A three-year government investigation has found no wrongdoing by Bush-era Pentagon officials when they gave war briefings to retired military analysts who served as TV and radio commentators.
The probe by the Pentagon inspector general was in response to a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the New York Times that implied the former military officers, some of whom worked for or were defense contractors, received financial favors in return for their commentary and were tools in a propaganda campaign.
Sources familiar with the IG’s final report said it will say officials broke no rules or laws when they provided information briefings, some from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The IG also found no evidence that any analyst or his defense contractor employer received favorable treatment or procurement contracts because of his work as an on-air commentator, according to the sources.
“The report basically says the Pentagon activities were in compliance with [Department of Defense] directives and instructions,” a government official familiar with the findings told The Washington Times. In terms of financial favors, “they didn’t find any evidence of that,” the source said.
The IG report is expected to be released in coming weeks. It is the second IG probe into the allegations raised by the New York Times, and then by congressional Democrats.
The first probe, released in January 2009, essentially drew the same conclusions, saying that briefings were “conducted in accordance with [Defense Department] policies and regulations.”
The 2009 report added: “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 DoD [the Defense Department] as a source for the information provided. Rather, the briefings were open and transparent.”
The second IG report could end years of charges and government investigations pushed by Democrats. The toxic atmosphere left many retired military officers feeling they had been accused of committing crimes without any proof. Pentagon officials have said the briefings were similar to sessions with reporters, columnists and think-tank scholars to convey the administration’s point of view.
The swirl of charges began April 20, 2008, when the New York Times published a front-page story with the headline “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.” The story implied, but did not outright charge, that analysts received contracting favors.
“Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show,” the story said.
It said Rumsfeld aides “used [their] control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”
Across the front page were photos of a who’s who of prominent retired officers: Thomas McInerney, the late Wayne Downing, Kenneth Allard and Bo Scales.
The New York Times story brought accusations from Democrats that the Pentagon, under the Bush administration, violated rules against conducting a propaganda campaign.
Three investigations began: one by the IG, one by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and one by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In January 2009, the IG reported that the program followed Pentagon guidelines and that no rules or laws were broken.
The findings did not sit well with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. He sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates saying that, if no laws were broken, then Congress should enact measures that outlaw what the Rumsfeld aides did.
He also implied that the analysts received financial gain, according to a copy of his letter obtained by The Washington Times.
“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 DoD information and officials,” Mr. Levin wrote.
Mr. Levin asked for a new probe. Mr. Gates sent a letter to the IG with Mr. Levin’s letter attached.
That April, the New York Times article won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
A month later, the IG withdrew its report. It did not back off its finding that no Pentagon polices were violated, but said investigators did not look extensively enough into whether analysts received financial favors and did a poor job of identifying which analysts worked in the defense industry.
The withdrawal letter said no new probe would be conducted because Mr. Gates ended the program as a reaction to the New York Times story.
But that did not end the issue. Mr. Levin urged Inspector General Gordon Heddell, at his confirmation hearing, to reopen the investigation. Mr. Heddell compiled, and a new probe began in June 2009 with a new team of investigators.
While the IG was cranking up investigation No. 2, the GAO released its findings in July 2009 and concluded that briefing retired military officers did not violate laws against propaganda.
“Clearly, DoD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the Administration’s war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the RMOs [retired military officers],” the GAO said. “However … based on the record before us in this case, we conclude that DoD’s public affairs outreach program to RMOs did not violate the prohibition. 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.”
Democrats also demanded that the FCC investigate the retired officers.
In a letter that reveals how politicians took the New York Times story and turned it into a criminal indictment, Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, told the FCC in a May 2008 letter: “It could appear that some of these analysts were indirectly paid for fostering the Pentagon’s views on these critical issues.”
Mr. Dingell suggested that the retired officers broke the law: “The American people should never be subject to a covert propaganda campaign but rather should be clearly notified of who is sponsoring what they are watching.”
The FCC subsequently sent letters to some analysts saying they may have broken the law.
Mr. Allard, a retired Army officer who was interviewed by the IG and FCC officials, said the FCC has never issued a report. He and other analysts said their reputations were sullied by the New York Times and then by allegations from congressional Democrats.
Mr. Allard wrote a book on the briefing program called “Warheads.” He wrote in a 2009 column: “Far from being anyone’s surrogates, the military analysts were strong-willed, fiercely independent and utterly defiant of party lines - whether propounded by the Pentagon or our own networks.”