A couple of years ago I was in London on business and received a phone call from the Pentagon. On the line was a woman from the PR branch of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She had been trying to reach me for a couple of days. In those days I was doing a lot of television interviews. I have since stopped doing that.
She told me that a group of retired military people who were often interviewed in the media were briefed on a frequent basis in the Pentagon by seniors in order to make sure that these media figures were well informed. "Would you be interested in being included in this group?" was the question. It had been evident to me for a a couple of years that a number of my interlocutors on TV and radio panels had "inside" information that could only come from the Defense Department. I told her that I would be happy to be included in these briefings.
Over several months (this was in ’04) I attended meetings in the Pentagon and participated in conference calls with very senior officials (both military and civilian). The Pentagon meetings were well attended by a variety of retired generals, colonels, Navy captains and a few retired NCOs, all of whom were familiar faces from TV news. Most of them were cable people, and there was a disproportionate representation from Fox News as well as people who were both TV commentators and think tankers, mostly from AEI and Heritage. There were several retired four star generals present whom I had never seen on the tube, but who may have been off camera consultants.
The Defense staff always made their case for the correctness of the policies followed by the administration and handed out "talking points" as suggestions. The retired officers listened politely with clear skepticism on the part of quite a few. There was always an opportunity for Q&A and a lot of the questions were both polite and very pointed. Some of the questions were not well answered. This was the period of the emerging Abu Ghraib mess, and many of the officers attending were bitter and unhappy over what had been happening in that matter. In some instances, there simply were no good answers available. One retired colonel asked how Rumsfeld thought a future prolonged campaign could be sustained with the reduced logistics structure that he appeared to be inflicting on the army. His response was that he did not know if his reforms would work under those conditions but that "these people" (pointing to the active duty generals present) had assured him that it would. They looked uncomfortable.
My impression was that the media consultant officers at these events wanted and needed the access provided in order to be secure in their retirement employment. The media companies obviously valued that. After all, most of them are commercial enterprises and cannot afford to have their rival companies granted such access if they are not. This creates a certain pressure on the retired military people involved to stay "on the reservation." The program occasionally took the group to Iraq for on the scene briefings. So, if you hear that so and so has recently been to Iraq, you probably know how. I would have liked to make such a trip but the PR people stopped inviting me after a few months and before a trip. They never gave me a reason and I am still puzzled over the matter.
On the whole I think that the retired consultants try to strike a useful balance between their need for access and a desire to meet their professional responsibilities and duty as citizens.
This is the group being briefed in the Pentagon today.