Is there a difference between covert propaganda and secretive campaigns to shape public opinion on controversial issues? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) apparently thinks that there is.
The GAO recently ruled that the Pentagon pundit program did not break the law against taxpayer-funded domestic propaganda. The program involved some 75 retired military officers who serve as frequent media commentators. From 2002 to 2008, the Pentagon set up meetings between the pundits and high-level Department of Defense (DOD) officials. The Pentagon's PR staff not only gave the pundits talking points, but helped them draft opinion columns and gave them feedback on their media appearances. The Pentagon also paid for the pundits to travel overseas, following carefully-scripted itineraries designed to highlight successes in Iraq and humane measures at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
In May, the Russian government "created a high-level commission to overhaul its image on the world stage as the first anniversary of Russia's war with Georgia approaches." The commission is chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev's chief of staff, Sergei Naryshikin, "underscoring how serious the Kremlin considers the problem, which it often blames on shadowy external enemies and ill-wishers," reports the Wall Street Journal.
"In recent months, the U.S. command in Afghanistan has begun publicizing every single enemy fighter killed in combat, the most detailed body counts the military has released since the practice fell into disrepute during the Vietnam War," reports the Wall Street Journal. The change comes in response to concerns "that at home, the common perception is this war is being lost," explained a military spokeswoman. Enemy body counts are only released for U.S.
The Victorian government has spent $222,000 Australian on a television program promoting the attraction of living and working in areas outside the major metropolitan areas. The program, ''Changing Places: Life in Provincial Victoria,'' was broadcast on commercial television at Easter.
The continuing saga of the Pentagon pundit program just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland might say.
From 2002 to 2008, the Defense Department secretly cultivated more than 70 retired military officers who frequently serve as media commentators. Initially, the goal was to use them as "message force multipliers," to bolster the Bush administration's Iraq War sell job. That went so well that the covert program to shape U.S. public opinion -- an illegal effort, by any reasonable reading of the law -- was expanded to spin everything from then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's job performance to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to warrantless wiretapping.
In April 2008, shortly after the New York Times first reported on the Pentagon's pundits -- an in-depth exposé that recently won the Times' David Barstow his second Pulitzer Prize -- the Pentagon suspended the program. In January 2009, the Defense Department Inspector General's office released a report claiming "there was an 'insufficient basis' to conclude that the program had violated laws." Representative Paul Hodes, one of the program's many Congressional critics, called the Inspector General's report "a whitewash."
Now, it seems as though the Pentagon agrees.
It was a shocking revelation. Exactly one year ago today, the New York Times published an in-depth account of the Pentagon military analyst program, a covert effort to cultivate pundits who are retired military officers as the Bush administration's "message force multipliers." The elaborate -- and presumably costly -- program flourished at the nexus of government war propaganda; the private interests of the officer-pundits, many of whom also worked as lobbyists or consultants for military contractors; and major news organizations that didn't ask tough questions about U.S. military operations while failing to screen their paid commentators for even the most glaring conflicts of interest.
The story was huge, but it wasn't easy to break. It took two years for reporter David Barstow and others at the Times to pry the relevant documents from the Pentagon. Seven months later, Barstow helped us further understand how the U.S. "military-industrial-media complex" works, with another front-page exposé on one spectacularly conflicted Pentagon pundit, Barry McCaffrey.
On April 20, David Barstow received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, for his work on the Pentagon pundit story.