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Senator pushes for last word on Bush-era war briefings

Officials cleared in probes

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The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is intervening with a Pentagon investigator to influence the final wording of a report that exonerates George W. Bush-era officials who gave war briefings to retired military TV and radio commentators.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has tried for three years to convince federal investigators that the briefing program violated government rules and that some of the retired officers turned analysts received preferential treatment for Pentagon contracts.

Two previous government probes found no misconduct, and the Pentagon inspector general now has wrapped up a third investigation.

A source close to the third probe said that a Levin staffer, committee general counsel Peter Levine, has engaged in written communication with John Crane, the Pentagon inspector general's congressional liaison.

The source said the communication is designed to convince Mr. Crane that wording should be added to the findings that criticize the analyst program devised by staff for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The findings, as written, say the program followed Defense Department rules, the source told The Washington Times.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Levin and Mr. Levine declined to comment.

Mr. Crane, who is also director of communications, referred a reporter to an earlier answer his office gave to The Times. At that time, he was asked whether the inspector general's office had briefed Mr. Levin on the findings, not about Mr. Levine's communications.

The spokesman at that time said it was a general practice not to brief requesters such as Mr. Levin on a report's anticipated findings, but rather on an investigation's methodology and progress.

Urged on by Mr. Levin, the inspector general began investigating Mr. Rumsfeld's staff three years ago after a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the New York Times implied that the Pentagon violated rules against propaganda.

The story also implied that the retired officers, some of whom worked in the defense industry, received contracts for favorable comments about the war when they appeared on TV or radio.

The Washington Times reported Sept. 24 that the completed, but not yet released, report had found no wrongdoing.

"They are reviewing it and reviewing it and reviewing it," said a second source familiar with the process when asked why the report had not been released.

Officials said in September that the inspector general planned to release the report soon, perhaps in the first two weeks of October. Some of the analysts interviewed have been notified that they may request transcripts — something done when a report is completed.

Former Rumsfeld staffers said they were simply practicing public affairs, like any other federal department, when senior officials commented on war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said the analysts had no special access to procurement officials.

The briefers were typically Mr. Rumsfeld or someone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Pentagon's civilian policy shop.

This is not the first time Mr. Levin has intervened behind the scenes, or the first time that federal investigators have cleared the Rumsfeld Pentagon.

In January 2009, the inspector general released its first report on the analysts, clearing them and the Pentagon of wrongdoing. It said the briefings were "conducted in accordance within Defense Department policies and regulations."

"We found no indication that partisanship was operative during the interchanges with [retired military analysts] and found no evidence that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs personnel sought to somehow avoid portraying [the Defense Department] as a source for the information provided. Rather, the briefings were open and transparent," the 2009 report states.

Unhappy with the findings, Mr. Levin sent a private letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, to Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary at the time.

"While the report finds insufficient evidence to determine that any contractor received a competitive advantage as a result of its ties to retired military analysts, the report fails to assess whether the retired military analysts themselves obtained financial benefits from contractors as a result of their favorable access to [Defense Department] information and officials," Mr. Levin wrote.

Mr. Gates, who suspended the program in reaction to the New York Times story, forwarded the letter to the inspector general, who retracted the report, saying it had not adequately determined who among the analysts were defense contractors. It said it did not plan another investigation.

But Mr. Levin insisted at the 2009 confirmation hearing of Gordon Heddell for inspector general that it conduct a second investigation.

Mr. Heddell complied in June 2009 with a new team of investigators. It is their unreleased report that again has exonerated the Pentagon, according to the source knowledgeable about the findings.

In July 2009, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, issued a report saying it, like the Pentagon inspector general, found nothing wrong with what it called the retired military officer (RMO) program.

"We found no evidence that DoD attempted to conceal from the public its outreach to RMOs or its role in providing RMOs with information, materials, access to department officials, travel, and luncheons. Moreover, we found no evidence that DoD contracted with or paid RMOs for positive commentary or analysis. Consequently, DoD's public affairs activities involving RMOs, in our opinion, did not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition," the GAO report states.

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