Pentagon used psychological operation on US public, documents show

Figure in Bush propaganda operation remains Pentagon spokesman

In Part I of this series, Raw Story revealed that Bryan Whitman, the current deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations, was an active senior participant in a Bush administration covert Pentagon program that used retired military analysts to generate positive wartime news coverage.

A months-long review of documents and interviews with Pentagon personnel has revealed that the Bush Administration’s military analyst program — aimed at selling the Iraq War to the American people — operated through a secretive collaboration between the Department of Defense‘s press and community relations offices.

Raw Story has also uncovered evidence that directly ties the activities undertaken in the military analyst program to an official US military document’s definition of psychological operationspropaganda that is only supposed to be directed toward foreign audiences.

The investigation of Pentagon documents and interviews with Defense Department officials and experts in public relations found that the decision to fold the military analyst program into community relations and portray it as “outreach” served to obscure the intent of the project as well as that office’s partnership with the press office. It also helped shield its senior supervisor, Bryan Whitman, assistant secretary of defense for media operations, whose role was unknown when the original story of the analyst program broke.

In a nearly hour-long phone interview, Whitman asserted that since the program was not run from his office, he was neither involved nor culpable. Exposure of the collaboration between the Pentagon press and community relations offices on this program, however, as well as an effort to characterize it as a mere community outreach project, belie Whitman’s claim that he bears no responsibility for the program’s activities.

These new revelations come in addition to the evidence of Whitman’s active and extensive participation in the program, as Raw Story documented in part one of this series. Whitman remains a spokesman for the Pentagon today.

Whitman said he stood by an earlier statement in which he averred “the intent and purpose of the [program] is nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American public.”

In the interview, Whitman sought to portray his role as peripheral, noting that his position naturally demands he speak on a number of subjects in which he isn’t necessarily directly involved.

The record, however, suggests otherwise.

In a January 2005 memorandum to active members of both offices from then-Pentagon press office director, Navy Captain Roxie Merritt, who now leads the community relations office, emphasized the necessary “synergy of outreach shop and media ops working together” on the military analyst program. [p. 18-19]

Merritt recommended that both the press and community relations offices develop a “hot list” of analysts who could dependably “carry our water” and provide them with ultra-exclusive access that would compel the networks to “weed out the less reliably friendly analysts” on their own.

“Media ops and outreach can work on a plan to maximize use of the analysts and figure out a system by which we keep our most reliably friendly analysts plugged in on everything from crisis response to future plans,” Merritt remarked. “As evidenced by this analyst trip to Iraq, the synergy of outreach shop and media ops working together on these types of projects is enormous and effective. Will continue to examine ways to improve processes.”

In response, Lawrence Di Rita, then Pentagon public affairs chief, agreed. He told Merritt and both offices in an email, “I guess I thought we already were doing a lot of this.”

Several names on the memo are redacted. Those who are visible read like a who’s who of the Pentagon press and community relations offices: Whitman, Merritt, her deputy press office director Gary Keck (both of whom reported directly to Whitman) and two Bush political appointees, Dallas Lawrence and Allison Barber, then respectively director and head of community relations.

Merritt became director of the office, and its de facto chief until the appointment of a new deputy assistant secretary of defense, after the departures of Barber and Lawrence, the ostensible leaders of the military analyst program. She remains at the Defense Department today.

When reached through email, Merritt attempted to explain the function of her office’s outreach program and what distinguishes it from press office activities.

“Essentially,” Merritt summarized, “we provide another avenue of communications for citizens and organizations wanting to communicate directly with DoD.”

Asked to clarify, she said that outreach’s purpose is to educate the public in a one-to-one manner about the Defense Department and military’s structure, history and operations. She also noted her office “does not handle [the] news media unless they have a specific question about one of our programs.”

Merritt eventually admitted that it is not a function of the outreach program to provide either information or talking points to individuals or a group of individuals — such as the retired military analysts — with the intention that those recipients use them to directly engage with traditional news media and influence news coverage.

Asked directly if her office provides talking points for this purpose, she replied, “No. The talking points are developed for use by DoD personnel.”

Experts in public relations and propaganda say Raw Story’s findings reveal the program itself was “unwise” and “inherently deceptive.” One expressed surprise that one of the program’s senior figures was still speaking for the Pentagon.

“Running the military analyst program from a community relations office is both surprising and unwise,” said Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and an expert on propaganda. “It is surprising because this is not what that office should be doing [and] unwise because the element of subterfuge is always a lightening rod for public criticism.”

Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, which monitors publics relations and media manipulation, said calling the program “outreach” was “very calculatedly misleading” and another example of how the project was “inherently deceptive.”

“This has been their talking point in general on the Pentagon pundit program,” Farsetta explained. “You know, ‘We’re all just making sure that we’re sharing information.’”

Farsetta also said that it’s “pretty stunning” that no one, including Whitman, has been willing to take any responsibility for the program and that the Pentagon Inspector General’s office and Congress have yet to hold anyone accountable.

“It’s hard to think of a more blatant example of propaganda than this program,” Farsetta said.

Cull said the revelations are “just one more indication that the entire apparatus of the US government’s strategic communications — civilian and military, at home and abroad — is in dire need of review and repair.”

A PSYOPS Program Directed at American Public

When the military analyst program was first revealed by The New York Times in 2008, retired US Army Col. Ken Allard described it as “PSYOPS on steroids.”

It turns out this was far from a casual reference. Raw Story has discovered new evidence that directly exposes this stealth media project and the activities of its participants as matching the US government’s own definition of psychological operations, or PSYOPS.

The US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command fact sheet, which states that PSYOPS should be directed “to foreign audiences” only, includes the following description:

“Used during peacetime, contingencies and declared war, these activities are not forms of force, but are force multipliers that use nonviolent means in often violent environments.”

Pentagon public affairs officials referred to the military analysts as “message force multipliers” in documented communications.

A prime example is a May 2006 memorandum from then community relations chief Allison Barber in which she proposes sending the military analysts on another trip to Iraq:

“Based on past trips, I would suggest limiting the group to 10 analysts, those with the greatest ability to serve as message force multipliers.”

Nicholas Cull, who also directs the public diplomacy master’s program at USC and has written extensively on propaganda and media history, found the Pentagon public affairs officials’ use of such terms both incriminating and reckless.

“[Their] use of psyop terminology is an ‘own goal,’” Cull explained in an email, “as it speaks directly to the American public’s underlying fear of being brainwashed by its own government.”

This new evidence provides further perspective on an incident cited by the Times.

Pentagon records show that the day after 14 marines died in Iraq on August 3, 2005, James T. Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, instructed military analysts during a briefing to work to prevent the incident from weakening public support for the war. Conway reminded the military analysts assembled, “The strategic target remains our population.” [p. 102]

Same Strategy, Different Program

Bryan Whitman was also involved in a different Pentagon public affairs project during the lead-up to the war in Iraq: embedding reporters.

The embed and military analyst programs shared the same underlying strategy of “information dominance,” the same objective of selling Bush administration war policies by generating favorable news coverage and were directed at the same target — the American public.

Victoria Clarke, the first Pentagon public affairs chief, is often credited for conceiving both programs. But Clarke and Whitman have openly acknowledged his deep involvement in the embed project.

Clarke declined to be interviewed for this article.

Whitman said he was “heavily involved in the process” of the embed program’s development, implementation and supervision.

Before embedding, reporters and media organizations were forced to sign a contract whose ground rules included allowing military officials to review articles for release, traveling with military personnel escorts at all times or remaining in designated areas, only conducting on-the-record interviews, and agreeing that the government may terminate the contract “at any time and for any reason.”

In May 2002, with planning for a possible invasion of Iraq already in progress, Clarke appointed Whitman to head all Pentagon media operations. Prior to that, he had served since 1995 in the Pentagon press office, both as deputy director for press operations and as a public affairs specialist.

The timing of Whitman’s appointment coincided with the development stages of the embed and military analyst programs. He was the ideal candidate for both projects.

Whitman had a military background, having served in combat as a Special Forces commander and as an Army public affairs officer with years of experience in messaging from the Pentagon. He also had experience in briefing and prepping civilian and military personnel.

Whitman’s background provided him with a facility and familiarity in navigating military and civilian channels. With these tools in hand, he was able to create dialogue between the two and expedite action in a sprawling and sometimes contentious bureaucracy.

Buried in an obscure April 2008 online New York Times Q&A with readers, reporter David Barstow disclosed:

“As Lawrence Di Rita, a former senior Pentagon official told me, they viewed [the military analyst program] as the ‘mirror image’ of the Pentagon program for embedding reporters with units in the field. In this case, the military analysts were in effect ‘embedded’ with the senior leadership through a steady mix of private briefings, trips and talking points.”

Di Rita denied the conversation had occurred in a telephone interview.

“I don’t doubt that’s what he heard, but that’s not what I said,” Di Rita asserted.

Whitman said he’d never heard Di Rita make any such comparison between the programs.

Barstow, however, said he stood behind the veracity of the quote and the conversation he attributed to Di Rita.

Di Rita, who succeeded Clarke, also declined to answer any questions related to Whitman’s involvement in the military analyst program, including whether he had been involved in its creation.

Clarke and Whitman have both discussed information dominance and its role in the embed program.

In her 2006 book Lipstick on a Pig, Clarke revealed that “most importantly, embedding was a military strategy in addition to a public affairs one” (p. 62) and that the program’s strategy was “simple: information dominance” (p. 187). To achieve it, she explained, there was a need to circumvent the traditional news media “filter” where journalists act as “intermediaries.”

The goal, just as with the military analyst program, was not to spin a story but to control the narrative altogether.

At the 2003 Military-Media conference in Chicago, Whitman told the audience, “We wanted to take the offensive to achieve information dominance” because “information was going to play a major role in combat operations.” [pdf link p. 2] One of the other program’s objectives, he said, was “to build and maintain support for U.S. policy.” [pdf link, p. 16 – quote sourced in 2005 recap of 2003 mil-media conference]

At the March 2004 “Media at War” conference at UC Berkeley, Lt. Col. Rick Long, former head of media relations for the US Marine Corps, offered a candid view of the Pentagon’s engagement in “information warfare” during the Bush administration.

“Our job is to win, quite frankly,” said Long. “The reason why we wanted to embed so many media was we wanted to dominate the information environment. We wanted to beat any kind of propaganda or disinformation at its own game.”

“Overall,” he told the audience, “we’re happy with the outcome.”

The Appearance of Transparency

On a national radio program just before the invasion of Iraq, Whitman claimed that embedded reporters would have a firsthand perspective of “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

But veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich told Raw Story that the embed program was “a stroke of genius by the Bush administration” because it gave the appearance of transparency while “in reality, they were manipulating the news.”

In a phone interview, Erlich, who is currently covering the war in Afghanistan as a “unilateral” (which allows reporters to move around more freely without the restrictions of embed guidelines), also pointed out the psychological and practical influence the program has on reporters.

“You’re traveling with a particular group of soldiers,” he explained. “Your life literally depends on them. And you see only the firefights or slog that they’re involved in. So you’re not going to get anything close to balanced reporting.”

At the August 2003 Military-Media conference in Chicago, Jonathan Landay, who covered the initial stages of the war for Knight Ridder Newspapers, said that being a unilateral “gave me the flexibility to do my job.” [pdf link p. 2]

He added, “Donald Rumsfeld told the American people that what happened in northern Iraq after [the invasion] was a little ‘untidiness.’ What I saw, and what I reported, was a tsunami of murder, looting, arson and ethnic cleansing.”

Paul Workman, a journalist with over thirty years at CBC News, including foreign correspondent reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote of the program in April 2003, “It is a brilliant, persuasive conspiracy to control the images and the messages coming out of the battlefield and they’ve succeeded colossally.”

Erlich said he thought most mainstream US reporters have been unwilling to candidly discuss the program because they “weren’t interested in losing their jobs by revealing what they really thought about the embed process.”

Now embedded with troops in Afghanistan for McClatchy, Landay told Raw Story it’s not that reporters shouldn’t be embedded with troops at all, but that it should be only one facet of every news outlet’s war coverage.

Embedding, he said, offers a “soda-straw view of events.” This isn’t necessarily negative “as long as a news outlet has a number of embeds and unilaterals whose pictures can be combined” with civilian perspectives available from international TV outlets such as Reuters TV, AP TV, and al Jazeera, he said.

Landay placed more blame on US network news outlets than on the embed program itself for failing to show a more balanced and accurate picture.

But when asked if the Pentagon and the designers of the embed program counted as part of their embedding strategy on the dismal track record of US network news outlets when it came to including international TV footage from civilian perspectives, he replied, “I will not second guess the Pentagon’s motives.”

Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. Additional research was provided by Ron Brynaert.

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