Anyone who has watched the military analysts hired by TV networks has heard rosy assessments of the war in Iraq. The similarities between their judgments and the Pentagon's are not coincidental. As The New York Times demonstrated by suing the Pentagon to obtain 8,000 pages of documents, those analysts were enlisted by the Defense Department in a psychological warfare operation targeting the domestic audience. And, as the newspaper reported Sunday, many of the retired military officers appearing on news shows were using their access to the Pentagon and the airwaves to procure lucrative contracts for some 150 defense contractors, which employed them as consultants, board members, lobbyists, or executives.
This is no subtle attempt to influence public opinion. It is a government program to corrupt the free flow of information that serves, in a healthy democracy, to inoculate the public against official lies, bad policy, and misbegotten wars.One straightforward corrective would be for TV news executives to require full disclosure of their analysts' business interests as well as their contacts and junkets with military and government officials. Ideally, the television news shows would not have to rely on paid outside experts. They should trust their own reporters to gather news from disparate sources, and to interview former and serving officers who can offer informed commentary from diverse viewpoints.
During the current Iraq war, a number of former military figures have criticized the Bush administration's decisions. Yet as the Times report shows, former President Dwight Eisenhower's famous anxiety about what he called the "military-industrial complex" still applies. The Times recounted how former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld invited some of the avid TV military analysts to meet with him in April 2006, when he had come under fire from a group of recently retired generals who castigated his stewardship of the war. Acting as his personal propaganda team, they fanned out to the networks and cable channels to assure Americans that there was great progress to celebrate in Iraq.
This is a tactic more suitable for Vladimir Putin's Russia. In fact, the Pentagon's manipulation of the media has been more deft than the Kremlin's because it was better hidden.
In the end, the government's disguised lies have done more damage to American democracy and the national interest than to any foreign enemy. History's epitaph for the Pentagon's psywar operation will be: "We fooled ourselves."
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