By Joe Trento, Becky Gaskill and Carrie Waltemeyer
“This will sound as if I am speaking large, but Mussolini said that the definition of fascism was when you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between corporate power and government power. I have watched veteran members of our intelligence establishment go seamlessly into these private defense contracting companies.” John le Carré to The New York Times
The Department of Defense has turned its huge public affairs program into an offensive propaganda campaign being run by the same contractors that spy on the world through the intelligence agencies, according to a DCBureau-National Security News Service (NSNS) investigation.
The positive public image of the military has allowed defense contractors and the military leadership to replace traditional public outreach with an aggressive propaganda effort that has little to do with providing factual information about the armed forces. Nearly every element of outreach now must go through a maze of strategic communication contractors to decide whether or not a reporter is given an interview or information.
While the changes to the Pentagon outreach effort accelerated during the George W. Bush administration, the confluence of a “strategic communications” approach that once was reserved for foreign targets of military operations is now used for domestic consumption. Under President Obama and his defense secretaries – Gates, Panetta, and Hagel – hundreds of millions of dollars in propaganda and strategic communication contracts have been let, with the details of many of them classified.
A veteran civilian Pentagon official told NSNS,
Nearly every service likes to show a friendly, inspiring public face from military bands to honor and color guards for large and small community and commercial events. What the Pentagon refuses to allow is free access by the media of returning caskets from the war. Studies show that images of soldiers killed in the line of duty undermines public support for war. These actions are all part of the partnership between contractors and the military. President Dwight D. Eisenhower became so concerned about the nexus between corporate money and the Defense Department that he gave a farewell address in 1961 warning the nation of the threat of what he called “the growing military-industrial complex.”
President Eisenhower is the Army general who led the United States and our allies to victory in Europe during World War II. Over the years, others have reinforced the president’s warnings, most notably, an Emmy award-winning CBS News report called “The Selling of the Pentagon” by correspondent Roger Mudd and producer Peter Davis, which aired in February 1971. That report was so devastating, defense contractors conducted a huge public relations campaign to try to counteract its effect on the public perception of the defense and weapons business.
It used to be called “the revolving door” – where military officers went to work for companies they had given contracts. One of the issues that worried President Eisenhower was how shamelessly the defense complex would use the reputation earned by the blood of our troops to mitigate contractor abuses. This is why many military leaders favored a draft, convinced that citizens who were forced to serve would keep the entire system accountable. It is not coincidental that the role of contractors increased dramatically after the draft was eliminated. Now the revolving door from Pentagon to contractor and back goes from five star officers all the way down to grunts with specialized training. It is seamless. It has evolved into a very lucrative job-for-life safety net for the military. High-ranking officers become millionaires overnight. There is no “assault on the middle class” among the military, even in many of the lower ranks.
Public affairs is a relatively new addition to the military. During World War II, the Department of War became aware of the need for military officials to be able to supply news to the public. The civilian media was often misinformed about news on the frontline, so soldiers, airmen, and sailors stepped up as public affairs officers. In 1946, the Army formed it first information school to train military members in journalism and public affairs. The DOD has always maintained a longstanding relationship with the American public. Decades ago, posters showed Uncle Sam urging young men outside of recruiting stations to join up. Recently, an “Army Strong” commercial portrays proud men and women jumping out of airplanes to rescue villagers. But as the Blue Angels roar overtop stadiums and children wave their American flags with pride, few are noticing that the Pentagon is reaching deeper into the taxpayers’ pocket.
By 2009, Americans spent over $4.7 billion a year to fund Department of Defense public affairs, a number that has multiplied. A high-level Department of Defense official said the total number “is deliberately disguised in a maze of budgets.” He says, “The real total for outreach and recruitment now exceeds $15 billion annually and is growing.” Adding to the number are contractors who sell systems and logistical support to the government. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their own public relations and advertising campaigns and charging that money off on their Pentagon contracts.
Fifty-three-years after President Eisenhower’s warning, the situation has gotten far more serious. Even the current Pentagon spokesman is not a distinguished former journalist or service member but George Little, a former employee of defense-intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, the same company that constructs and maintains the NSA-CIA surveillance apparatus for which whistleblower Edward Snowden worked. Attempts to get answers directly from the Pentagon public affairs staff are completely stymied all the way to Little’s office. While he publicly preaches openness when he lectures at the Defense Information School, he and his staff have no real interest in helping the media.
NSNS reporters wanted to know why the military’s public relations apparatus promises cooperation only to violate every promise of assistance it makes. The simple answer turned out to be the Pentagon has no reason to fear the media because it knows that poll numbers conclusively demonstrate the armed forces are the most trusted institution in the country. That support reflects the massive contraction in the news industry since the recession. The remaining news management fear a backlash against any organization that takes on the military. Any criticism will be portrayed as being “against our troops” or “unpatriotic” by a team of strategic communications contractors. Pentagon management now thumbs their collective noses at the news media. PAOs still cater to the large broadcast and cable networks. But producers for these correspondents seldom undertake critical Pentagon stories. As one major network senior news manager says, “We are well aware the Pentagon can deny access. When we do a critical story we understand the Pentagon and services have the firepower to fight back.”
The natural tension between an independent press and government-controlled public affairs is all but gone as the national media has shrunk in both numbers and resources. Corporate style media operations are now common across the government. But no government agency has seen a more profound change than the Department of Defense. The scrutiny of national, local, and regional news outlets that focused on Pentagon coverage has been replaced by bloggers often of dubious origin. Media budget constraints has created an opening for government contracted propagandists to supplant genuine reportage with internally produced news “packages” and “feel good” stories, like service members returning from war and surprising their children or being reunited with their dog. The gee-whiz latest unmanned weapons systems stories are Pentagon-contractor created diversions that consume column inches, web space, and airtime that would be more meaningfully spent on serious issues like contractor fraud, the increased rates of suicides, and an officer corps even more reliant on private contractors.
Equally disturbing is that the oversight committees in Congress have ignored the contractors’ control of Pentagon propaganda and strategic communications. When NSNS reporters reached out to both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee for assistance on how much was being spent on Pentagon public communications, the committees had no comment. The military contractors are generous contributors to members of the oversight committees. One veteran Republican staff member was blunt in laying out the reality:
The fact that the Pentagon dissembles to the media on a regular basis is also ignored by most of the major media. For example, the DOD has made much of sequester cuts damaging national security. One way the Pentagon PR machine tries to get attention is to tug on the national heartstrings. Recently there were news reports that a fly over Arlington National Cemetery to salute two MIAs being interred had to be canceled because of budget woes. What is not shown are a laundry list of other activities that are ongoing. For example, there is plenty of money to allow West Point cadets to parachute out of a Lakota Helicopter for fun several times a week as part of an informal jumping group. It costs thousands of dollars per hour to keep a Lakota chopper with a full crew in the air.
Public favorites like the Blue Angels and Golden Knights have been grounded because of budget concerns but less well known and often more expensive activities continue. For example, at major naval bases commanding officers have small craft that are in reality yachts on which they entertain guests. Perks like these as well as housekeeping staff and cooks have not been curtailed.
The Pentagon and national security establishment are using the same contractors who have built the post 9/11 spy apparatus to control the U.S. military version of its activities. Corporations with no stake in openness or experience in providing the public information are being paid hundreds of millions of dollars to fend off reporters and control what comes out of the battlefield and from the Pentagon. These same companies, reliant on the Pentagon and intelligence community for more contracts, have no motivation or incentive to release information that might embarrass the national security establishment. So when wrongdoing does take place, there is virtually no chance of it being revealed to the American public. For example, when hundred of National Guard reservists during the Iraq War were exposed to cancer causing chemicals at an Iraqi power plant that supposedly was made safe by defense contractor KBR, the Pentagon and Army sided with the contractor when reservists came down with cancer. The contractor’s influence was so great that the sick veterans could not even get an official hearing from the Senate or House Armed Services Committees. Instead, only the Democratic Policy Committee, which has no official standing, bothered to hold hearings.
The worry about unfavorable publicity seems to dominate every aspect of current Pentagon media policy. Directly attacking reporters came into vogue in the 1990s after the Navy’s Tailhook scandal. The Navy’s aggressive head of public affairs at the time, Rear Admiral Kendall Pease, set a new harsh tone toward reporters who took on the Navy. After Pease retired from the Navy, he, too, went to work for a contractor, General Dynamics. The training for Navy public information officers changed dramatically under Pease in 1996, and this new aggressive attitude toward reporters deemed unfriendly was adapted by the other services. For the first time reporters were openly seen as adversaries. The policy was to assist “friendlies” and discredit “unfriendlies.”
Top DOD public affairs officers refused to allow two NSNS reporters repeated requests for information about its public affairs programs. When NSNS reporters first contacted Pentagon public affairs officers (PAOs), they repeatedly promised full cooperation. Despite dozens of emails and phone calls, the DOD PAOs refused to provide any information at all, including any budget numbers.
The Defense Information School, or DINFOS, is the Pentagon’s current school for public affairs and journalism. Located at Ft. Meade, also the home of the National Security Agency, the school has four specialized programs: broadcast operations and maintenance; public affairs; public affairs leadership; and visual communications. Classes range from a few weeks to several months. The school boasts of the
When NSNS reporters called DINFOS to request a tour of the school, they were told to speak to Director of Public Affairs Lieutenant Commander Karen Eifert. Eifert was defensive and questioned “what kind of slant” was going to be put on the story. She requested an email with further information about the story but failed to maintain contact with the reporters. After two weeks passed and several emails were ignored, Eifert called back to further question the request. She stated that she was not responding to emails because she was on leave but would send the request to her supervisor. Another two weeks passed and several more emails and phone calls went unanswered. After a month of waiting, Eifert’s supervisor was contacted. He had never heard of any request and suggested contacting a Pentagon Public Affairs Officer, as the school does not directly set up tours. Eifert gave NSNS the contact information for Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, the Pentagon PAO Eifert said she contacted.
NSNS also made many requests to public affairs officers within the Department of Defense and nearly all went unanswered or were referred to someone else. For over a month, a reporter stayed in contact with Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a PAO from the Pentagon, and was promised extensive background information and assistance in setting up interviews. Numerous phone calls and emails were exchanged as Hull-Ryde requested more information from the reporter. The PAO assured the reporter, on multiple occasions, that she was working hard to process the request and was putting together as much information as she could find. She requested names of other public affairs officers that the reporter had contacted. Any additional requests NSNS made to other PAOs within the Pentagon were directed back to Hull-Ryde. Suddenly communication came to a screeching halt. Phone calls went unanswered and emails filled the inbox of the PAO. A week went by with no response. An NSNS reporter made a final request on an early Monday morning. This is the automatic reply:
All of Hull-Ryde’s work was then referred to Christensen. After four weeks of waiting and nearly twenty phone calls and emails, all unanswered requests fell
Last July, George Little gave a speech at the Defense Media Activitiy headquarters at Ft. Meade. As reporters from NSNS sat at Ft. Meade’s main gate, repeatedly calling DINFOS to request a visit, Little started his speech by saying,
Little challenged audience members to change the way they interact with the media.
He continued on to say that
The National Security News Service is not the first to expose this lack of DOD cooperation with reporters. Reporter Nick Turse wrote about his experience in his article,
The tales of working with Department of Defense Public Affairs go on and on. Reporters who attempted to cover the Bradley Manning trial were also met with opposition. Many noticed that mainstream media coverage of the trail was limited. Poynter published an article that discusses the reporters’ views on the subject. Few reporters attended the trial every day and the majority of those in attendance were from independent news organizations. Reporters described their experience at Ft. Meade via twitter, often complaining that they were harassed by armed soldiers. The New York Times stated that during closing arguments
9/11 allowed the Pentagon to get much tougher and demand reporters actually enter into contracts before being granted access. For example, to report on the Al Qaeda prison facility at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba requires a signed contract that gives the military the right to censor the work product. Most news organizations like The New York Times and Washington Post refuse. For veteran photojournalist Greg Mathieson, the news value of pictures he shot at GITMO quickly dissipated as months and months went by as he waited for the censors to clear them.
Mathieson is the kind of journalist the Pentagon once loved. He is unabashedly pro-military and understands the military culture as only a veteran can. He and his colleagues see changes in DOD public information policy that they believe will harm the rank and file.
The fact that many of these contractors provide intelligence and logistic support to the Pentagon and intelligence community would seem to raise serious questions regarding whether they should be trusted with sensitive and classified information considering the potential for conflicts of interest. What is more remarkable about the Pentagon’s reliance on contractors is the near silence from the major media. A longtime network producer says,
Perhaps the most embarrassing failure of the major networks was their complicity in selling the invasion of Iraq to the American public. It is also an example of how the Pentagon’s strategic communications efforts were used by willing network executives. The networks had on their payrolls retired senior officers who were telegenic and seemed authentic heroes. What was not mentioned is many of them were also working for defense contractors who had a vested interest in keeping the wars going. Bush administration Pentagon officials brought these former officers in regularly for special briefings. The idea behind the briefings was to give these network consultants special access so they could be “message force multipliers” to sell the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the American public. The trouble is that much of the information given to them was wrong. NSNS assisted New York Times Reporter David Barstow with his investigation into these retired military officers. The devastating stories revealed both the mendacity of the consultants and the indifference by network news management. NBC News fared the worst. The Barstow stories revealed the hold the military industrial complex has on network media. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for these stories.
The Pentagon investigated and cleared itself in the consultant scandal. The networks, with the single exception of Public Broadcasting, accepted no responsibility for misleading the public, and in the case of NBC continued to use a former general who had the greatest conflicts of interest.
According to veteran photojournalist Greg Mathieson, reporters who once called a specialist to arrange an escort to cover a military operation have been replaced by a public relations contract machine that puts out its own stories and communicates through its own websites. In an age where news budgets are shrinking, many news directors and editors accept these Pentagon-contractor produced packages and run them as if they are real news stories, never informing viewers or readers that what they are consuming is not independent reporting.
Ironically, it was CBS’s David Martin, a very experienced correspondent, who recently produced a flattering piece on F-16s being used as unmanned targets to train fighter pilots. Never in the piece did he address the idea that the expensive pilots being trained could be eliminated altogether with the remote technology. That clearly is not part of the message the Air Force wanted to send in the Martin story.
Advertising, which accounts for the largest portion of the public information budget, has become a controversial issue. Considered to be part of recruiting, the military turned to professional sports as a way to reach potential soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines. Congressman Jack Kingston and Representative Betty McCollum questioned the military’s advertising budget in May 2012. The Kingston-McCollum amendment failed to put a ban on military sponsorships of professional sports. The amendment would have cut $72.3 million in spending to sponsor NASCAR, professional bass fishing, and Ultimate Fighting Championship teams and events. In the amendment, Kingston brought up the programs ineffectiveness. The Department of Defense hoped that sponsoring such events would bring in a larger number of troops. It did not.
The amendment also stated that the National Guard claims a sponsored NASCAR event could bring in 24,800 inquiries. Of that, only 20 were potential candidates. However, not a single recruit joined after the National Guard spent $26.5 million in sponsorships.
NASCAR racing viewers are in the 35 plus age range. However, the maximum age to enlist is 35. It is difficult to justify $72 million in sponsorship spending when only 30 percent of viewers are eligible recruits. The same goes for bass fishing. The predominant age group is 35 to 44; out of the range to enlist.
According to The Washington Post, the Army has since ended its 10 year relationship with NASCAR, dropping its $8.4 million annual sponsorship of Ryan Newman. Both Navy and Marines have also ended sponsorships with some professional sports sponsorships. The National Guard, however, is continuing its annual $30 million funding of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
According to the Army,
Army Lt. Col James Gregory responded to the GAO’s report in an interview with USA Today. When asked about the Pentagon’s funding of the program, Gregory stated that the specific funds have been allocated for MISO activities.
A former undersecretary of Defense from the Reagan era says, “A look under the public outreach tent at the Pentagon reveals a bloated and ineffective force that can’t get the simplest communication with the media effectively accomplished while spending billions of taxpayer dollars for that purpose. Military rigidity and command structure combined with an appalling lack of communication between military and civilian outreach elements contribute to an antiquated system mired in a culture where fear of making a mistake can end a military career. Contractors like Booz Allen and a range of smaller politically connected, sometimes foreign controlled firms, are making huge profits by cutting reporters and journalists out of the process of the Pentagon’s communication with the American public.”
U.S. military propaganda is everywhere. It’s on Netflix, ipads, cellphones, television sets and movie screens. For those who have ever wondered how films like Black Hawk Down seem so realistic, it is because Sony paid $3 million to have eight Army helicopters and 100 soldiers on set. The Pentagon’s Film and Television Liaison office, headed by Strub, provides assistance to TV and movie directors in everything from uniforms to tanks. This service, of course, is not free. Film companies supposedly have to pay the Department of Defense for use of the equipment. But it is subsidized and comes with an added cost: all scripts must be pre-screened and censored to ensure that the film is sending a positive message about the military. The office made headlines when it stopped all assistance to the 2012 film “The Avengers” because, according to Army Times, “it wasn’t clear how the fictional peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D. related to the U.S. military.” Movies the military has assisted on include Armageddon, Top Gun, The Bourne Identity, Iron Man, and Act of Valor. Pentagon project officers are sent to assist on set to ensure that equipment and the military are being represented in a good light. If a film or television show does not portray the military in a way the Defense Department would like, all assistance is cut from production.
Many producers and directors in Hollywood chafe at giving creative control to bureaucrats like Strub. Some top directors refuse to even ask the Pentagon for help. One Academy Award winning producer says it does not always go the way the Pentagon wants.
Booz Allen Hamilton is a contracting giant, providing DOD contracts in everything from financial and information technology to advertising and broadcast production. According to their website, they have more than 25,000 employees worldwide and pairs clients with other business to further support their mission.
The website said, the Navy Office of Information, or CHINFO, signed a four year contract for strategic communications, public relations, media relations, social media, management, and several other media and public affairs tools. To help the Navy communicate “One Message with All Voices,” Booz Allen paired CHINFO with ten other companies ranging from advertising, production, and media firms. The contract also lists 22 labor categories required to complete operations. The civilians filling these positions could operate an entire news organization. A Senior Communication Consultant, which requires nine years of experience, would be hired to coordinate training for Public Affairs Officers and act as team leader. An Executive Communication Professional, with 20 years of experience, is “responsible for communication strategies for highly complex issues and directly advises the senior-most personnel in the Navy.” Lead Communication Professionals serve as team leaders and execute communication plans and strategies. News Media Relations Assistants work with media and “prepares quantitative and qualitative reports.” The contract, which is Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity allows military commands to order tasks as needed. As long as there is funding from the command, more work can be ordered.
The military’s public affairs leadership has little experience with the media. The current Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Douglas Wilson, acts as the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense in all matters of press and information. He has experience in political and diplomatic circles, but no experience working in media. Army Public Affairs Chief, Brigadier General Gary Volesky, assumed his current duties in August 2012. The infantry commander has an impressive list of commands, both home and abroad. His most recent assignment was as Deputy Commanding General, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood. However, Volesky has never served in public affairs. Volesky’s Principal Deputy Chief, Stephanie L. Hoehne has worked in military public affairs positions in the past. Hoehne also taught journalism at DINFOS before working as Chief of Media of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe at NATO. But she has not worked for the media.
Brigadier General Paul Kennedy currently serves as Director of Marine Corps Public Affairs. While he does hold a degree in Advanced Warfighting, he does not hold a degree in public affairs nor has he served in such a position before.
Generals and admirals rely on contractors for mission critical information and support. Classified documents are placed in the hands of contractors who are not always held to the same standards as men and women in uniform. The contractors are one step removed from what little oversight still exists.
Offensive operations are run against reporters critical of the military and intelligence communities. In addition, the Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted military and intelligence whistleblowers and allowed wiretaps and surveillance of reporters and news bureaus. One recent court decision suggests it a crime for a reporter to receive classified information from a source. The country was founded on the concept of “checks and balances.” There are only two institutions large enough to provide “checks” on the military and intelligence communities: Congress and the media. Congress chooses not to do its job. The media no longer can.
The job of a public information officer is to facilitate interviews and information for reporters. The old public face of DOD public relations, outreach, and recruitment remain, but it has all been integrated into the strategic program run by contactors. These actions were done by design. It allows the military to prevent critical media from telling the truth. When the Pentagon budget sequester hit, the strategic communications teams were ready. The first cuts made were those that would most anger and affect the public. The perks of rank – from officers clubs to personal staff for commanders – were not touched. Instead, public events, like military air shows, were cut and the media was instantly made aware of the loss. What were not cut were the massive amounts being spent on contractors to build hundreds of websites and produce scores of publications and videos that have tiny, if any, audience. Instead, public affairs officers who dealt mainly with old media were cut back.
The total cost of the strategic communication and outreach programs is not officially available. Unofficially, a six-month DCBureau – NSNS investigation concluded that at least $15 billion will be spent on everything from Wall Street and corporate executives being entertained on Navy ships to massive amounts going to private contractors who handle military public relations in war zones and here at home. Tens of millions are spent on often poorly targeted recruitment advertisements for a military that is supposed to be shrinking because of troop reductions from the Afghan war.
There is no quick or easy way to truly discover the Pentagon’s public affairs and external relations budget. The Department of Defense keeps a budget on their website, but finding any line item for public affairs is purposely difficult. After scouring over 300 pages of line items, descriptions, deductions and a final president’s budget, it appears that there is no public affairs budget to be found. Looking under the Operations and Maintenance budget also yields no result. There is a budget for advertising, recruitment, and even psychological operations, but nothing to be combined and added to reach a final tally. Pentagon public affairs officers are even less helpful in describing their jobs, salaries and budgets. They are unable to come up with a number that could be trusted. One officer stated that he “didn’t have that number off hand” and would need to get back when he had a final number. As expected, the officer never responded after further emails and phone calls. A senior officer, who asked that his name and division not be revealed, says, “The reason you can’t get a number is much of what is being done is in the classified DOD and services intelligence budgets.”
In 2009, an Associated Press investigation found that the Pentagon’s public affairs budget had grown by 63 percent in the past five years. Pentagon officials set aside $4.7 billion for recruiting, advertising, public affairs and psychological operations. But that number may not even be the total as millions more dollars are buried in classified budgets hidden from the public. When broken down, $1.6 billion is set aside for recruitment and advertising, $547 million for public affairs, roughly $489 million for psychological operations that reach foreign audiences, and $2.1 billion for staff for these areas. One Navy document posted online a few years ago, reveals that thousands of enlisted personnel and officers are assigned to public relations on every ship and submarine, at every base and station in the Navy. The numbers are similar for the other services.
According to internal memorandum, Pentagon public relation messages are being delivered by new and different means. Emerging technologies have created new opportunities to get their messages out to a wider audience and a narrower audience. E-mail messages can target individuals within the government and military, while Internet websites can blanket mass audiences. Repetition is the key for oral learning. Military themes, phrases, or slogans are repeated to ensure the targeted audience gets the desired message. For example, the public has been trained to automatically thank troops for their service.
Each branch of the military has its own operations. The Navy, for example, has the capability, according to internal memorandum, to produce audiovisual products from the Fleet Audio-Visual Command, Pacific; Fleet Imagery Command, Atlantic; fleet combat camera groups; various film libraries; and Naval Imaging Command. Naval assets have the capability to broadcast AM/FM radio and produce documents, posters, articles, and other materials.
A growing portion of the Pentagon budget goes to contractors who are merging their intelligence and eavesdropping activities into propaganda and media. A former undersecretary of defense during the Reagan years called the changes “absolutely chilling.” He says, “Fundamentally what it means is the contractors now have full control of the military. It is the contractors and not the officer corps that has control of the institution that is our military. The ability for these companies to control all the information and cycle the senior officer corps from the Pentagon to their boardrooms makes the system foolproof and completely corrupt.”
When asked about congressional oversight, the former Reagan official says,
This is the dark side of the Pentagon’s outreach effort. Defense contractors that are largely reliant on the Pentagon for their shareholders’ profits are deeply involved in what the intelligence community used to call deception operations and what the public relations industry rebranded “strategic communication” or more recently “communications synchronization.” One veteran Washington editor whose publication covers the military told NSNS, “The days of a reporter calling a DOD press representative and getting a straight answer to a question are a quaint part of the past.” Inserted between press officers and the Pentagon brass are the contractors who actually make “strategic” decisions about whether it is in the Pentagon’s interest to provide a reporter with information or withhold cooperation.
A former top Army information officer told NSNS, “The change is now complete in the military. The trust between PAOs and the media has been eroded. It used to be if a tough reporter had a story that was going to make us look bad, we would use the trust that was built up with the reporter and the outlet to work the issue through. Now the door is slammed on the reporter and the strategic advice is usually just to blacklist the guy and his outlet. Sometimes the strategic advice includes putting out a fictional narrative and the outcomes have been horrible for the Army. What they call strategic communication is simply deception. We have had horrible outcomes to story after story because of this policy.” The former official cited the phony cover story about pro football player Pat Tillman’s death during the Afghan War. The Army portrayed Tillman as being killed by enemy fire when, in fact, they knew he had been killed by friendly fire. The Army also knowingly distributed a false story about a young private named Jessica Lynch describing her fictional heroics during the Iraq War.
The former Army officer says, “Strategic communications may sound like pr to the public. That is not what it is. These are offensive propaganda operations that often include trying to discredit news organizations and reporters who endanger the military reputation or disagree with the information the military wants out. The truth of the information reporters have is not relevant to these guys…One technique used is to exploit inexperienced bloggers and new media types to put out what they want. They actually hold briefings that target the dumbest of these folks, and they carry the DOD’s message, thinking they got some big scoop.”
A top editor for a major military publication says that the military has “almost no respect for today’s web based reporters.” The editor says, “They hold sessions for bloggers and feed them tidbits and manipulate them because the bloggers, for the most part, don’t have a clue about what questions to ask. The truth is there are very few good reporters still covering the military. Because the news organizations don’t have the resources, the DOD is using contractor-produced, unvetted material to fill this information vacuum. Because of the declining financial condition of the media, this is what has replaced real reporting for many news organizations.”
Many of the major Pentagon exposés of the 1980s and 1990s came from nonprofit watchdog organizations that focused on military waste, fraud and abuse. The handful of NGOs that did the stories like $600 toilet seats, secret multi-billion dollar programs to resume atmospheric nuclear testing, the infamous School of the Americas, and a general flying his mistresses at taxpayers’ expense across the Atlantic stopped getting funding when many of the large foundations’ priorities changed and they redirected the NGOs to other areas. One NGO investigator says,
According to a senior editor whose publication focuses on the Pentagon, “Every senior commander is expected to take advice from an expert in strategic communication before agreeing to a media interview. Inside every DOD facility is a team of Public Affairs Officers whose first job when contacted by a reporter is to determine if the reporter has been friendly to the DOD or unfriendly. If the reporter has been tough or critical, he or she will not get the interview. It is that simple. They can afford to do this because the media is so ineffective now, they can just communicate through their own outlets. Enough editors will take their unverified, free story packages and run them without warning their readers or viewers that the material is Pentagon produced.”