" />

Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Embedding the Analysts: Modern-Day Propaganda?

Over the course of the Iraq War, the Pentagon has used hand-picked retired military officers as “message force multipliers” to shape public opinion, a New York Times investigation revealed last month.1 According to the report, which was the product of a two-year battle with the Pentagon over the release of some 8,000 pages of documents, briefers gave talking points to the retired military men, who were then frequently showcased as experts on war matters by various media that did not make viewers aware of the experts’ administration connections.2 In fact, the media outlets were generally unaware that the analysts had received administration briefings. From the administration, these analysts received access to top-level officials (as well as tours of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and the accompanying insider knowledge), which some of them then parlayed into business advantages, for example for defense contractors for whom they worked. From media outlets, they sometimes received payments for their contributions. These serious conflicts of interest were not revealed until the Times’ investigation.

For this display of media manipulation, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria C. “Torie” Clarke deserves the lion’s share of credit. While Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who as Information Minister of Iraq epitomized the clueless propagandist (he proclaimed that Baghdad was not under attack, as images of U.S. troops on the outskirts of the city played on a television screen behind him), Clarke exemplifies the sophisticated, savvy operative dedicated to spinning the war favorably for the Bush administration.
  
“Clarke was the Pentagon mastermind for the selling of the war and management of the media,” John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told me. “She invented the Pentagon’s ‘twin towers of propaganda’ that proved so effective: embedding news media with the troops, and embedding military propagandists into the TV media, as exposed recently by the New York Times.”3

Clarke came to her post in the George W. Bush administration in May 2001, after working in the private sector as a public relations specialist and after having served as a staffer in both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Her biography on the website of the Harry Walker Agency, whose clients include a who’s who list of Democratic and Republican Party bigwigs, trumpets, “From the Pentagon to the private sector, Victoria Clarke has been at the center of some of the most historic events in the United States in recent years.” (E-mail requests for an interview with Clarke were unanswered at the time of publication.)

In her pre-Pentagon career, Clarke was president of Bozell Eskew Advertising, an issue-advocacy and corporate communications firm; vice president of the National Cable Telecommunications Association; and the Washington-office director for Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm heavily involved in Gulf War I.  She also served as the press secretary to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and after leaving her Pentagon post wrote Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game.

When she joined the George W. Bush administration as part of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, Clarke came “to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called ‘information dominance,’” the New York Times reported.4

She spearheaded the idea of embedding of reporters with troops during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a February 2003 memo prepared for the National Security Council, Clarke—with Rumsfeld on board—argued that allowing journalists to report from the front lines would give Americans the opportunity to get the story, both “good or bad—before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do. Our people in the field need to tell our story. Only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops. We must organize for and facilitate access of national and international media to our forces, including those forces engaged in ground operations.” 5
 
But given the opportunity, Clarke demonstrated that she would prefer to altogether circumvent reporters, who after all are generally expected to maintain independence, objectivity, and critical thinking in their work. Instead, she would use the military analysts to spread the Bush message. As the New York Times reported, “Other administrations had made sporadic, small-scale attempts to build relationships with the occasional military analyst. But these were trifling compared with what Ms. Clarke’s team had in mind. Don Meyer, an aide to Ms. Clarke, said a strategic decision was made in 2002 to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war. Journalists were secondary. ‘We didn’t want to rely on them to be our primary vehicle to get information out,’ Mr. Meyer said.”6

Anyone who watched television news during the run-up to the invasion, its initial phases, and the first few years of the occupation of Iraq, was probably struck by the many retired military officers who were given huge chunks of airtime. But no one—other than Pentagon officials—knew that these new media favorites on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC had often been thoroughly briefed and armed with talking points by the Pentagon, State Department, White House, or other officials. The retired officers provided explanations of the action taking place on the ground, offered justifications for administration strategies, pointed out the hot spots in-country, and often led the pro-war cheerleading.  And whenever there was an anti-war outcry that threatened to gain momentum—for example, in 2006 when former generals came forward en masse to criticize Rumsfeld and his handling of the war—the Pentagon public relations machinery would kick into gear, briefing the analysts, giving them material with which to rebut criticisms, and then keeping tabs on the analysts’ on-air performances.

Setbacks in Iraq—like the generals’ revolt, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the growing insurgency—brought pushback from the Pentagon by way of a new set of talking points for the well-schooled retirees.     

Given the Bush administration’s predilection for trying to manipulate and manage the media—buying favorable coverage for its various programs through payments to well-known sympathetic columnists, trying to skirt the mainstream media by giving interviews and special access to supportive local news outlets, paying for favorable coverage in Iraqi newspapers—one might expect that it would develop major league messaging capabilities. But it is surprising and disappointing to see the military retirees used in this fashion.

The analysts were a group of men who were respected, knowledgeable, and had long service records, who could reach a broad audience and influence policy. “In a spin-saturated news culture, [Clarke] argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent. And so even before Sept. 11, she built a

system within the Pentagon to recruit ‘key influentials’—movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.”7

It’s difficult to know exactly what drove these men to regurgitate misinformation and disinformation to the American public, even while some suspected they were being used. Were the secret Pentagon meetings with Rumsfeld the major draw? Was it the first-class trips on government aircraft and cushy hotel stays that drew them in? Perhaps it was the contracts that these former military officers realized they could get for the defense companies they lobbied for, and the consulting firms they headed? Maybe it was ego, the garnering of fame via television face time, or maybe it was the extra cash.

One of the things that made Clarke—who left the administration in 2003 and now works at ABC, one of the networks hoodwinked by Clarke’s team of retired military officers—an effective media spokesperson is that she is a likable mom. She isn’t shrill, and she manages to maintain a rather disarming demeanor, which was on display during her televised press briefings while with the administration, and on such television programs as 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She “revolutionized the Defense Department’s relationship with the media, humanizing the Bush administration’s military effort and restoring respect for people in uniform,” Manuel Miranda, former counsel to the Republican former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, told me. “A different person in her role at the Defense Department might have led to very different result at a critical time."8  

Clarke also may have indirectly brought about a “revolution” in the way the Pentagon does business during the remainder of the Bush presidency. Shortly after its groundbreaking investigative report appeared, the New York Times reported that Robert Hastings, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, decided to indefinitely suspend its briefings program "pending an internal review."9
 

Bill Berkowitz is a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).

Sources

1. David Barstow, “The Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” New York Times, April 20, 2008.
2. The Defense Department has made available on its website all of the documents released to the New York Times; the materials are available at http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/milanalysts/.
3. John Stauber, Center for Media and Democracy, personal communication (e-mail) with the author, April 23, 2008.
4. Barstow, “The Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.”
5. Victoria Clarke, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, “Public Affairs Guidance (PAG) on Embedding Media during Possible Future Operations/Deployments in the U.S. Central Commands (Centcom) Area of Responsibility (AOR),” February 2003, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/d20030228pag.pdf.
6. Barstow, “The Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.”
7. Barstow, “The Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.”
8. Manual Miranda, former counsel to Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), personal communication (e-mail) with the author, April 23, 2008.
9. David Barstow, “Pentagon Suspends Briefing for Analysts,” New York Times, April 26, 2008.

Citations

Bill Berkowitz, "Embedding the Analysts: Modern-Day Propaganda?," Right Web Commentary (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, May 8, 2008).

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

On August 16, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of the Iran Action Group (IAG). It would “be responsible for directing, reviewing, and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity, and it will report directly to me,” he stated. Amid speculation that the Donald Trump administration was focused on…


Norm Coleman is a lobbyist for the Saudi Arabian government, chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and former senator from Minnesota, known for hawkish, pro-Likud, and anti-Iran foreign policy views.


The millionaire pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Texas, John Hagee argues that U.S. support for Israel will play a “a pivotal role in the second coming” of Jesus. He has also risen to new prominence during the Trump administration.


Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian who served as a chief aide and speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post and one of Donald Trump’s harshest critics on the right, calling him an “unhinged president.”


Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the Project for the New American Century, is a neoconservative policy pundit and historian based at the Brookings Institution.


Mira Ricardel, former weapons marketer for Boeing, is the deputy national security adviser under John Bolton. She is a well-known foreign policy hawk who has served in key positions in the administration of George W. Bush and, earlier, in the office of former Senator Robert Dole (R-KS).


Fred Fleitz left his role as chief of staff at the National Security Council under John Bolton to succeed notorious Islamophobe Frank Gaffney as president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Although a widespread movement has developed to fight climate change, no counterpart has emerged to take on the rising danger of nuclear disaster — yet.


U.S. supporters of Israel are in a bind: public opinion is changing; there are more actors publicly challenging Israel; and the crude, heavy-handed tactics they have successfully used in the past to silence criticism now only aggravate the situation.


As the civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen grows and the backlash against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder escalates, former Sen. Norm Coleman’s control of Republican Party campaign purse strings positions him as a key influencer of Republican congressional action, or inaction, in curtailing the increasingly aggressive and reckless actions of Saudi Arabia.


Increasingly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are positioned as rivals, each with pretensions to Middle Eastern influence or even hegemony. It’s not clear whether they can continue to coexist without one or the other—or both—backing down. This has made it more difficult for the United States to maintain its ties with both countries.


What does President Trump’s recent nomination of retired Army General John Abizaid to become the next U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia signify? Next to nothing — and arguably quite a lot.


The Donald Trump administration’s handling of nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia promises to lay bare some realities about security issues and nuclear programs in that part of the world that the administration has refused to acknowledge.


Eminent U.S. foreign policy expert Stephen Walt’s new book critique’s the “liberal hegemony” grand strategy that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.


RightWeb
share