Rumsfeld-Era Propaganda Program Whitewashed by Pentagon

A controversial public relations program run by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was cleared of any wrong-doing by the agency’s inspector general in a report published last month. The program used dozens of retired military officers working as analysts on television and radio networks as “surrogates” armed by the Pentagon with “the facts” in order to educate the public about the Department of Defense’s operations and agenda.

At the same time, the report quoted participating analysts who believed that bullet points provided by Rumsfeld’s staff advanced a “political agenda,” that the program’s intent “…was to move everyone’s mouth on TV as a sock puppet” and that the program was “…a white-level psyop [psychological operations] program to the American people.” It also found a “preponderance of evidence” that one analyst was dismissed from the program for being critical of former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, while another analysts said a CNN official told him he was being dropped at the request of the White House.

Nevertheless, the inspector general exonerated the Pentagon, stating that it complied with Department of Defense (DoD) policies and regulations, including not using propaganda on the US public, while also claiming that retired military analysts, many of whom were affiliated with defense contractors, gained nothing financially or personally for the businesses they were affiliated with.

The investigation was requested by Congress after the New York Times published a story revealing the Pentagon’s public relations program, Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand (04/20/2008), which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. The article showed how these analysts, many of whom had ties to military contractors, were used to help sell the war in Iraq, to push other Bush Administration foreign policy “themes and messages” and to act as a rapid response team to counter criticisms in the media. One official Department of Defense talking points document released while the Bush Administration was still trying to sell the need for a war with Iraq to the public states, “We know that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.”

According to the media watchdog Media Matters, between January 1, 2002 and May 2008 the analysts exposed in the Times article “collectively appeared or were quoted as experts more than 4,500 times on ABC, ABC News Now, CBS, CBS Radio Network, NBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and NPR,” revealing the success and scope of Rumsfeld’s program. However, as Glen Greenwald pointed out, that figure is actually low because there were many more analysts that the Pentagon was using who weren’t mentioned in the article.

The inspector general issued an initial report in January 2009 which drew the same conclusions, but which was later recanted because “it was so riddled with inaccuracies and flaws that none of its conclusions could be relied upon.” This calls into question how forthright, accurate and independent an internal Pentagon audit can be, especially in light of the fact that even Republican Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) recently “blasted” the inspector general’s work—giving the office a grade of D-minus in a June 1 report.

This updated report on the use of retired military analysts relied heavily on interviews with Rumsfeld subordinates to ascertain guidelines, procedures and intent because of a lack of written policies. The report also stated that the Pentagon contracted with a private company to provide media reports – 48 in total – that tracked the commentary of military analysts receiving Pentagon assistance. Other significant findings included 147 organized events provided for the military analysts, sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantanamo and the likely receipt of classified information.

Keith Urbahn, spokesman for former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, told the Washington Times that “the New York Times should give back its Pulitzer” and the Wall Street Journal declared that the report was evidence that “the Pentagon wasn’t running a secret propaganda shop, and scores of decorated military officers weren’t rapacious pawns.” However, Scott Horton, contributing editor at Harper’s, has a different take:

The Department of Defense is permitted to run recruitment campaigns and give press briefings to keep Americans informed about its operations, but it is not permitted to engage in “publicity or propaganda” at home. The internal DoD review exonerating the practice of mobilizing and directing theoretically independent analysts apparently focuses on the fact that the program conforms with existing department rules, but it overlooks the high-level prohibition on “publicity or propaganda,” which was plainly violated.

And we already know that the Bush administration made a habit, if not a policy, out of lying to the American public. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, pointed out in January 2008,

President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq…[as] part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.

And the military is no different. One example, reported by the The Washington Post in June 2006, noted that military “briefings indicate that there were direct military efforts to use the U.S. media to affect views of the war.”

One issue that the Inspector General report did not deal with is the media’s role of enthusiastically turning to these military “experts” without disclosing their obvious conflicts of interest, as well as the mainstream media’s incestuous relationship with the Pentagon. For example, former CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan proudly stated back in 2003 that:

I think it’s important to have experts explain the war and to describe the military hardware, describe the tactics, talk about the strategy behind the conflict. I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance –’At CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war’ — and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.

Immediately after the New York Times Pulitzer-winning story was published the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which weekly monitors roughly 1,300 stories from 48 different media outlets, reported that that there were only two related pieces of coverage that came out after the New York Times broke the story, and both of them were on the April 24th broadcast of PBS NewsHour. The Pew Research Center reported, “In the cable news universe, where many of these analysts worked, silence greeted the story.” 

Yet the “ military-industrial-media complex is not only a threat domestically, it is a threat abroad—as the Iraq war illustrates with the more than 1 million Iraqis killed, scores of people tortured and the country’s social service infrastructure in ruins.

This case of the U.S. government propagandizing its own people, and the media’s failure to serve as an independent watchdog, further undermines America’s democratic ideals. The world can’t afford to wait any longer for rigorous investigations, debates and reforms surrounding these matters.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.