Brian Williams' "Response" to the Military Analyst Story
It has now been more than ten days since the New York Times exposed the Pentagon's domestic propaganda program involving retired generals and, still, not a single major news network has even mentioned the story to their viewers, let alone responded to the numerous questions surrounding their own behavior. This steadfast blackout occurs despite the fact that the Pentagon propaganda program almost certainly violates numerous federal laws; both Democratic presidential candidates sternly denounced the Pentagon's conduct; and Congressional inquiries are already underway, all of which forced the Pentagon to announce that it suspended its program.
Still, there has not been a peep from the major news networks at the center of the storm, the integrity of whose reporting on the Iraq war is directly implicated by this story. Even establishment media defender Howard Kurtz called their ongoing failure to cover this story "pathetic."
Like Fox and CBS, NBC News outright refused to answer any questions about the allegations when asked by the NYT's David Bartsow, and its prime time anchor, Brian Williams, has delivered seven broadcasts since the story was published and has not uttered a word to NBC's viewers about any of it. Yesterday, I wrote about an entry on Williams' blog -- which he calls "The Daily Nightly" -- in which Williams found the time to mock one frivolous cultural puff piece after the next in the Sunday edition of the NYT, even as he still had refused even to acknowledge the expose in last Sunday's NYT that calls into serious question the truthfulness and reliability of his "journalism."
After I wrote about Williams' blog item yesterday, his blog was deluged with commenters angrily demanding to know why he has failed to address the NYT expose. In response, Williams wrote a new blog item last night in which he purports -- finally -- to respond to the story, and I can't recommend highly enough that it be read by anyone wanting to understand how our establishment journalist class thinks and acts.
The essence of Williams' response: he did absolutely nothing wrong. Nor did any of the military analysts used by NBC News. Nor did his network. These are all honest, patriotic men whose integrity is beyond reproach. Here's but a sampling of Williams' defense:
A few of you correctly noted I've yet to respond to the recent Times front-page article on the military analysts employed by the television networks, including this one.
I read the article with great interest. I've worked with two men since I've had this job -- both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals -- Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I'm sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. . . . All I can say is this: these two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq. If you've had any exposure to retired officers of that rank (and we've not had any five-star Generals in the modern era) then you know: these men are passionate patriots. In my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers. . . .
At no time did our analysts, on my watch or to my knowledge, attempt to push a rosy Pentagon agenda before our viewers. I think they are better men than that, and I believe our news division is better than that.
Williams argues that the two retired Generals whom he identified in particular -- Downing and McCaffrey -- voiced "harsh criticism of the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the war effort." As proof, he cites a McCaffrey quote from 2006 -- more then 3 years after we invaded Iraq -- in which McCaffrey said there was a civil war there and that "it's a very bad situation, and it's getting worse." He also said Downing was angry that we didn't use more troops for the invasion.
That is the sum and substance of Williams' response to allegations that these analysts were presented as "independent" despite having multiple political and financial ties which negated their independence. There is no indication that he has any plans to tell his viewers about the story. And he seems to think that this smug, dismissive response resolves the questions surrounding the behavior of NBC News. It doesn't. If fact, Williams' response -- and his citation to these two specific retired Generals -- raises far more questions than it answers.
* * * * *
Both McCaffrey and Downing were about as far from "independent" as a news analyst could possibly be. On November 15, 2002, a press release was issued announcing the formation of something called "The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq," which was devoted "to advocat[ing] freedom and democracy in Iraq." Its list of 25 members was filled to the brim with the standard cast of war-hungry neocons -- including Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Leon Wieseltier, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, Eliot Cohen, and anti-Muslim "scholar" Bernard Lewis. Both Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing -- the two extremely independent "news sources" hailed yesterday by Brian Williams -- were two of its 25 founding members.
On the day of its formation, the group announced that they would meet later that day with then-National Security Adviser Condolleeza Rice to discuss Iraq. The group's President was quoted in the Press Release as follows: "We believe it is time to confront the clear and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein's regime by liberating the Iraqi people." Here was its stated purpose:
The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq will engage in educational and advocacy efforts to mobilize domestic and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny. The Committee is committed to work beyond the liberation of Iraq to the reconstruction of its economy and the establishment of political pluralism, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.
So this was a group devoted to building domestic support in the U.S. for the invasion of Iraq through so-called "educational and advocacy efforts." And NBC News then hired both Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing as supposedly "independent analysts" to opine to NBC's viewers about the war, and did so without ever once disclosing this affiliation to their viewers, without ever disclosing that they were dedicated to propagandizing on behalf of the Bush administration's desire to invade Iraq.
Beyond their ideological affiliations that negated their "independence," both McCaffrey and Downing had substantial ties to the defense industry which gave them strong financial incentives to advocate for the war. Worse, these ties were detailed all the way back in April of 2003 by The Nation, in an article entitled "TV's Conflicted Experts:
But some of these ex-generals also have ideological or financial stakes in the war. Many hold paid advisory board and executive positions at defense companies and serve as advisers for groups that promoted an invasion of Iraq. Their offscreen commitments raise questions about whether they are influenced by more than just "a lifetime of experience and objectivity"--in the words of Lieut. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a military analyst for NBC News--as they explain the risks of this war to the American people. McCaffrey and his NBC colleague Col. Wayne Downing, who reports nightly from Kuwait, are both on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a Washington-based lobbying group formed last October to bolster public support for a war. Its stated mission is to "engage in educational advocacy efforts to mobilize US and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein," and among its targets are the US and European media. The group is chaired by Bruce Jackson, former vice president of defense giant Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of the F-117 Nighthawk, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and other aircraft in use in Iraq), and includes such neocon luminaries as former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle. Downing has also served as an unpaid lobbyist and adviser to the Iraqi National Congress, an Administration-backed (and bankrolled) opposition group that stands to profit from regime change in Iraq.
NBC News has yet to disclose those or other involvements that give McCaffrey a vested interest in Operation Iraqi Freedom. McCaffrey, who commanded an infantry division in the Gulf War, is now on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies--all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts. Despite that, IDT is floundering -- its stock price has fallen by half since March 2002 -- a situation that one stock analyst says war could remedy. Since IDT is a specialist in tank upgrades, the company stands to benefit significantly from a massive ground war.
The same article details that Downing had many of the same problems, including the fact that he sat on the "board of directors at Metal Storm Ltd., a ballistics-technology company that has contracts with US and Australian defense departments." None of this was ever disclosed to NBC's viewers -- not once -- as McCaffrey and Downing were paraded out by Williams and other NBC reporters as "independent" military analysts touting the need to invade and occupy Iraq.
* * * * *
In fact, rather than disclose these obviously relevant allegiances, Williams -- throughout 2003 and well after -- presented McCaffrey to his then-CNBC audience as the definitively objective, independent analyst, with introductions like this one, from the November 24, 2003 broadcast, as extremely typical:
WILLIAMS: Retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey joins us from Seattle tonight. He earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, two Distinguished Service Crosses, was a division commander during the first Gulf War.
These days, he's a professor at West Point and an NBC News military analyst, and I know him well enough to know that he's going to want to say a word here, General, and please feel free, about the value of sergeant majors in the U.S. Army who are as talented and as beloved as that man.
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), U.S. ARMY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, you're right on the money, Brian.
As always, there was not a word to NBC's viewers that this "NBC Military analyst" was on the Board of Advisers of a neocon group devoted to persuading Americans of the need to invade and occupy Iraq, nor a word about his financial investments in the policies he was advocating. Just look at the completely deceitful way that Williams presented McCaffrey repeatedly, and the type of "independent analysis" to which NBC viewers were consequently subjected. From the September 8, 2003 broadcast:
WILLIAMS: We are joined now from Washington by retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey, one of the foremost military experts currently in civilian life. He was a division commander during the first Gulf War, now a professor at West Point, and an NBC News military analyst. General, let's start with what Senator Harkin just said. You were far from a protester of Vietnam, you were on the other end of it as a combatant. He said it smells like Vietnam, so do the bills coming in for it. Do you concur at all?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), U.S. ARMY: No, not at all. I think there could be two inept metaphors in Vietnam applied to either Central America, Iraq, or any of the current crises we're facing. That was a very different, externally supported war by a homogeneous people who were essentially on the tail end of a struggle against colonialism, using communism as a vector.
My gosh, this is nothing like that. I think Iraq -- By the way, just to get to the heart of the matter, Brian, I actually think the president's speech was an item of tremendous political courage. He has now faced up to -- what I think he was getting from Secretary Rumsfeld was war on the cheap. And now he's saying, We got to succeed, we got to have resources, forces, U.N. legitimacy. This is a step in the right direction . . . . But we better stay the course, or we're in trouble..
Here is the dialogue those two shared on Mission Accomplished Day -- May 1, 2003:
WILLIAMS: With us tonight to look back at the military operation and perhaps what today means as a media event and a significant event in the lives of the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen is retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey who, of course, commanded the 24th Mechanized during the first Gulf War. He is an NBC News analyst on military affairs.
General, let's start with today. The pictures were beautiful. It was quite something to see the first-ever American president on a -- on a carrier landing. This must be very meaningful to the United States military.
General BARRY McCAFFREY (US Army): Oh, yeah, I think it's a huge shot in the arm to the morale of--of the entire armed forces, never mind to remind Americans why we pay for these 10-carrier battle groups. I mean, this is a -- just an enormous source of military power and the ability to influence events sometimes without fighting.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, McCaffrey was frequently on numerous NBC shows, including Williams', presented as an independent expert. On the February 18, 2003 edition of Williams' CNBC show, he was on with fellow war-supporter Michael O'Hanlon -- that was "balance" -- to talk about the risks of the war, and McCaffrey said:
Well, I think that the Iraqis have no good options, and so what we're going to do, we will encounter chemical weapons. It will be abject misery. Some will be killed by them. It won't change the military operation. The biological weapons we hope will be deterred by some pretty strong background threats. I think what we're going to have to do is go in and take down 60,000 Republican Guard troops in stiff urban combat in Baghdad and Tikrit, and that's going to look, at rifle company commander level, like World War II for about five days.
I could go on for pages printing similar exchanges Williams had with McCaffrey throughout 2003. The same is true for Downing, who was repeatedly presented to NBC viewers as an independent analyst without his multiple political and financial affiliations ever once being disclosed (Months before the war began, in November, McCaffrey was a guest on an MSNBC show to tout the launch of the new pro-war group; when McCaffrey was presented as an independent analyst throughout 2003 and beyond, that connection was never mentioned).
It's true, as Williams points out as though it is exculpatory, that -- like Bill Kristol and plenty of other hard-core war supporters -- McCaffrey wanted more U.S. troops in Iraq. He even signed a 2005 letter from PNAC -- along with the likes of Kristol, the mighty Kagan Brothers, Max Boot, Frank Gaffney, Michael O'Hanlon and Peter Beinart -- demanding that more troops be deployed to Iraq (the Kagans, O'Hanlon and Beinart -- despite their relative youth -- were all unavailable for duty).
It really ought to go without saying by now that advocating more troops for the War hardly made one a "war critic" nor did it demonstrate independence from the Bush administration's propaganda campaign for the War. To the contrary, the fact that both McCaffrey and Downing had financial ties to the defense industry which would stand to profit from policies entailing more defense spending further calls into question their independence, rather than resolves those questions. As The Nation reported back in 2003:
McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that "armor and artillery don't count" enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and . . . the Bradley fighting vehicle," and added for good measure that the "war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker." In March alone, IDT [on whose Board of Directors McCaffrey sat] received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware.
At the very least, NBC viewers ought to have been told of the numerous, substantial ties which these "independent" military analysts had.
* * * * *
What makes all of this even more astounding -- and what makes Williams' glib dismissal of these issues yesterday all the more indefensible -- is that all of these conflicts and all of this deceit was well-known long before the NYT article added more details. As I've repeatedly noted, concerns over the use by news networks of retired Generals masquerading as "independent analysts" were raised for years in multiple venues -- including by the NYT and by the astoundingly prescient Colman McCarthy in The Washington Post, and the networks simply ignored those concerns, marching along with their pro-war parade of military analysts.
But far worse, the specific, undisclosed conflicts of both McCaffrey and Downing -- the two Generals cited by Williams to prove NBC did nothing wrong -- were disclosed more than four years ago by The Nation. And there is no way that NBC and Williams can claim not to have known about them, since The Nation described those ties as specifically as could be. Did NBC ask the Generals about these ties? Did they consider disclosing them to their viewers? Did the undislcosed ties violate NBC News policy? Does NBC have policies now to prevent this from happening again? Who knows? NBC refuses to comment on any of this.
In fact, it appears that NBC was informed of these specific conflicts by The Nation four years ago. From The Nation article:
The networks don't seem too concerned about what the analysts do on their own time. "We are employing them for their military expertise, not their political views," Elena Nachmanoff, vice president of talent development at NBC News, told The Nation. She says that NBC's military experts play an influential role behind the scenes, briefing executive producers and holding seminars for staffers that provide "texture for both on-air pieces and background." Defense contracts, she adds, are "not our interest."
That was just false. As I noted last week after I interviewed CNN's former anchor Aaron Brown, who offered a similar defense, these retired Generals -- certainly including McCaffrey -- repeatedly argued in support for the war and the ongoing occupation, not merely commented upon military tactics. But to NBC, the substantial financial interests of their "independent" military experts to advocate for the war were simply "not their interest." Of course, it's not all that surprising that NBC News doesn't consider these conflicts worth noting given that, as a subsidiary of General Electric, a corporation that also profits greatly from increased defense spending and wars, NBC News is plagued by the very same conflicts in its reporting on the Government's military policies.
* * * * *
Just consider what is going on here. The core credibility of war reporting by Brian Williams and NBC News has been severely undermined by a major NYT expose. That story involves likely illegal behavior by the Pentagon, in which NBC News appears to have been complicit, resulting in the deceitful presentation of highly biased and conflicted individuals as "independent" news analysts. Yet they refuse to tell their viewers about any of this, and refuse to address any of the questions that have been raised.
More amazingly still, when Brian Williams is forced by a virtual mob on his blog yesterday finally to address this issue -- something he really couldn't avoid doing given that, the day before, he found time to analyze seven other NYT articles -- Williams cited McCaffrey and Downing as proof that they did nothing wrong, and insists that his and their credibility simply ought to be beyond reproach because they are good, patriotic men. But those two individuals in particular had all kinds of ties to the Government, the defense industry, and ideological groups which gave them vested interests in vigorous pro-war advocacy -- ties which NBC News knew about and failed to disclose, all while presenting these individuals to their millions of viewers as "independent." Is there anyone who thinks that behavior is anything other than deeply corrupt?
UPDATE: Yesterday, I sent an email to Williams' representative requesting an interview with him and/or an NBC News spokesperson about the issues raised here or, at the very least, a comment from them. I've received no response.
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.