The Pentagon Hands Over Classified Documents To TV News Analysts To Sway Public Opinion
The Pentagon tried to favorably influence public opinion when it gave retired military officers working as TV news analysts insider access to war briefings, but it did not break the law, the U.S. Comptroller General concluded in a legal opinion released Tuesday.
However, wrote Daniel Gordon, acting general counsel for the Government Accountability Office, “we believe that legitimate questions were raised by members of Congress and the press regarding the intersection of [the Pentagon’s] public affairs activities and the possibility of compromised procurements resulting from potential competitive advantages for defense contractors with commercial ties” to retired military officers.
Issuance of the opinion was directed in the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill and followed an outcry sparked by an April 20, 2008, New York Times story, “Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.”
According to the report, the Pentagon, beginning in 2002, gave “hundreds” of special briefings on wartime operations, including its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to select retired military officers working for various news networks. The analysts were sometimes given access to classified information and were taken on tours of Iraq, the paper reported.
In turn, the paper said, the officers generally put a positive spin on events during interviews about U.S. military operations.
According to Gordon, the defense appropriations bills for fiscal 2002 through 2008 state that none of the money “shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress.”
In the story, the Pentagon denied it was trying to skirt the law, with spokesman Bryan Whitman telling the paper that the program was “nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people.”
Gordon didn’t address that comment but indicated that the Pentagon needs to think twice before initiating any similar such programs in the future.
“While DoD understandably values its ties with retired military officers, we believe that, before undertaking anything along the lines of the now-terminated program at issue in this decision, DoD should consider whether it needs to have additional policies and procedures in place to protect the integrity of, and public confidence in, its public affairs efforts and to ensure the transparency of its public relations activities,” Gordon wrote.
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