Information Control Isn't Always a Matter of Law

Charles Davis
April 21, 2008 — 1,160 views  
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The New York Times takes a masterful look at the information control strategies of the Pentagon. This story is the fruit of a successful FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Defense. Pay particular attention to some of the bone-chilling quotes...

"It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,' " Robert S. Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News analyst, said.

And I really enjoyed this anecdote:

Though many analysts are paid network consultants, making $500 to $1,000 per appearance, in Pentagon meetings they sometimes spoke as if they were operating behind enemy lines, interviews and transcripts show. 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." Some warned of planned stories or sent the Pentagon copies of their correspondence with network news executives. Many - although certainly not all - faithfully echoed talking points intended to counter critics.

"Good work," Thomas G. McInerney, a retired Air Force general, consultant and Fox News analyst, wrote to the Pentagon after receiving fresh talking points in late 2006. "We will use it."

And fresh from an Iraq "fact-finding" tour, the brass was relentlessly upbeat:

Back in Washington, Pentagon officials kept a nervous eye on how the trip translated on the airwaves. Uncomfortable facts had bubbled up during the trip. One briefer, for example, mentioned that the Army was resorting to packing inadequately armored Humvees with sandbags and Kevlar blankets. Descriptions of the Iraqi security forces were withering. "They can't shoot, but then again, they don't," one officer told them, according to one participant's notes.

"I saw immediately in 2003 that things were going south," General Vallely, one of the Fox analysts on the trip, recalled in an interview with The Times.

The Pentagon, though, need not have worried.

"You can't believe the progress," General Vallely told Alan Colmes of Fox News upon his return. He predicted the insurgency would be "down to a few numbers" within months.

"We could not be more excited, more pleased," Mr. Cowan told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. There was barely a word about armor shortages or corrupt Iraqi security forces. And on the key strategic question of the moment - whether to send more troops - the analysts were unanimous.

"I am so much against adding more troops," General Shepperd said on CNN.

Charles Davis

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Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.