difficult for the press to get information. For example, when they have private jails and private contractors, the press cannot FOIA them for info, since they’re technically private.

    The press is being constantly weakened by a government that has learned the ethical lines of journalism and will do anything to make sure journalists don’t and can’t cross those lines, while in the mean time stepping over its own ethical boundaries.

    Government has been very threatening to the press, and as you can see, its own PR. While I’ll admit part of it is corporate (conservative) media, part of it is inherently the government’s fault for being deceitful and opaque.

  8. Mnemosyne says:

    The Corporate media is not lazy, it fulfills the function its tasked to do: to keep america asleep and support for Bushco high.

    Given that current polls show that Bush’s disapproval rate is about 75 percent, it’s not exactly fulfilling that function, either.

  9. MikeEss says:

    “Given that current polls show that Bush’s disapproval rate is about 75 percent, it’s not exactly fulfilling that function, either.”

    Mnemosyne, he hasn’t exactly given them a whole lot to work with.

    It’s a lot easier when things are going well, but it’s pretty difficult to keep telling everybody that stinking pile of garbage is a five-star meal and make them believe it. It’s only the hardcore Koolaid-drinkers left now…

  10. Hannah says:

    The Bush administration is dishonest? WHAT?

  11. Anna Van Z says:

    Great piece and great comments. MikeEss, I think you’re probably right about the remaining Bush KoolAid Brigade – even so, isn’t it mind-boggling that there would even be 25% of respondents that claim to support Darth-n-Duh-bya? I wonder what it would take for these folks to DISapprove!

  12. Janet M says:

    A well-researched, well-expressed piece, and wonderful comments.

    Sad that the public is left to twist in the wind between a conniving, deceitful government and media too cowardly and/or too lazy to do its job. Fear of losing one’s job is no excuse. And the public is not blameless, either, in its complacent swallowing of whatever self-serving lies corporate media and the government choose to feed us. That unholy alliance wants to sell to us in order to profit – it’s what corporations do – and what it’s selling is propaganda.

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