Congress Orders Investigation into Pentagon Pundit Scandal

By a voice vote, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment last week to the Defense Authorization Act for FY2009, forbidding the U.S. Department of Defense to engage in "propaganda purposes within the United States not otherwise specifically authorized by law." Probably more important is that the amendment requires an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study and report back to Congress on "the extent to which the Department of Defense has violated the prohibition on propaganda" already established in previous laws passed by Congress. The amendment was prompted by an April 20 report in the New York Times exposing the Pentagon military analyst program through which the Pentagon lobbied for war by cultivating former military officers who became regulars on Fox News, CNN and the broadcast networks. As Diane Farsetta and Sheldon Rampton have argued previously, the Pentagon pundit program broke existing laws which forbid government officials from engaging in "publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress."

As Josh Silver of Free Press pointed out, however, passage of the Hodes amendment has been ignored by U.S. television networks -- not surprisingly, since the Pentagon pundit story highlights the networks' own complicity in spreading government propaganda. "It is crucial to understand that with or without the Pentagon’s program, there will always be well-credentialed analysts pushing to get on the air who are eager to toe the administration’s line for fame, ideology or money," Silver writes, adding that "it is the television newsroom producers and 'bookers' - and the executives who hire them -- who decide who gets on TV and who doesn't. And the vast majority of them consistently turn to government officials, major politicians and party insiders. They seldom turn to dissenting voices, critical public interest advocates and fierce critics of government policy." Even Scott McClellan, the former press secretary to President Bush, is now criticizing the media for its willingness to accommodate White House propaganda. "If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq," he writes in his new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. He adds, "The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. … In this case, the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served." McClellan appears to be concerned in part for his own reputation, accusing other Bush officials of "deceiving me. ... the top White House officials who knew the truth — including Rove, Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney -- allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie." When the falsehoods finally became public knowledge during the Valerie Plame scandal, he writes, "I could feel something fall out of me into the abyss as each reporter took a turn whacking me. It was my reputation crumbling away, bit by bit." McClellan writes that he still admires Bush. "But he and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war. ... In this regard, he was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security.” This, of course, is what we have been saying ourselves since the publication of our 2003 book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq. The propaganda is what made the war in Iraq possible and what sustains the war even today, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of wasted dollars. Congress and the American people desperately need to investigate that propaganda and establish firm rules that prevent it from leading us into further disasters, as John Stauber advocated in a debate aired April 24th on the PBS NewsHour.