April 22, 2008

Response to New York Times Article on Military Analysts

Front page - April 20
The Sunday New York Times lead story, Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand portrays the on-air military analysts (including me) for the television and cable networks as puppets and mouthpieces for the Pentagon.

The Oregonian interview with columnist Steve Duin will serve as my response.

Foxes ran amok in media chicken coop
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Aug. 4, 2005, the day after 14 Marines died in Iraq, Gen. James T. Conway hosted a conference call with the fraternity of retired military analysts to remind them who was expendable and who was not.

"The strategic target remains our population," Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, said, according to The New York Times. "We can lose people day in and day out, but they're never going to beat our military. What they can and will do if they can is strip away our support. And you guys can help us not let that happen."

Marines, in other words, were mere casualties of war. The real front-line soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom were the analysts who went airborne nightly on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.

In a front-page story in Sunday's Times, reporter David Barstow examined the Pentagon's efforts to turn television's military analysts into a "media Trojan horse," authoritatively shaping coverage of the war from the inside.

One of those analysts is Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a retired Air Force officer -- detailed to the CIA in 1995 -- now living in Port Orford. Well known for his book about Iraq's use of nerve gas in the 1980s, Francona was hired by CNBC to provide perspective in January 2003.

He spent 11 weeks in New York leading up to and following the March invasion, working 12-hour days while providing analysis for various NBC outlets. Francona was initially supportive of the invasion, largely, he admits, because he was charged by the CIA with engineering a "home-grown insurrection" against Saddam. When the 1996 coup failed, "A lot of the guys working for us were killed."

But even after enlisting with the retired military analyst group in 2004, Francona said he never trafficked in the daily -- or four times daily -- Pentagon talking points:

"I take umbrage at some of the analysis, (calling us) puppets, mouthpieces, the propaganda machine. That may have been what the Pentagon intended, but I don't know if that's what they got. They didn't get it here."

Bartow describes a variety of conflicts with the analysts, many of whom are lobbyists for military contracts or overly eager to champion the war games of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And Francona said it was "easy to see" which former generals were parroting the official line of the Pentagon's communication office.

"I took it with a grain of salt," Francona said. "I wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid. In my meetings, they never told us, 'Here's what we'd like you to say.' I would hear them say, 'We'd like to get this message out.' "

That's a compelling request if you spent 28 years, as Francona did, serving in the military: "That's who I am. To stand up there on nationwide TV and criticize those still in uniform, your brothers-in-arms, can be difficult, especially when you know it might not be well-received.

"But NBC was paying me to be an analyst, not a cheerleader."

When Francona was critical -- of the "breakdown of command" at Abu Ghraib or how ill-prepared U.S. troops were to be an army of occupation -- he never heard from the Pentagon, so he was surprised to discover it paid Omnitec Solutions hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor the messages emanating from its "surrogates" and "message-force multipliers."

And he believes Gen. David Patraeus now has the message that bears repeating concerning Iraq: "Sen. (Barack) Obama says we shouldn't be there. Fine. Check that box, and let's move on. Let's not end the war, let's win the war. U.S. forces are capable of doing that with the right leadership."

Steve Duin: 503-221-8597; 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201 steveduin@news.oregonian.com

©2008 The Oregonian