My Career as a "Defense Department Apologist"
By: Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 06, 2008
Oops! It appears I may be subject to a Congressional investigation. Not just me, of course, but several other retired military and Federal employees who were part of an informal group known as Pentagon Analysts. Investigating how our group may have had conflicts of interest with defense industry contractors or how we may have willingly spread Pentagon-generated talking points is now a concern of several Congressmen.
The idea of the analysts program was to bring together people who understood operations, tactics, and strategy – former military or intelligence officers – and who were already working in some capacity with media outlets, public platforms, or as freelance writers. This group would then be offered the opportunity to participate in conference calls with military and civilian officials who were engaged in newsworthy activities. Some of the calls involved conversations with general officers like David Petraeus and Raymond Ordierno, officials who headed programs to deal with IEDs and improved body armor, tactical leaders who were involved with everyday fighting, and policy-making officials.
The calls were usually on the record, infrequently for background only, and were free-wheeling. Briefers typically gave a short statement then opened the call for questions that were not restricted or controlled. Occasionally a questioner would trip into the area of classified information and was so informed. For the most part the briefers were as open and frank as possible.
The purpose of the access was not to control news or spread a particular policy point, but to permit specialists such as the Pentagon Analysts – who understood military operations and spoke the same language as the briefers – to be able to hear facts from the source and thereby effectively transmit their findings to their respective audiences.
In so doing, this writer, for example, was able to learn things that might have never been picked up or reported by other media and provide that information to a largely civilian audience in non-technical language. Briefings through this program included question and answer opportunities with, for example, a colonel whose unit had just fought a major battle in Iraq; a general who ran detention facilities in Camp Bucha, Iraq; an officer who headed a counter-IED team; and a physician who was working with brain-injured casualties at a major U.S. military hospital. From these interviews I was able to prepare articles for publication and address audiences in person or on TV or radio.
It is critical to understanding the analysts program to realize that at no time was my material pre-screened. Nor were we ever told that our output must be presented with any kind of spin or emphasis. From time to time we were provided fact sheets, press releases, and transcripts of Congressional or other testimony for reference use. These were open source materials available to the general public (including interested media) right off the Department of Defense website.
Then one day I received a cold phone call from New York Times reporter David Barstow at my St. Augustine, Florida, home. He asked me about the analysts program. While I would have been justified in either refusing to speak with him or requesting that he submit a list of questions prior to discussing the program, I voluntarily chose to give him 90 minutes of time in order to make certain that he came away from the interview with as clear an understanding of the program as I could convey.
For the record, I declined to provide him contact information on other participants, or to confirm their names as I thought (and still do) that this is private information. I was not in charge of administering the program and therefore felt it would be inappropriate for him to gather information about other people from me. I strongly suggested that he interview DoD officials associated with the program so that he could hear from them too. I do not know if he did. He never did disclose how he obtained my name.
While Barstow asked information type questions he also asked probing, leading questions that seemed to be designed to show that I (and, by implication, other analysts) was parroting a Defense line on topics with the goal of misleading or lying to the public, or that we were accepting special favors. I made clear that this was not the case and that I held myself to the same objective standards that I assumed he did as a media professional. In addition, I explained that any curiosity he might have about what I wrote would be easily satisfied with a Google search, for most of my published material is available online. “Read my stuff,” I urged, “and you’ll find many passages critical of the administration or of some of the policies and decisions that were made involving Iraq.”
I also denied fronting for defense industry contractors or receiving special treatment from DoD. While the Department did on rare occasions provide visits or trips – my first exposure to Guantanamo, for example, was on one of these excursions – DoD did not do so on a regular basis. Barstow was disappointed to learn that the four follow-on trips I made to Guantanamo to conduct research on my book about the detention facility were done at my own expense. “On your own nickel?” he repeated when I told him that I had privately financed the visits and had gone through exactly the same processes and clearances that he or any other media person would need to use to visit the facility.
While not disclosing names, I mentioned repeatedly that although many of the analysts shared a military background, our political viewpoints were often worlds apart. “Some are employed by or consult to outlets such as CNN and MSNBC,” I told him, “clearly not bastions of right-wing, pro-administration thought.” I attempted to make the point that we were not clones but were thoughtful individuals with independent viewpoints – and who happened to have years of military field experience or other professional backgrounds relevant to reporting on the subjects covered during briefings. We listened, questioned, analyzed, and reported, and were committed to telling the truth. Much the same, I suggested, as he was.
Nevertheless, Barstow continued with his investigation and in my view unfortunately slanted his final piece to imply – if not categorically state – that the program was a media-control effort on the part of the Pentagon and that some if not all of the analysts were in bed with contractors.
Equally unfortunate, in my opinion, was the Pentagon’s reaction to the NY Times article: it abruptly cancelled the analysts program, thereby implying that there was indeed something untoward about it.
Now in an already too-long, overheated election period it seems as if this will be another tangential issue that will be tossed out on the table. Personally, while I consider it a tempest in a teapot, I welcome any opportunities – including Congressional testimony – that will allow participants to clear the air and present the truth to the public about the program.
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