Bull Feather Merchants

The Pentagon’s Ministry of Truth is harder to kill off than the villain in a summertime horror flick series.

It was during the Navy’s postpartum review of Desert Storm that I first heard "we’re losing the public affairs wars," meaning that we (the Navy) hadn’t gotten enough credit for our carrier and cruise-missile contributions to the air war because the Air Force had a better public affairs program than we did. Thus was born the Navy’s chief of information (CHINFO) program, and things went downhill from there. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier that participated in the Kosovo War (March 24 to June 10, 1999) launched a lot of sorties during the conflict, but not as many sorties as the number of reporters it entertained while conducting combat operations. Key watch officers were actually pulled off duty in the middle of a war to act as tour guides for reporters.

Ever since then, the military has put more strategic thought into selling its wars than it has into winning them.

Publicity Hounds

Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) had a short life. The OSI was established shortly after 9/11 as a propaganda tool to drum up support for the so-called "war on terrorism." Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden, head of the OSI, envisioned “a broad mission ranging from ‘black’ campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to ‘white’ public affairs that rely on truthful news releases.”

News of the proposed scope of the propaganda directorate drew a dreck storm of protest from the mainstream media. United Press International wrote, "If you liked the lie about the murder of Kuwaiti babies after Iraq’s invasion of the oil-rich emirate in 1990, you’ll love the OSI."

Rumsfeld, uncharacteristically, bowed to pressure and shut the program down: Sort of. "If you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse," he told a press gaggle in November 2002. "There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.”

And he did.

Pavlov’s Dogs of War

The demise of OSI gave rise to a rat’s nest of sub-ministries. The embedded reporter program utilized during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom vastly skewed the war coverage to reflect the military’s desired message. Put through an abbreviated form of basic training, the journalists developed something akin to Stockholm syndrome; they identified so closely with their subjects that they lost their objectivity. Some media-savvy senior officers seduced press corps veterans through exclusive access and personal charm, a prime example being the way "Teflon General" David Petraeus seduced once-credible Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks into becoming his chief hagiographer. Ricks’ Petraeus connection got him a job as a tank-thinker with Center for a New American Security, and now all his clueless buddies in big media treat him like he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to national defense. In a February 2009 MSNBC interview, Hardball‘s Chris Matthew pitched Ricks an inning’s worth of softballs and concluded by telling Ricks, "You’re going to help us learn." Yikes.

The "spontaneous" toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by Iraqi civilians after the fall of Baghdad was in reality staged by a U.S. military psychological operations (PSYOPS) team. The military also got liar-for-hire civilian firms to spread covert propaganda in the Middle East, the most notable of which was the Lincoln Group. The civil-military propaganda connection is a particularly virulent aspect of the military-industrial complex.

Reservists who specialize in information warfare when in uniform often work for Pentagon-connected firms like Lincoln and the Rendon Group. Rendon assisted the U.S. military in interventions in Columbia, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere. Rendon also organized the Iraqi National Congress, the propaganda front group formed to encourage Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. The firm has also helped the military screen reporters requesting embed billets to determine whether their prior coverage had cast the military in a positive light.

In April 2008, David Barstow of the New York Times blew the lid off the retired military analysts (RMA) program, the subterfuge in which retired military officers serving as military analysts in the media were fed pro-war talking points by the Pentagon. The analysts were kept in line by threat of loss of access if they didn’t play ball. Most of the analysts had financial ties to military contractors who had vested interests in the policies the retired officers were praising on the air. Former Army colonel (and military analyst) Ken Allard called the RMA program "PSYOPS on steroids."

They’re Backā€¦

The Pentagon’s unrestricted information warfare on the American public didn’t come to a halt with Donald Rumsfeld’s discommodious departure from his cabinet seat. Adm. Mike Mullen, the son of a Hollywood publicity agent, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Mullen and the rest of the top civilian and uniformed Pentagon brass made public statements that clearly indicated they were not interested in having Barack Obama as their commander in chief. Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates, and Gen. Ray Odierno made no bones about their shock and awe at Obama’s pledge to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq 16 months after he took office. In his glossy propaganda rag, Joint Force Quarterly, Mullen wrote that troops asked him on a daily basis, "‘What if a Democrat wins? What will that do to the mission in Iraq?’" (italics Mullen’s). The article’s title, ironically enough, was "From the Chairman: Military Must Stay Apolitical." Also ironic is that since the election, the article has been removed from the JFQ Web site.

Petraeus, then commander in Iraq, staged an outdoor market shopping spree in Baghdad for Sen. John McCain, the Pentagon’s favored candidate, and a delegation of McCain’s loyal congressional followers. The goal of the campaign stunt was to prove the success of the troop surge in Iraq, a strategy that candidate McCain had endorsed. Initial media coverage parroted Rep. Mike Pence’s remark that Baghdad’s Shorja market was "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana." McCain crowed, "Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today."

Days later, word got out that Petraeus had put over 100 of his troops at risk to provide the security that made the Shorja market seem like such a jolly old lark. Mortified at once again being outed as a political humbug, Straight Talk said the escort was Petraeus’ idea, but "I’ll be glad to go back to that market with or without military protection." He never did, though.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.