Once upon a time, it was widely believed that one of the greatest sins the U.S. government or its temporary political masters could commit was to turn a propaganda machine loose on the American people.
Congress viewed this so seriously that every appropriations bill passed since 1951 has contained language that says no public money "shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States" without the lawmakers' prior approval.
The Bush administration has been caught violating the propaganda ban before, notably in 2005 in the case of radio host Armstrong Williams, who was paid to endorse President Bush's No Child Left Behind law.
Particularly abhorrent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which oversees compliance with the ban, is an agency's use of "covert propaganda" or "covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties."
This is why alarm bells should be ringing all over Washington about The New York Times' disclosure that then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld encouraged a secret Pentagon program to care for and spoon-feed more than 50 retired senior military officers whom the administration deemed reliable friends who could be counted on "to carry our water" on the television and cable networks.
Feeding the military analysts "key and valuable information" in secret briefings by Pentagon and White House officials, the idea went, would make them the go-to guys for the networks and encourage the networks to "weed out the less reliably friendly analysts . . . ."
This 2005 memorandum, addressed to then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Larry DiRita, added: "This trusted core group will be more than willing to work closely with us because we are their bread and butter."
Asked about the case of Col. Bill Cowan, who says he was fired as a military analyst for Fox News and cut off from the briefings for criticizing the war effort, DiRita told Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com: "I don't know anything. I saw that in the story. I've heard other assertions to that effect. It was certainly not the intent."
In a follow-up e-mail exchange between DiRita and Greenwald, Rumsfeld's former mouthpiece - now Bank of America's chief spokesman - elaborated on what he said he didn't remember: "I simply don't have any recollection of trying to restrict him (Cowan) or others from exposure to what was going on."
DiRita added: "There are plenty of examples to the contrary - reaching out to people who specifically disagreed with us. One example I recall is Joe Galloway - a persistent critic and apparently popular with military readers. He came in and met Secretary Rumsfeld and we had other interactions."
Now that's a real knee-slapper: Me as a poster boy for how Rumsfeld and DiRita "reached out" to their harshest critics even as they stroked and promoted and schemed to embed the old reliables to wax enthusiastic about a war that was going from bad to worse.
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Let the record show that Rumsfelds' folks reached out to me on these few occasions:
* In early summer of 2003, half a dozen of us were invited to an off-the-record lunch with Rumsfeld in the Pentagon. The defense secretary seemed to have a poor grasp of the reality on the ground in Iraq and was still declaring that we'd do no nation-building there. He saw no insurgency, only a handful of "dead-enders".
* In October 2005, DiRita called to invite me to travel with Rumsfeld to the Middle East and Australia. I declined because it conflicted with a long-booked graduation speech I was to give at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. to a class of new Air Force F-16 fighter pilots that included my nephew. DiRita was stunned that I wouldn't drop a bunch of fighter pilots to be schmoozed by his boss.
* In November 2005, DiRita invited me to a "one-on-one" lunch with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. This one I accepted. I arrived to find across the table Rumsfeld, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace; Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Dick Cody; Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp and DiRita. We went at it hammer and tongs for an hour and a half over their conduct of the war and the errors that were costing the lives of American soldiers. As I left, I told Rumsfeld that I'd continue to point out those mistakes every week in my column.
* In April 2006, DiRita sent me an e-mail telling me that my most recent column was "silly". That column had discussed an expensive war game the Pentagon conducted about a U.S. attack on a thinly disguised country that obviously was Iran.
A retired Marine general, Paul Van Riper, had been the commander of the "enemy" forces, and he used unconventional tactics to destroy the U.S. Navy flotilla in the Persian Gulf, leaving thousands of sailors and Marines dead. At that point, the commanders stopped the war game, reset everything and imposed new rules forbidding Van Riper from employing those tactics.
Van Riper walked out, furious, and requested an investigation. DiRita complained in his e-mail that I was silly to blame Rumsfeld for this and for covering up the investigators' report. After all, he wrote, Rumsfeld couldn't be expected to know retired generals several levels below him or to bear responsibility for such matters. His complaint sparked an escalating e-mail war that most reckon DiRita lost. The entire exchange was posted on the Internet and can still be found there.
So much for the Rumsfeld/DiRita outreach to their critics. They were much too busy hand-feeding horse manure to their TV generals, who in turn were feeding the same product to the American public by the cubic yard.
There's little doubt that this program violated the laws against covert propaganda operations mounted against the American public by their own government. But in this administration, there's no one left to enforce that law or any of the other laws the Bush operatives have been busy violating.
The real crime is that the scheme worked. The television network bosses swallowed the bait, the hook, the line and the sinker, and they have yet to answer for it.
Joseph L. Galloway, a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers, is the co-author, with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, of "We Were Soldiers Once Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and Young," a story of the first large-scale ground battle of the Vietnam War.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers