Small Wars Journal

All The News That's...

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 5:16pm
An editor somewhere at the New York Times should probably be very worried for his job right about now. Not because he or she missed a comma splice, or permitted a run-on sentence, that is actually the job of people called copy editors. No, that editor should be worried because today, on page A1 and above the fold, he or she failed in their job to present a logical and intellectually coherent article. In short, they let a reporter run wild with an a historical collection of claptrap which displays both a stunning ignorance of the military as well as the even more unforgivable sin of being ignorant of how the Pentagon press corps (to include the Pentagon correspondent for the Times) works.

Here is the short version of the thesis: The political appointees in the Pentagon try to counteract adverse news stories and also try to increase what they believe are positive news stories.

Whoa Nellie! Knocked ya right outta your saddle with that one, didn't they?

Of course, as with all such situations, there are some nuggets to be found within the body of the story. I will get to those in a minute. But as in other cases, be it the flights of fantasy engaged in by the Associated Press when they published their No Gun Ri story back in 1999, or the befuddled and confused musings of the quacks who would deny the Holocaust, or even the delusional belief of many military officers that it was the media, not the military, who lost Vietnam (Note: It was our fault. Us. In uniform. We failed in Vietnam. End Note.), the reporter for the New York Times takes factoids and spins them into a narrative just ripe for the Conspiracy Theorists of America, Inc.

Just look at the opening graphic. Somehow the NYT contends that Major General (Ret) Robert Scales is an administration cheerleader incapable of independent thought?! In what alternate reality is that true? Generals Montgomery Meigs and Barry McCaffrey? For Christ's sake, those are three of the most vocal and respected critics of the military conduct of operations that America has seen these past five years (though it should be noted that at least McCaffrey was initially in favor of the invasion). And yet the NYT wants to paint them as tools of the administration? Seriously? Folks, at least two of those generals have been invited panelists to speak before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees about the problems with the war. Invited by the Democrats mind you, not the Republicans. Seriously, somebody at the NYT headquarters needs to consider instituting a random drug testing program over there because the intellectual loops one has to tie oneself into to come to their thesis are worthy of Jayson Blair's style of "reporting."

Any hope that there might critical thinking vanishes in a cotton-candy poof of intellectual smoke when one realizes that the Times is seriously contending that we readers should believe that these retired generals and other officers were swayed by, well, see it yourself: "In interviews, participants described a powerfully seductive environment — the uniformed escorts to Mr. Rumsfeld's private conference room, the best government china laid out, the embossed name cards, the blizzard of PowerPoints, the solicitations of advice and counsel..."

Wait a mean that the "participants" called it "powerfully seductive"? No, look closer, that word "described" means something. It means that they said no such thing and that the reporter is interpreting the scene for us plebians because, you know, we're not qualified on that count.

We should instead just take the reporter's word for it that men who just spent several decades dealing with all that same stuff as a course of their normal daily lives (the General Officer's mess in the Pentagon anyone?) are now suddenly "seduced" by "uniformed escorts" (ooooh, ahhhhh...such pretty uniforms, I am sooooo flattered), flatware and embossed cards. Oh, and I bet they were just bowled over by that new invention, the PowerPoint briefing. Bet none of them ever saw nuthin' like that.

What makes this even more disappointing is that the broader outlines of the thesis are not even really news. You see, when somebody writes a book about a topic, you cannot then pretend that book does not exist which covers the same material, or that you have found something all the New York Times has now done. Retired Colonel and former-analyst Ken Allard wrote just such a damned book, several years ago. That is years. Not weeks. Not months. Years. It's called Warheads, and it is about the underside of being a military analyst. Now while Allard noted most of the points (but without the conspiracy theory spin) about interactions and connections, in his book, and is a source cited in the article in his own right...there is not so much as a hint about the fact that this is all, effectively, old information.

Hell, you can ask any historian and he'll take you back further. As one friend asked me, "When exactly did DoD PAO get into the 1984 business?" That would be 1947. Prior to that it was Department of War and Navy which did the same thing. And if you don't think FDR gave or withheld access? Or Wilson? Or Lincoln? You need to go back to school. All three most definitely tracked what was written and by whom, and granted or denied access on that did that feller Sherman (when he wasn't threatening to actually hang journalists), and Grant, and Pershing, and you can bet MacArthur did, and even Eisenhower tracked what journalists wrote, by name, and granted or denied access on that basis at times. (Most especially during the flare-up with His-Royal-Hineyness Montgomery of Alamein when the whole flap over "saving the Americans" appeared in the UK press in late Dec '44.) And let's not even get into Korea and Vietnam. So unless one is also "concerned" that this was wrong for Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, etc., and that they were doing it wrong...

Now I am certainly not disputing that the Administration tries to spin America, and occasionally the world for that matter, like a Siamese kitten dropped into a Maytag. And I in no way dispute that they have tried to use friendly analysts to do so. I do not think that there is a reader out there who would be the least bit surprised that as the NYT put it, "many of them ideologically in sync with the administration's neoconservative brain trust." Hello? Homer Simpson has had more enlightening insights that that.

What I am disputing that it was propaganda for them to make the attempt. Look at the Creel Committee (aka the Committee for Public Information) circa 1917-1918. That, ladies and gentlemen, is propaganda. Look at some of the other things done during the Wilson Administration as well. This? No, this is about as surprising as POTUS giving repeated "exclusive" sit-down interviews to FOX News, and boxing out the other stations. It is also about as effective.

Indeed that is the unstated subtext of this story, and it is a pity nobody in the editorial offices of the New York Times picked up on the fact and gave that reporter a clue. You see the story is not that the current Administration tries to spin. All of them do that and none of us are surprised. The story is that this administration's public relations people are so completely incompetent at the effort. How do we know? Well, for starters look at public support for the war. But more importantly, go to the NYT site and look at some of the specifics of who the civilian appointees in the Office of the SecDef decided to invite, over and over...notice anything? FOX News, FOX News, FOX News...and that gang, is why the public affairs people in DoD and this Administration are about as successful at this whole "propaganda" thing as Charlie Brown on the first day of football season.

If your intent is to swing the public opinion which has turned against the war (or at various points, "was turning"), then hello, you have to talk to those people, the people who hold different opinions. You do not go forth with public appeals and "talking points" to the people who rabidly support your every bowel movement and seek justification for holding the TP whilst you wipe!

The bottom line is that somebody who watches FOX News gets the absolute LEAST war news (about 30% less as I recall), and is likely already completely ideologically committed to the Administration anyway, so it serves no purpose. (Something that the civilian political appointees in the OSD/DoD Public Affairs offices apparently have difficulty understanding.)

Now I stated at the outset that there is a nugget here, and that is the business ties aspect of the story, that's legit. To a degree. But at the same time you don't see when a legal consultant is on the air, or a medical one, the depth of their ties to their own industries. The interlocking of the board memberships is also a bit problematic, and I think full disclosure on those points should have been made by the analysts. But then again, if the news organizations did not ask (or even inform/educate about the standards of journalism) their analysts the questions about their business connections, how were the retirees supposed to know about the journalism ethics? Osmosis?

A wise fellow once noted that "A Nation that would separate it's scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools." Well, on a similar note lets add the Bateman Corollary: "A nation that would separate its soldiers from its communicators will have its COIN (counterinsurgency) conducted by mutes and its communications done by the militarily illiterate."

You can vent to the author at


SWJ Editors' Links

TV Military Analysts Co-opted by Pentagon - Outside the Beltway

Smart IO Campaign or Out of Bounds? - Abu Muqawama

The Hidden Hand - MountainRunner

Pundits or Pentagon Puppets? - Intel Dump

Message Force Multipliers - Kings of War


Gian P Gentile

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 10:05pm

Hello Norfolk:

Well if anyone has some apolgizing to do it is me when I first started blogging at SWJ. Some of my earlier criticisms were mean and if I could I would withdraw them.

See, I have drawn so much ire toward me that even when somebody like the Honorable Carl Prine agrees with me it invites the specter of me riding onto this blog on horseback with my other three partners bringing fire and brimstone behind us.

Good as always to be in touch with you


One issue that hasn't been brought up (maybe it has and I missed it) in the comments seems to be that this all redounds to the issue of advocacy. In other words, the retired officers are expected by their employers to be "neutral" (something that elicits a whole host of philosophical questions such as does neutrality actually exist and can anyone enter a debate or discussion without presuppositions of their own?).

In my case, while I can make up my own mind and listen with an open ear to the detractors and well as advocates of any given issue, I am just fine with a retired officer openly announcing that he mildly or moderately or strong advocates a certain position (or opposes a certain position) - and then trying to make his case. General McInerney seemed to advocate a lot, and I knew that he was speaking from a position of advocacy, and he didn't seem to try to hide it, and I didn't mind it. On occasion he would do things a little differently.

Like most people, I generally like it when people agree with my views, but try to learn from them when they don't.

My point goes to the difference between hard news and news + commentary / analysis. At least I think I am smart enough to know the difference, even if the concern is that the balance of America isn't. If the point is that analysis and commentary on the news shouldn't be confused with the "news," then perhaps the shows could have some sort of idiot light (you know, like the dashboard lights that replaced the analog gages that actually gave useful infomation about your systems?). It could illuminate red and warn people that opinion is about to be expressed. The watchers of American Idol could then turn the channel back to their favorite bread and circus show in order to avoid being duped by the evil retired generals.


Thank you for your comments, however I think you are being a little disingenuous.

You suggest that maybe the retired Generals didn't make use of the information they received. If that is the case, then why do they continue, over a period of years, to attend such briefings?

You also suggest that I am merely assuming that there is what I call an implicit Faustian bargain between the Administration and these retired officers. Yes it is an assumption, and a very safe one. Ask yourself why would the Administration spend very considerable time and effort briefing these people? Why this specially selected group? Is it out of the goodness of their hearts? Why can't any Joe off the street be briefed as well?

I'm sorry, but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..... Occams razor implies that there were benefits to both parties in continuing this arrangement, else it would not have been nurtured and continued.

What concerns me is the overall damage to the reputation of the Officer Corps should more of this type of thing come to light.

Carl Prine (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 12:35pm

your mother, not you're.

Carl Prine (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 12:34pm

On another note, Bob, Robert H. Scales, Jr., for years has been a personal hero of mine, perhaps because of my long professional ties in service to the infantry.

While I agree with you that he's been a consistent critic of some of the administration's policies, I also must concede that I was shocked to have read in the NYT the emails allegedly exchanged between him and DoD.

There are few men I have idealized as much as I have Robert Scales. But as the journalism credo goes, if you're mother tells you something she says is "true," get a source to back her up.

Carl Prine (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 12:28pm

Doh. Hit the wrong button.

I'm also a bit bemused that you bring up the wonderful Kenneth Allard, because he's quoted in the 11th graf, which leads me to assume that the reporter had a passing knowledge of his work.

This bit was particulary intriguing:

Some offered the Pentagon tips on how to outmaneuver the networks, or as one analyst put it to Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, "the Chris Matthewses and the Wolf Blitzers of the world."

In other words, as the networks sought to ensure that their sources weren't stained by commercial or ideological biases that would make them poison to the pursuit of good journalism, the administration offered helpful hints on how to avoid scrutiny.

Brilliant information management!

Moreover, your kvetching about Fox is all well and good, but the NYT article doesn't simply dwell on that network. It mentions military "analysts" given perhaps bogus or tainted spiel to ABC, CBS, CNN, et al.

We'll probably have a panel on this very topic at the upcoming MRE confab in DC, Bob. I hope you're not deployed in October (or is it November? I can't remember) and you can be my guest.

Hell, we can put you on a panel and let you rail against the AP. I might join you.

Carl Prine (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 12:17pm

At the risk of inviting the arrival of the apocalypse, I must say that I agree with Gian, Bob.

As you know, I'm the secretary of Military Reporters & Editors. The NYT story has become for us something of a Balinese Cockfight, because it gave us pause to discuss the theater of the absurd we term "military reporting," and our collective role within it.

Although I've long championed your voice in these issues, Bob, I think you've missed the point. As Sen McCain likes to say about torture, "It's not about them; it's about us," so too the use of these retired generals as sources.

While retired officers putatively should retain some of the ethical standards that guided their military careers, it's important to say that they no longer are on active service. The moral shortcuts they take in pursuit of financial gain, suasion with political gurus or to preserve loyalties to previous units and chums still in uniform therefore aren't sins against the institution of the military, perhaps, but rather against journalism.

When I call up a retired general or admiral, I typically try to suss out their financial entanglements. If I am trying to find out whether the latest Lockheed widget works or not, I need to know that GEN Halftrack now has a contract for "consulting" with Boeing, right?

If GEN Halftrack fails to disclose that salient fact, then how are my readers served?

The problem, however, is much more condensed in the TV world. There, retired generals seem to occupy a nebulous spot somewhere between paid source and independent "analyst." They aren't held to the same ethical standards as reporters or editors, but are still expected to impart wisdom on cue.

Should TV do a better job vetting these "analysts?" Definitely.

But let's not lose sight of what many of those "analysts" sought to do, which is worm their way onto the broadcasts, thereby increasing their influence and securing more contracts for "consulting."

I'm also a bit bemused that you bring up the wonderful

Norfolk (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 11:57am

Hello Gian,

I will not dispute, and indeed will certainly defer to, yours and Ray's points about the security laxness of retired senior and flag officers and their public divulgment of restricted information. And I have a well-nurtured aversion to said officers migrating, sometimes seamlessly (and sometimes in an unseemly fashion), from their military posts to corporate posts or capacities. That's something that really burns my butt, and the NYT is certainly correct in calling them to account on this.

That said, Gian, you are certainly correct in calling me to account for my lambasting of the Times, and I am indeed sorry for my faults. I was fixating (and indeed fixated myself) on its track record of some questionable or even poor reporting in a number of its articles.

As such I completely neglected the most worthy points that it made about the use and misuse of sensitive information by retired military professionals, not to mention the questionable, even dubious, circumstances of such former professionals when not only revealing restricted information in public, but whilst doing so as paid employees of, or as consultants to, firms and corporations that have or seek US Government contracts or seek to influence its policies. I fell into my own trap of looking for others who are looking for conspiracies to explain how the war was "sold"; indeed, it was just that in fact, and the NYT was most correct - and right - in reporting and describing this.

Once again Gian, my apologies for my errors and ommissions, as well as my gratitude for setting me straight.



BTW, congrats on your impending promo to full-bird!

Schmedlap (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 8:40am


If the facts of the matter are simply points 1 and 2, then I agree with your presentation of the facts. Point 3 is not a fact. It is your assumption.

What you regard as implied certainly is implied by the NY Times, but there is another likely motivation that is far less conspiratorial. That motivation is that General Officers who routinely appear as analysts and commentators on TV and radio have positions of prominence and influence that justify the fullest understanding of sensitive issues, to ensure that they give informed commentary.

While I doubt that the retired Generals are easily duped by a PowerPoint briefing, there is clearly the potential for ethical conflict. Some are quicker to assume guilt than others. Unfortunately, it seems that the only way the Generals can prove their innocence is to take a certain stance. But, isn't that the sin that they have already been accused of? Perhaps we should throw them in a river. If they don't drown, then they're guilty.

Bateman (not verified)

Mon, 04/21/2008 - 7:48am


Two points, one of logic and one of observation. The observation is that the NYT did not establish how many people actually used the proposed talking points or positions. They talked about 75 people (or so) being on the "list", but then only gave one or two examples of people who said something which they had previously discussed during a briefing or roundtable.

The second point is that you've fallen into an ad hominem fallacy. In other words, just because there are people within the Administration who posit a certain point, does *not* automatically mean that that point is wrong merely because of the person who made the comment. Further, it would be difficult to discern but the fact that some of those people (even the non-Fox-news ones) may have already held a position similar to that put forward by the public affairs types prior to any briefing. But mostly the problem is with your ad hominem reasoning. The NYT did the same thing, in fact, but I did not have the space to cover that point as well.

Do you see what I mean here?

But your first point about the business interconnections and the last point about officer credibility are both valid concerns because, frankly, most of America will fall into the same logic trap you and the NYT already did.


Bob Bateman

In "The Theban Plays", one of Sophocles characters says the immortal (well to me) words; "Just because a fool says the sun is shining doesn'nt make it dark outside."

We can all take cheap shots at any newspaper anytime. They all make mistakes,take positions, and get things wrong, it goes with the territory.

However it appears that the facts of the matter are not in dispute.

1. Certain retired officers have privileged access to Administration defence functionaries.

2. These same ex officers have commercial links to major defence contractors.

3. There is an implied Faustian bargain between the Administration and the ex officers, in that in return for knowledge, the Administration expects that the ex officers will not stray too far from the Administration's worldview, or not to put too fine a point on it; "spin". Col. Patrick Lang has referred to attending one of these briefings on his website, and remarked that he was not invited back after asking a few awkward questions.

4. The retired officers present themselves to the public purveying in depth and unbiased independent analysis of events in Iraq. This is a complete untruth because of items 1,2 and 3. In fact, if all they rely on is what they are fed by the Pentagon, they really have no independent knowledge of anything at all.

Now whether the NYT or someone else publishes it, this means that the American people have been deliberately mislead. I also believed I heard somewhere that the American Military were forbidden to run propaganda operations on American soil.

But it's your Republic, not mine. I don't believe lying to the Public fosters the generation of good national policy. In fact it does the reverse as the gap between the rhetoric versus the reality widens to the point of being unbridgeable.

In my opinion, the consequences of this "credibility gap" over Iraq have the potential to bring the entire United States Officer corps into disrepute. The fallout after Vietnam is going to look mild by comparison.

Ken White

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 11:58pm

Well said, Schmedlap.

I'd only add they spent a lot of words to say "We looked and found possible slight moral ambiguity on the part of the Cable guys and a few retired folks but nothing illegal."

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 9:24pm

I agree with Ray Kimball's assessment of Bateman's missive. And I would add that Bateman's "nugget" is actually the 5000 pound boulder; the business links to big defense corporations and these retired general officers. Do we not think that compromises their ethics in at least a small way?

And Norfolk; I almost always agree with what you write on this blog and on your own but in this case I have to fundamentally disagree with you. I think this is good reporting by the Times. Clearly their track record is not perfect (read: their story of a few months ago on McCain's so-called x-marital affairs). But this one makes the point and backs it up. Do you deny that these GOs had business relationships with big defense contractors? Do you deny that these GOs had special access to the Pentagon and Administration and were seen by some folks in the Pentagon as "surrogates" for their talking points?

Now I can at least understand how some folks might ask well what is really new here or argue that this isnt a big deal (which by the way I vehemently disagree), but I dont see how you can challenge the credibility of the NY Times on this one.

But to you, Norfolk, I am ready to listen.

Bateman (not verified)

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 9:22pm


Well, the opprobrium is muted in no small part because the decision to allow retired military to see FOUO is subjective.

I've been in rooms where senior officers allowed non-military reporters to see TS material. Remember Ray, the classification system theoretically has a purpose. If the purpose is better met by allowing outside access, then the commander with the classification authority can summarily change that "reality." It makes sense, so I did not broach that point.

Bob Bateman

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 11:52pm

I think two points are worth considering; one regarding the value of the NY Times piece and one regarding the logic of responding to it.

1) The NY Times is preaching to its choir. People who want to believe this story, will. To argue with reason against a belief rooted in faith is futile. Furthermore, those people generally share beliefs that are open to the higher context message of this piece. That message is that Americans have been duped. It is part of the narrative of the New York Times et al regarding OIF and President Bush's Administration in general. This latest expose fits very nicely. That the piece reinforces existing beliefs makes it all the more impossible to argue against among people who <i>want</i> to believe it.

2) The New York Times is only as credible as its critics allow it to be. Many people check to see what the NY Times has written simply because it is relevant to know what major publications are writing about if your job deals with media, politics, or social science. But the only people who really take the NY Times seriously are people who also read the Daily Kos and watch Keith Olbermann. To spend a significant amount of time critiquing the NY Times only bolsters its credibility among normal people.

It seems like a better use of time and a sure way to reduce stress if one simply disregards the worthless opinions of the NY Times. The NY Times doesn't change anyone's mind. It preaches to its choir and reinforces their existing beliefs.

Norfolk (not verified)

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 8:15pm

The New York Times seems incapable of reforming itself. Indeed, over the last several years it continues to make much the same mistakes over and over again, and utterly refuses to learn from them. Its ideological proclivities, nay, fixations, have so gotten out of control that not only is it hardly a credible news source, but it is in danger of descending into laughing-stock status.

If the NYT persists in more Hadithas, Korengal Valleys, and DoD conspiracy theories (amongst others), then it really is approaching the status of one of those supermarket tabloid sheets proclaiming doom, plots, and the bizarre. Except tailored towards the prejudices and proclivities of the "up-market".

Really, it takes only basic journalistic competence to check one's facts first. Perhaps the NYT should take a very hard look at the motto that it fancies itself to have adopted from the Times of London, and reconsider what that means. Until then, it should not presume to print the news...


What's truly remarkable about this lengthy screed of yours is that you've completely ignored the people in this story most worth of censure. You got all the low-hanging fruit - the NYT, DoD Public Affairs, and Fox News. Well done.

But what about the retired officers themselves?

If you or I used FOUO information for our respective public works, we'd be punished for it, and rightfully so. We would be abusing the public trust and our offices. That's what these men did: they took private, privileged briefings and used them for personal gain. Period. The fact that they supported or criticized administration policy while doing it is completely beside the fact.

That's the story here - the rest, as you point out, is old news.