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Pentagon Conduits

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As we now know, thanks to the New York Times, the military-industrial complex is well represented in the daily television news coverage of the Iraq and Afghan occupations. Those former generals who seemed generously to have come out of retirement to provide disinterested analysis of the Bush administration’s military adventures are neither generous nor disinterested.

Instead, they are self-conscious, self-seeking conduits for the Pentagon’s talking points, and well connected to military contractors trying to make money off war. We viewers were not told this by the news organizations that proclaim their objectivity and independence. In fact, the organizations themselves apparently did not know about the connections — or preferred not to know. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” has more than one military application.

The Times says that “several dozen … [television] military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.”

Where did they get their inside information? From briefings with some of the most senior officials of the Bush administration. And why did those officials provide the briefings? Because they wanted the retired generals to pass along the official administration spin to the television audience.

And what would guarantee that the talking points would be faithfully delivered? The threat of loss of access to the officials. That’s a pretty darn good guarantee. A retired general representing or wishing to represent a military contractor has no better credential than access to insider briefings about current operations. To lose that access is to lose one’s livelihood.

Thus the Pentagon’s plan worked. Disguised as objective analysts, the Defense Department’s mouthpieces faithfully delivered the administration’s propaganda. As the Times put it, “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.” While most of the American people came to oppose the Iraq invasion and occupation anyway, we can’t say the Bush administration didn’t try to sell its military policy. It was willing to mislead its own mouthpieces when the real news was bad.

This is not the first time the administration’s corruption of the news has been revealed. In fact, this very story was hinted at in the Times five years ago. No one paid much attention. Even the Times ran op-eds by some of the retired generals. The latest story has gotten little notice outside the blogosphere. The television networks certainly have no interest in covering it.

One might think that the major news organizations would be ashamed of themselves, but we’re long past that point. They have been boosters of war for many years. They, along with the major newspapers, were little more than cheerleaders during the administration’s run-up to the Iraq invasion. The Times was one of the biggest offenders. Who needs state-controlled media when you have a lapdog press?

And what about this administration, which has shown so little respect for the truth, the law, and the American people? Its official spokesmen could have openly presented the propaganda any time. The networks would have been delighted to accommodate them. Instead, it chose undercover agents, taking advantage of the good will most people have for former military officers. If President Bush thinks that people wouldn’t have believed the official spokesmen, we can only hope he is right.

The analyst scandal shouldn’t surprise anyone. The American people were deceived into supporting the Iraq invasion, from claims about WMD to hints that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. So why wouldn’t the administration continue the deception by disguising its propagandists as objective analysts?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.