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Pentagon pursuing new investigation into Bush propaganda program

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by Brad Jacobson
Thursday, November 5th, 2009
RawStory.com

Image of Pentagon Briefing[Read Part I, Part II and Part III of this series.]

The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General is conducting a new investigation into a covert Bush administration Defense Department  program that used retired military analysts to produce positive wartime news coverage.

Last May, the Inspector General’s office rescinded and repudiated a prior internal investigation’s report on the retired military analyst program, which had been issued by the Bush administration, because it “did not meet accepted quality standards for an Inspector General work product.” Yet in recent interviews with Raw Story, Pentagon officials who took part in the program were still defending it by referencing this invalidated report.

Gary Comerford, Inspector General spokesman for the Defense Department, told Raw Story last week that his office is conducting an investigation into the retired military analyst program and confirmed that the investigation began during the summer.

Asked when his office expects to conclude the investigation, Comerford said, “As a matter of policy we do not set deadlines since any number of variables or factors could result in a delay.”

He did confirm that investigators in his office have read Raw Story’s recent articles on the topic.

Congressman John F. Tierney (D-MA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, issued a press release (cache link) this past June, announcing that Pentagon Inspector General Gordon Heddell had begun the new investigation.

Yet Raw Story and Comerford could find no other news outlet that has yet reported on the matter.

Rep. Tierney confirmed that Inspector General Heddell had reassured him that he was continuing to pursue a new investigation.

“I spoke with Gordon Heddell about his investigation of the DOD ‘Pentagon Pundits’ program yesterday, and he assured me that his office is making good progress on its investigation,” Tierney said in a recent statement to Raw Story. “I again expressed my expectation that his office pursue this investigation with all diligence and speed.”

“I look forward to receiving updates on his progress as well as his final report,” Tierney added. “I, along with my staff, will remain in close contact with the IG’s office as the investigation continues.”

Pentagon officials defend program by citing rescinded report

Former Pentagon public affairs chief Lawrence Di Rita and current deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations Bryan Whitman continue to defend the retired military analyst program by referencing the discredited Pentagon Inspector General’s report released in the final days of the Bush administration.

In an interview with Raw Story, Di Rita, now a chief spokesperson for Bank of America, called the Pentagon propaganda project “an important program” and asserted that “there’s nothing related to it that’s worth talking about” because the “IG’s report debunked” and “utterly invalidated” the findings of David Barstow’s New York Times expose.

Di Rita then incorrectly suggested that this investigation and report had been conducted and released by the Obama administration.

In fact, the Inspector General’s report that Di Rita cited as evidence exonerating the program and discrediting Barstow’s reporting was not only later rescinded after an internal audit but also removed from the Defense Department’s website.

In a May 5, 2009 memorandum, Pentagon Inspector General deputy director Donald Horstman wrote, “The internal review concluded that the report did not meet accepted quality standards for an Inspector General work product.” It found inadequacies in “the methodology used to examine RMA [retired military analysts] relationships with Defense contractors” and “a body of testimonial evidence that was insufficient or inconclusive.”

“In particular,” Horstman added, “former senior DoD officials who devised and managed the outreach program refused our requests for an interview” and that only “7 out of 70” military analysts were interviewed during the investigation.

Investigators also failed to interview retired Army General and military analyst Barry McCaffrey, the conspicuous subject of David Barstow’s 5,000-plus-word follow-up Times expose on the military analyst program, whom Barstow proved “consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests.”

In the internal audit’s conclusion, Horstman stated expressly, “We are notifying you of the withdrawal of this report so that you do not continue to rely on its conclusions. The report has been removed from our website.”

Nevertheless, Di Rita flatly denied these facts when Raw Story brought them to his attention.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman — who Raw Story revealed was a senior official and active participant in the program — also attempted to downplay the Bush Pentagon’s report’s inaccuracies and omissions. He failed as well to acknowledge that the document has been invalidated.

Additionally, Whitman reaffirmed his assertion that the “intent and purpose of the [program] is nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people.”

In defending the program, Whitman also cited the Government Accountability Office’s report, which was released last July.

The report acknowledged that “[c]learly, 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],” but “did not violate the ban” against domestic propaganda.

A central supporting point for drawing that conclusion, however, was “[w]e 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.”

The key evidence cited to support this conclusion was an April 2006 New York Times article, “Pentagon Memo Aims to Counter Rumsfeld Critics,” which was based on a leak.

The article noted that the memorandum had been sent to “a group of former military commanders and civilian analysts,” offering “a direct challenge to the criticisms made by retired generals about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.”

But much of the article’s focus was fixed on the political drama swirling around Rumsfeld’s fight to retain his job amid a growing firestorm of criticism.

In fact, Defense Department officials at the time, such as then-press secretary Eric Ruff, rushed to spike any notion that the Pentagon had fed military analysts talking points. The idea that there might be an elaborate, systematic Pentagon talking points operation involving the retired generals was never specifically raised in the article.

Ruff told the Times the memo was simply a “fact sheet” and that, as the Times paraphrased Ruff saying, “In no way was it meant to enlist retired officers to speak out on behalf of Rumsfeld.”

Mazzetti and Rutenberg reported: “One retired general who regularly attends the Pentagon meetings said Saturday that he found it unusual for the Pentagon to send such a memorandum in the middle of a heated debate, because it was almost certain to appear politically motivated.”

This account also suggested to readers that supplying Pentagon-approved talking points for the retired generals to disseminate on the airwaves would have been out of the ordinary when, in fact, records would later show that’s exactly what was happening.

Records would also eventually reveal Pentagon officials working behind-the-scenes to stamp out this fire before it had time to spread and to ensure that it could be contained.

In an email (p. 117) the day after the Times article was published, Dallas Lawrence, then director of the community relations office, warned a colleague (whose name is redacted) that “this is very very sensitive now. I need you to be protected. This email directly contradicts something Larry [Di Rita] said to a reporter, you’d have no way of knowing that unless you checked with me.”

When the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General issued the May memorandum invalidating the Bush Pentagon’s investigation of the military analyst program, it also noted that no further probe would occur because the program “has been terminated and responsible senior officials are no longer employed by the Department.”

Yet Raw Story’s months-long investigation has revealed that some “responsible senior officials,” including Whitman, are still employed by the Defense Department and that the retired military analyst program may not have been terminated.

Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. Additional research was provided by Ron Brynaert.