The corruption of Gen. McCaffrey — and NBC

To me, the most reprehensible aspect of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s behavior, documented in a massive front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, wasn’t that he used his military connections on behalf of his military-contractor clients, and then didn’t disclose those connections during his paid appearances on NBC News.

That’s bad enough. But what was truly the most corrupt about McCaffrey’s behavior is that he deprived NBC’s viewers of his honest opinion at a time when it might have mattered. Worst of all: NBC executives knew it and did nothing.

The story, by David Barstow, is a follow-up to a long piece he wrote last April about conflicts of interest among paid television commentators with military background. At the time, I called it “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” Unfortunately, it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

McCaffrey, a four-star general, may be the worst — or at least the most prominent — of them all, sucking up to the military in order to serve his clients among military contractors, and going on NBC News to offer his expert opinion. Most telling is what happened when he momentarily deviated from the official line, early in the war:

Only when the invasion met unexpected resistance did General McCaffrey give a glimpse of his misgivings. “We’ve placed ourselves in a risky proposition, 400 miles into Iraq with no flank or rear area security,” he told Katie Couric on “Today.”

Mr. Rumsfeld struck back. He abruptly cut off General McCaffrey’s access to the Pentagon’s special briefings and conference calls.

General McCaffrey was stunned. “I’ve never heard his voice like that,” recalled one close associate who asked not to be identified. He added, “They showed him what life was like on the outside.”

Robert Weiner, a longtime publicist for General McCaffrey, said the general came to see that if he continued his criticism, he risked being shut out not only by Mr. Rumsfeld but also by his network of friends and contacts among the uniformed leadership.

“There is a time when you have to punt,” said Mr. Weiner, emphasizing that he spoke as General McCaffrey’s friend, not as his spokesman.

Within days General McCaffrey began to backpedal, professing his “great respect” for Mr. Rumsfeld to Tim Russert. “Is this man O.K.?” the Fox News anchor Brit Hume asked, taking note of the about-face.

For months to come, as an insurgency took root, General McCaffrey defended the Bush administration. “I am 100 percent behind what the administration, what the president of the United States, is doing in Iraq,” he told [Brian] Williams that June.

There should be firings at NBC News for the failure to disclose McCaffrey’s work for military contractors. Then again, as Beth Wellington reminds us at NewsTrust, NBC’s corporate owner, General Electric Co., is itself a major military contractor, and thus had its own conflict of interest with which to contend (or not).

The FCC is investigating, although it’s hard to imagine that it will dig as deeply as it ought to.

“On the Media” recently rebroadcast an interview it conducted last spring with one of television’s compromised analysts, Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, formerly of Fox News.


Fighting at the end of the world

You must read C.J. Chivers and Tyler Hicks’ account in the New York Times of U.S. soldiers defending a remote, dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. It is horrifying and heartbreaking, and you can’t help but be filled with admiration for the soldiers’ courage.

According to the Times, more soldiers will soon be arriving — a trend that may accelerate given President-elect Obama’s goal of shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

First as tragedy … then as more tragedy

I’m reading Fred Kaplan by way of Josh Marshall on the Bush administration’s encouraging Georgia to stick its finger in Russia’s eye in recent years, only to find itself powerless to help now that Vladimir Putin has decided he’s had enough. (Not that that’s stopped the bellicose rhetoric emanating from the White House and the McCain campaign.)

It reminds me of President Bush’s father, who encouraged the Shiites in the southern part of Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to stand by as they were slaughtered.

What’s happening now is a tragedy, but at least Russia isn’t Iraq. And Putin isn’t Saddam. This isn’t our fight, and it’s a shame we led the Georgians to think we would do more than we could. It’s a mistake we’ve made over and over again. (Hungary in 1956, anyone?)

As always, the first casualty

In my latest for the Guardian, I consider the plight of Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer who’s been banned from covering U.S. Marines in Iraq because his images are too graphic. And I argue that the Bush administration’s ongoing censorship of the war’s photographic record is giving John McCain an unfair advantage.

Brian Williams protects his friends

That’s not an accusation. NBC News anchor Brian Williams actually comes right out and says it in response to complaints that he’s been silent about a recent New York Times article regarding retired generals and other military officers who analyze the war in Iraq for NBC and other news organizations.

To recap briefly — these officers are working as well-compensated executives for military contractors, which are, in turn, highly dependent on the good graces of the White House and the Defense Department. And Bush administration officials have not been not shy about telling the officers what to say.

Here’s a chunk of what Williams writes on his blog:

I read the article with great interest. I’ve worked with two men since I’ve had this job — both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals — Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I’m sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.

The “picking on the dead” motif is a nice touch, don’t you think? Anyway, Williams goes on to say that he’s seen no need to comment on the Times article because, in his view, the officers were “tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.”

And you know what? Perhaps they were, at least sometimes. But the thing about conflicts of interest is that viewers have a right to know what associations commentators have regardless of what comes tumbling out of their mouths. What Williams seems to be saying is that there was no need for such disclosure in these two cases because, in his personal opinion, neither man was susceptible to being spun. Is that the standard at NBC News?

In Salon, Glenn Greenwald notes that both Downing and McCaffrey were founding members of something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, headed by a slew of pro-war neocons such as Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle. According to Greenwald, this fact was never disclosed in Downing’s and McCaffrey’s numerous appearances on NBC. Here is a choice tidbit from the committee’s stated purpose:

The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq will engage in educational and advocacy efforts to mobilize domestic and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.

You can call this idealism. But it makes laughable Williams’ assertion that his “friends” were independent. To make matters worse, Greenwald also documents the two officers’ ties to the military industry, making it clear that they could have lost a lot of money both for themselves and their employers if they had gone too far in their “tough, honest” analysis.

Recently I called the Times’ revelations “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” I was wrong. The larger scandal is that folks like Brian Williams, whom I’ve always considered to be a straight shooter, have been allowed to sweep this story under the rug.

Thanks to Media Nation reader M.T.S. for calling my attention to Greenwald’s piece.

Williams photo by David Shankbone, and republished here under a GNU Free Documentation License.

The military-industrial complex

Retired generals and other high-ranking military officers get hired as defense contractors. Television networks pay them to offer analysis on the war in Iraq, both during the run-up and in the long aftermath. The Pentagon, which holds the power of life or death over said contractors, tells the generals what to say. And they do, despite secretly harboring doubts about the truth of what they’re being told about the success of the war. Eisenhower was more right than he ever knew.

This, folks, is as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime. At least Judith Miller believed the lies Ahmed Chalabi was telling her about weapons and terrorism. At least Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher were harming nothing but their own reputations when they took money to promote administration policy in their columns or, as Gallagher has tried to argue, on the side.

The New York Times’ David Barstow lays it all out today in horrifying detail. Nor was the Times itself immune, having run nine op-ed pieces by these bought-and-paid-for opinion-mongers.

Take a look at this excerpt about Robert Bevelacqua, a retired Green Berets and former analyst for Fox News:

Mr. Bevelacqua, then a Fox analyst, was among those invited to a briefing in early 2003 about Iraq’s purported stockpiles of illicit weapons. He recalled asking the briefer whether the United States had “smoking gun” proof.

” ‘We don’t have any hard evidence,’ ” Mr. Bevelacqua recalled the briefer replying. He said he and other analysts were alarmed by this concession. “We are looking at ourselves saying, ‘What are we doing?’ “

Another analyst, Robert L. Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works in the Pentagon for a military contractor, attended the same briefing and recalled feeling “very disappointed” after being shown satellite photographs purporting to show bunkers associated with a hidden weapons program. Mr. Maginnis said he concluded that the analysts were being “manipulated” to convey a false sense of certainty about the evidence of the weapons. Yet he and Mr. Bevelacqua and the other analysts who attended the briefing did not share any misgivings with the American public.

Mr. Bevelacqua and another Fox analyst, Mr. [William] Cowan [another Fox analyst and a retired Marine colonel], had formed the wvc3 Group, and hoped to win military and national security contracts.

“There’s no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart,” Mr. Bevelacqua said. “You’re talking about fighting a huge machine.”

What can you possibly say about the moral sensibility that informs Bevelacqua’s remarks?

The first major media figure who’ll be popping up today is Tim Russert, who’s pictured in the Times piece (above) surrounded by retired military officers on the set of “Meet the Press.” He ought to open by apologizing and promising a thorough investigation of NBC News’ use of this corrupt punditry. Next week’s show should be devoted to an hour-long self-examination. And every other network should do the same.

What’s so repellant about this is that it robs us of our ability to govern ourselves. Longtime Media Nation readers know that I’ve always been conflicted about the war — against it ahead of time, but, once we were in, hoping for a decent outcome.

I still haven’t abandoned that hope. But this morning I find myself wondering how much of that hope is based on paid-for lies that I mistook for honest analysis.

Cheap laugh, false charge

On tonight’s Fox News debate, Fred Thompson just said the reason you can tell the war in Iraq is going well is that you read so little about it in the New York Times.

Here you go, Senator. And if you can find another news organization doing this much coverage, let me know.