On February 25 journalist Thomas Ricks published an important scoop on
his blog at ForeignPolicy.com: Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top US
commander in Iraq, had requested keeping a brigade in northern Iraq
beyond President Obama's deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces.
The timing of the story was intriguing. Just two days earlier, Ricks had
published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for US troops to
remain in Iraq long term. "I think leaders in both countries may come to
recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a
way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for
many years to come," he wrote. The op-ed coincided with a policy brief
by Ricks issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the
Washington think tank where he is a senior fellow.
Ricks, a longtime military correspondent for the Washington Post
and the Wall Street Journal and author of the bestseller
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, had been a
prominent critic of US policy in Iraq. Recently on his blog, he called
the decision to invade "one of the biggest blunders in American
history." But his op-ed, along with the rollout of the policy brief and
the news story, was selling the idea of a long stay in Iraq.
CNAS, like most think tanks, bills itself as "independent and
nonpartisan"; its leadership says that it takes no positions as an
institution. But it played a key role in selling the escalation of the
war in Afghanistan, and now it could help prepare the ground for the
president to reverse course on Iraq and keep a large force in the
It's part of a new influence game in Washington. Think tanks, once a
place for intellectuals outside government to weigh in on important
policy issues, are now enlisted by people within government to help sell
its policies to the public, as well as to others in government.
Institutions like CNAS are also heavily funded by major weapons
manufacturers and Pentagon contractors, creating potential conflicts of
interest rarely disclosed in the media.
Indeed, the presence of journalists on the payrolls of think tanks is
crucial to their clout, lending them the imprimatur of neutral,
nonpartisan news organizations. Since its founding in 2007, CNAS has
played host to a string of reporters from major US newspapers: Ricks
worked on his most recent book, The Gamble, at CNAS; Post
reporter Greg Jaffe and former New York Times reporter David
Cloud worked on The Fourth Star, a book profiling four Army
leaders, while in residence; Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, veteran
military and intelligence reporters for the Times, are
researching a book on counterterrorism there. And CNAS isn't the only
place where national security reporters have set up shop. Times
military correspondent Michael Gordon is a senior fellow at the
Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a new think tank founded by
Kimberly Kagan, the wife of Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI) and a cheerleader for the "surge" strategies in Iraq and
Think tanks are also investing in new media: CNAS bankrolls influential
blogs like Abu Muqawama (a counterinsurgency-themed blog written by
Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger); Abu Aardvark (a Middle East politics
blog by Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and
international affairs at George Washington University); and The Best
Defense (Ricks's daily take on military affairs). Lynch's and Ricks's
blogs are published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine,
owned by the Washington Post. (Foreign Policy discloses
the links to CNAS but has no upfront disclaimer about who funds CNAS.)
As newspapers close foreign bureaus and shrink newsrooms--threatening
independent national security reporting at a time when the United States
is involved in two wars--think tanks like CNAS have moved to fill the
void in new and old media. And while tightfisted newspaper publishers
may be less than generous with book leave, think tanks like CNAS and ISW
offer a place to work on long-form journalism free of daily deadline
What enables journalists to make the leap to an institution like CNAS is
its carefully cultivated image of bipartisanship. Its board of directors
includes prominent Democrats and Republicans, which makes it easier to
get past the standards editors. "I could go there without being
branded," Jaffe told me. "It would have been a tougher sell to my bosses
to go to AEI or the Center for American Progress."
Schmitt made a similar argument. "We've tried to keep our reporting
middle-of-the-road, for our careers, and I think we were looking for an
institution that would reflect that," he told me.
At first glance, it's an ideal arrangement. Jaffe and Cloud's book, for
instance, was a fairly measured portrait of top leaders like Gen. David
Petraeus, and, more important, CNAS doesn't dictate the journalists'
views. "CNAS had zero control or influence over the book's content,"
Jaffe wrote me in an e-mail. "We got a small travel stipend ($5,000
each) and office space, but that was it."
But Jaffe's argument begs the question of whether think tanks, even
centrist ones, truly offer the same independence that newspapers purport
to have. CNAS is an instructive case. Two former Clinton administration
officials, Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, founded CNAS in
2007 as a way for centrist Democrats to reclaim a place in the national
security debate ahead of the 2008 presidential race. It was an expert
triangulation: Flournoy, Campbell and their associates staked out a
hawkish (or, as they would term it, a "pragmatic and principled")
position on Iraq, opposing early deadlines for withdrawal. After Obama's
election, CNAS would emerge as a key feeder for the new administration's
national security team. No fewer than fourteen CNAS grads would land
slots in the Defense and State departments. Flournoy now occupies the
number-three post at the Pentagon, and Campbell is the head of the State
Department's Asia bureau.
How exactly did Flournoy and Campbell conjure up a think tank out of
thin air? In addition to support from foundations like the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation and the Ploughshares Foundation, CNAS received heavy backing
from the military industry. Its list of donors includes major weapons
manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon
and BAE Systems. It also receives contributions from private security
firms like Aegis Defence Services, as well as from KBR, the logistics
support contractor notorious for overbilling the Pentagon for its
services in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it generates income from research
contracts with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, as do others like
the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
CNAS has also emerged as an important conduit for military commanders to
reach key audiences and set the terms of the debate in Washington. When
Gen. Stanley McChrystal decided to launch a sweeping, top-down review of
Afghanistan strategy, he invited CNAS's Andrew Exum, who served in
Afghanistan and Iraq, to join his assessment team. Exum was not the only
think tanker who took part in McChrystal's surge of policy nerds. As
part of his review, McChrystal reached out to a small but influential
circle of national security wonks, including Fred Kagan (AEI), Kimberly
Kagan (ISW), Stephen Biddle (Council on Foreign Relations), Anthony
Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Jeremy
Shapiro (Brookings Institution). It was a calculated exercise in
bipartisanship, but it was also a smart PR move: upon returning from
their Pentagon-organized visit to Afghanistan, many of the participants
in the strategic assessment would serve as an advance guard for
McChrystal's upcoming request for a significant increase in troops and
On January 4 the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen.
Michael Flynn, issued a scathing report on the state of intelligence in
Afghanistan. "Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the US
intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall
strategy," the report said. "Having focused the overwhelming majority of
its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups,
the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental
questions about the environment in which US and allied forces operate
and the people they seek to persuade."
In other words, the military was clueless about Afghanistan's cultural
terrain, economic development and local power dynamics. It was a damning
assessment, but Flynn's critique caused a major stir in military circles
for another reason. Instead of distributing it as an internal
memorandum, Flynn published it through CNAS. Defense Secretary Robert
Gates, through his press secretary, said he thought Flynn's findings
were "spot on," but he also made it clear that he was uncomfortable with
a serving general officer issuing his directives through a Beltway think
But by publishing through a think tank, Flynn was able to reach an
influential constituency: the foreign-policy pundits, armchair
strategists and op-ed writers who could help sell the Afghanistan surge
strategy to the public. The general would also reach top policy-makers
outside his direct chain of command.
The perception of neutrality serves think tanks like CNAS well in other
respects. In a December 21 opinion piece for CBS News, CNAS president
and counterinsurgency advocate John Nagl and senior fellow Richard
Fontaine wrote about the unprecedented role contractors play on the
battlefield. While the authors pointed to some of the obvious problems
of outsourcing defense, they reached a stunning conclusion. "When our
nation goes to war, contractors go with it," they wrote. "We must get on
with the task of adapting to this reality."
That opinion piece--which followed the release of a CNAS report on
wartime contracting--put the think tank's stamp of approval on
government outsourcing. CNAS says that corporate and individual donors
don't fund individual projects, but CBS failed to mention that companies
like KBR were contributing to CNAS's general fund. In an e-mail, CNAS
CEO Nathaniel Fick confirmed that KBR had donated $200,000 (as of press
time, KBR was not mentioned on its list of donors), and that the center
is currently soliciting support from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman,
DynCorp and Fluor, all companies that are in the business of
"expeditionary support" contracting.
"The people we talk to, our corporate funders, are involved in that
business," Nagl told me in a recent interview. "We talk to them about
the fact that we're doing that project. We talk to them about their
perspectives on it--but they don't directly fund that work."
CNAS may be nonpartisan, but for contractors, the message was clear. A
December 18 blog post on the pro-contractor website Feraljundi.com
praised the report, noting that contractor use has actually gone up on
Obama's watch. "Yee haw. Finally there is a recognition of that fact
over at CNAS, and this paper is proof of that."
This is how the Beltway consensus is built: not through some crude
pay-for-play but through the subtle reinforcement of conventional
wisdom. If the experience of Iraq taught us anything, though, it's that
reporters need to maintain an adversarial relationship with the people
who are helping to craft policy.
© 2023 The Nation
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