Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Congressional Democrats want to ban Pentagon propaganda on the Iraq war, but they are likely to find that enforcement is easier said than done.

An existing legal prohibition, for example, didn’t deter a Pentagon program aimed at influencing retired military officers frequently interviewed by the news media. It also didn’t prevent a culture within the Bush administration that former White House spokesman Scott McClellan claims favored propaganda over honesty in selling the war to the public.

And what is propaganda anyway? Nearly every press briefing involves a military or civilian official trying to influence the interpretation of events.

“At the end of the day, a lot of what the Defense Department is doing is trying to raise support for the military,” said Ken Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration.

The House passed legislation in May to prohibit the military from engaging in “any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes or behavior of the people of the United States in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”

The bill reinforces a propaganda restriction already on the books, included in the Pentagon‘s more than half-trillion-dollar annual budget bill and long embraced as Pentagon policy. The law exempts any program specifically authorized by Congress, such as military recruiting, but is supposed to prevent spin.

“I think it would be difficult to implement,” said Anthony Pratkanis, co-author of the book “Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” of any law attempting to prohibit the military from promoting itself. Interpretations of what constitutes propaganda can vary, and U.S. efforts to influence a foreign enemy - which is allowed under the law - often seep into American airwaves anyway, he said.

“What we really need is a norm that respects the role of the military” as independent from the executive branch, said Mr. Pratkanis, a social psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “It’s more the responsibility of a president to sell his policies and not hide behind the military.”

On April 20, the New York Times uncovered a six-year Pentagon program that cultivated several dozen military analysts to generate favorable news coverage of the war. These retired military generals were given talking points, taken on trips to Guantanamo Bay prison and Iraq, given access to classified intelligence and briefed personally by senior defense officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to e-mails, transcripts and other records provided to the Times and eventually released by the Defense Department.

That the officers maintained extensive ties to the Pentagon after retirement wasn’t surprising, as is custom among military’s senior ranks. But the program seemed to unfairly reward these new media personalities and the defense companies that employed them as lobbyists with plum access to the department as long as the retired officers spoke in favor of the war.

Also alarming was that the Pentagon may have given the retirees false or overly optimistic information about progress in Iraq, even as violence was increasing. The program was particularly noteworthy because it relied heavily on active-duty military officials to provide the positive information.

In most cases, the retired officer-analysts were more than eager to hear good news on the war. In one April 2006 conference call, as sectarian violence was on an uptick, an unidentified military analyst asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace what the officers could say on television that would convince Americans the war wasn’t going that badly.

“What can we say to the American public to say … there are some things you can see that will make you feel better about what our military is doing and any progress we have made?” the analyst asked.

The Defense Department has shut down the program pending an internal review. Both the Defense Department inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office are investigating whether the effort violated any rules, including if it gave some contractors a competitive advantage by employing the retired officers as lobbyists.

New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes, who co-sponsored the House bill with Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, and Peter DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said the recent House legislation shouldn’t affect the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations, including factual updates on the war given to the news media.

Rather, the legislation makes clear that Congress won’t tolerate behind-the-scenes efforts by the Bush administration to manipulate public opinion, he said.

“I hope it inspires the Pentagon to tell the truth,” Mr. Hodes said of the bill.

Not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees the military overstepped its bounds. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a tireless advocate of Bush’s policies in Iraq, says the military was fairly trying to promote what it saw as the facts.

“The idea that we call the people who disagree with us propagandists” and those who agree “great seers and statesmen and philosophers doesn’t make any sense,” said Mr. Hunter of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

The House included the propaganda ban in its 2009 defense authorization bill. The Senate plans to debate its version of the defense bill this summer.

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