My latest for Raw Story (and a major reason for my scarcity in these parts) -- part one in a series of investigative articles:
A key senior figure in a Bush administration covert Pentagon program, which used retired military analysts to produce positive wartime news coverage, remains in the same position today as a chief Obama Defense Department spokesman and the agency’s head of all media operations.
In an examination of Pentagon documents the New York Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — which reporter David Barstow leveraged for his April 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the program – Raw Story has found that Bryan Whitman surfaces in over 500 emails and transcripts, revealing the deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations was both one of the program’s senior participants and an active member.
Whitman’s conspicuous presence in these records is notwithstanding thousands of documented communications the Bush Pentagon released but for which names were redacted and an untold number the prior administration successfully withheld after its two-year legal battle with the Times.
Barstow’s Times expose revealed a comprehensive, covert Pentagon campaign — beginning during the lead-up to the Iraq War and continuing through 2008 — that shaped network military analysts into what internal documents referred to as “message force multipliers” and “surrogates” who could be trusted to parrot Bush administration talking points “in the form of their own opinions.” Barstow’s reporting also detailed how most of the military analysts, traditionally viewed as authoritative and independent, had ties to defense contractors with a stake in the same war policies they were interpreting daily to the American public.
The program was ostensibly run out of the Pentagon’s public affairs office for community relations, as part of its outreach, and attended to by political appointees, most visibly in these records by then community relations chief Allison Barber and director Dallas Lawrence.
But as Barstow noted in his report, in running the program out of that office rather than from the agency’s regular press office, “the decision recalled other Bush administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism.” In addition to concealing the true nature of the program and the retired military officers’ participation in it, this tactic produced one other effect.It provided Bryan Whitman, a career civil servant and senior Defense Department official who oversees the press office and all media operations, cover if and when the program was revealed.
Additionally, while political appointees tend to come and go with each new administration, Whitman would be there before the program and he would be there after it. His status as a career civil servant, the fact that he’s worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations – something he points out often in public settings and did at the close of his recent phone interview with Raw Story — has also served to buffer him thus far from scrutiny regarding his involvement in this program.
In a conversation with Mr. Whitman, he denied any involvement or senior role in the program, saying he only had “knowledge” of its existence and called the assertion “not accurate.”
Asked to explain the hundreds of records showing otherwise, Mr. Whitman replied, “No, I’m familiar with those documents and I’d just beg to differ with you,” though he did acknowledge being in “some” of them.
In defending his claim that he wasn’t involved in the program, Whitman reiterated numerous times that since it was not run out of his office, it was not under “my purview or my responsibility.”
Yet records clearly reveal that Whitman was not only fully aware of the program’s intent but also zealously pursued its goal of arming the military analysts with Pentagon talking points in an effort to dominate each relevant news cycle. He was consulted regularly, doled out directives, actively participated and was constantly in the loop.
Documented communications show that Whitman played a senior role in securing generals to brief the analysts, fashioned talking points to feed them, called analyst meetings to put out Pentagon and Bush administration PR fires, hosted meetings, determined which analysts should attend trips to wartime military sites (such as the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) and received frequent, comprehensive reports detailing the analysts’ impact on the air, in print and online.
READ THE REST (which includes examples of his involvement straight from the FOIA records).
UPDATE: Scott Horton at Harper's Magazine has a write-up about the article today.