Pentagon Pow Wow

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.

Pat Lang

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16 Responses to Pentagon Pow Wow

  1. zanzibar says:

    “Access journalism” and being part of the “elite” cocktail circuit has become central to the functioning of corporate media that independent, fact oriented reporting has become a rarity. It used to be that the media focused on fact checking and tried to understand the motivations of “senior administration officials” when they handed out juicy tidbits. Now under so called “balance” journalism the most outrageous viewpoints that are easily known to be factually incorrect are given the same importance as viewpoints backed by facts. Reporters and talk show hosts very seldom push back to inform the public when inaccuracy is spun as truth.
    That is why independent, citizen journalism and opinions using technologies like blogs are the tip of the spear with regards to change.
    As domestic information operations become more prevalent and sophisticated, the state becomes more and more powerful and individual liberties that are the essence of our constitution becomes more of an anachronism. I hope the checks and balances to unbridled executive power in our political system actually work and survive in this brave new world.

  2. McGee says:

    Hi Colonel,
    Nothing in particular to add here. But one can guess that you were “disinvited” for the same reasons that Dave Hackworth was never asked. Not really a “great puzzlement”…. Thanks for the great posts, as always.

  3. matt says:

    Greetings Col. Lang:
    A very insightful and intersting post. As a teacher of an Advanced Placement Politics class at the High School Level, I often use the Political Scientist Theodore Lowi’s notions of analyzing governmental power – in any of the three branches – from the perspective of both “constituency” with the american people at large, as well as the “organizational”(constitutional/statutory/etc.) sources of authority.
    This – to me – serves as a really interesting example of how, in our modern media age, even our Military is very conscious of its constituency (linkage) with the masses and the exclusive role that national news media plays in this process.
    A long way away from the “School House Rock” version of “I’m Just A Bill” indeed ….

  4. RJJ says:

    “I hope the checks and balances to unbridled executive power in our political system actually work and survive in this brave new world.”
    What ARE these checks and balances on a self-appointed Absolute (sic) Executive?

  5. fbg46 says:

    “They never gave me a reaason and I am still puzzled over the matter.”
    I’m not puzzled at all. One can only imagine the apoplexy your and Col’s Garndiner’s analyses on “The News Hour” during the run up and conduct of the invasion in ’03 caused among the suits in the Pentagon.
    Maybe I was just sensitive to it because I thought the invasion a cynical betrayal of both this country and Iraq, but I thought your and Col Gardiner’s skepticism came through loud and clear.
    My guess is the full force of Dear Leader’s Manichean world view — you’re either with us or with the terrorists — was applied to you and Col Gardiner, particularly inside the Five Sided Building, for your perceived apostasy.
    Who knows? Your and Col Gardiner’s names may have been bandied around with Gen. Zinni’s when the suits were calling him a “traitor” because he wasn’t going along with the program.

  6. W. Patrick Lang says:

    There have been a few references to me as a “traitor” and “leftist” sympathetic to the insurgents.
    I would like to check the service records of those who have made the comments. pl

  7. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Anything that associates me with Hack is appreciated. pl

  8. jonst says:

    I’m agree with FBG46. I remember watching one News Hour appearance of your PL, and say, at the end of it, “well, I wonder how long they are going to welcome him back?” That’s just the way it is.

  9. CJ says:

    Sad, I always watch the News Hour and have missed your appearances there. I agree with the rest – no great puzzlement!

  10. Chuck says:

    William Lind addressed the corrupting influence of this very issue in a recent post of his on Soldiers for the Truth:

  11. irene says:

    I learned so much while watching you on the NewsHour during the ramp up and invasion. Right, left or inside-out– I could never tell where you fell on the spectrum but felt you weren’t there to be pushing anyone’s line. I just thought you had a lot of knowledge and experience plus a clear eye. It’s why I listened.
    A very retroactive thanks.

  12. Happy Jack says:

    I have a feeling that one of this group is a flyboy named McInerney. He must have been asleep when they discussed logistics. He has a piece in the Weekly Standard about hitting Iran. Nary a word about blowback on Iraq’s wagon train through Indian country.
    P.S. – You forgot “Arabist”, although I’ve seen the term “gutless” floating around the web directed at the Generals.

  13. canuck says:

    “Bush’s administration is worse than Nixon’s, says Watergate aide
    By Julian Coman in Washington
    (Filed: 04/04/2004)
    John Dean, Richard Nixon’s legal counsel who was jailed for his part in the Watergate scandal, has accused the Bush administration of trumping even the Nixon regime in secrecy, deception and political cynicism.”
    Full article at the link …

  14. Eric says:

    Having read Gordon and Trainor’s Cobra II, the gentleman you describe is perhaps an “airhead”, one who believes in complete military salvation via air power.
    This is a seductive, but as yet unproven, religious belief system.
    Since you mention Indian Country and wagon trains, you might enjoy G&Ts relevant chapter “Everyone Loves A Parade”.
    When 3/7Cav drove north, into the Indian Nations, it encountered, not cheering crouds and rose petals, but an AK/RPG band. And, it was definitely not playing the Garry Owen.This musical offering was more than a little disconcerting, according to the squadron commander.
    All this, of course, was only, in General Franks’ quaint usage of the English language, the first “iteration”.
    Question is, are the children learning.
    Question best left to Dr. Erasmus, in all probability.

  15. lina says:

    “The Defense staff always made their case for the correctness of the policies followed by the administration and handed out ‘talking points’ as suggestions.’
    If they put as much time, energy and thought into strategy as they put into disseminating propaganda, perhaps we wouldn’t be in such sorry shape.
    Even Tom Friedman would rather have a nuclear Iran than another Rumsfeld led strategy.

  16. Curious says:

    One thing I find it amazing. Pentagon is obviously running full blast propaganda program inside the country. (creating misleading picture intentionally is propaganda in my book)
    I am sure a lot of “PR” officers are thinking, how clever they are, able to accomplish mission objective.. win the war, etc etc. via national media.
    But overall, this type of activity is feeding wrong information to the public (civilian decission maker) where those are keys to maintain long term stability of governance.
    concrete example. By lying “candy and flowers, cake walk”, the civilians representatives are not preparing for long term national budget stress. Which in turn, nobody calculate the long term affect of budget deficit, inflation, energy cost, etc etc.
    As we can see, the whole thing is out of balance now and just about every expert say it is unsustainable.
    But what does the pentagon know/care about national long term budget, state social services, and core CPI? They don’t. Those parameters are extrnalities and not their problem.
    Lying to the people has direct effect to the health of a nation in a democratic system.
    It’s a bit like clever fool mechanics who changes the carburator ratio, thinking, now the car can go really fast. But fail to calculate the stress load on steering system and the car just breaks down faster than it normally would.

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