A Pentagon program that gave special access to retired military officers working as analysts for TV news was clearly designed to sway public opinion in the run-up to the Iraq war but did not break the law, government auditors said this week.
However, the Federal Communications Commission said Friday it was continuing its examination of whether broadcasters broke “payola” rules on proper disclosure of sponsorship when they usied the analysts.
Democrats on the House and Senate armed services committees ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to issue a legal opinion on the program in the wake of a New York Times article in April 2008 headlined “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagons Hidden Hand.”
The article said that, beginning in 2002, Pentagon officials gave hundreds of special briefings to a select group of about 75 retired military officers, or RMOs, working as analysts for broadcast news networks, and took them on tours of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Various provisions of law prohibit U.S. government agencies from engaging in covert publicity or propaganda efforts directed at the U.S. public.
“Clearly, [the Department of Defense] attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the administration’s war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the RMOs,” wrote Daniel Gordon, acting general counsel for the GAO. “However … [the department’s] public affairs activities involving RMOs, in our opinion, did not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition.”
The opinion said the program was not illegal because agencies have historically been allowed “wide discretion” in how they inform the public about their work.
“Activities such as meetings, conference calls, luncheons with agency leadership, and travel do not implicate the publicity or propaganda prohibition where those activities are reasonably related to the agency’s duty to inform the public of agency actions, programs, and policies, or justify and rebut attacks upon its policies,” Mr. Gordon noted.
Because the Pentagon did not pay the retired officers and because “we found no evidence that [the Department of Defense] concealed from the public its outreach to RMOs or its role in providing them with information and materials,” the program did not violate the prohibition on propaganda, Mr. Gordon concluded.
The New York Times article, which won a Pulitzer Prize, also wondered whether some RMOs had ties to defense companies that might have benefited either directly from the special access the RMOs were getting to the top levels of the Pentagon, or indirectly from the policies they were advocating on TV.
The GAO opinion said that “questions raised by members of Congress and the press regarding the possibility of compromised procurements resulting from potential competitive advantages for defense contractors with commercial ties to RMOs” were “legitimate” but “beyond the scope of this opinion.”
However, FCC spokesman David Fiske told The Washington Times that the agency was continuing an investigation into whether the broadcasters had failed to inform the public about the ties between the analysts, the Pentagon and defense contractors.
FCC rules mandate broadcasters “to disclose to their listeners or viewers if matter has been aired in exchange for money, services or other valuable consideration.”
Tara Andringa, a spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Times in an e-mail that these and other issues about the program were under review by Gordon Haddell, the newly confirmed inspector general for the Department of Defense.