Senior official in Bush domestic propaganda program remains Obama’s Pentagon spokesman


September 29th, 2009
by Brad Jacobson

A key senior figure in a Bush administration covert Pentagon program, which used retired military analysts to produce positive wartime news coverage, remains in his 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 expose 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, ostensibly, was 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 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, Raw Story uncovered another effect of this tactic.

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 as well at the close of his phone interview with Raw Story — has also served to buffer him thus far from scrutiny regarding his involvement in this program.

Speaking with Mr. Whitman last Monday, 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 deciding which retired military officers to bring into the program, 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 Guantánamo Bay, Cuba) and received frequent, comprehensive reports detailing the analysts’ impact on the air, in print and online.

In the Mix and Calling Shots

Records reveal Bryan Whitman as an ever-present force in the retired military analyst program, whether utilizing the analysts to push back against negative news coverage on insufficient body armor for soldiers, the abuse of detainees, setbacks in Iraq, and other incidents and war policies.

In David Barstow’s Times expose, a prime example of how the Pentagon “enlisted analysts as a rapid reaction force to rebut” unfavorable coverage was illustrated in an email sent by “a senior Pentagon official” after news broke that troops in Iraq were dying because they had received insufficient body armor: “I think our analysts — properly armed — can push back in that arena.”

That senior Pentagon official, documents show, was Bryan Whitman.

In the complete, unedited January 2006 email (pdf link, p. 84) from Whitman (he sometimes used “military analyst” or “analyst” when indicating the plural form “analysts”), he said:

“In addition to all the nice work yesterday, I think it is still a good idea to have [US Army Maj. Gen.] Sorenson do a phone call with the Military Analyst. There were a number of critical Op-Ed pieces that popped up today and I think our analyst — properly armed — can push back in that arena. We can set it all up, just need a time he could do it with a little advance notice to get them all on the phone.”

Whitman sent this email directly to members of US Army Office for public affairs and cc’ed Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff and community relations chief Allison Barber. The full communication details Whitman commending the team’s initial efforts to push back against damaging news from the prior day, and defining the strategy and calling for a new military analyst meeting, with the additional directive “[w]e can set it all up.”

The communication displays the range of Whitman’s involvement, his facility within the program’s fluid apparatus, his clout as a senior participant, as well as a full understanding of, and commitment to, its goals.

Other documents expose Whitman’s breadth and depth of participation and his direct impact on the program’s success.

On March 9, 2005, the day before Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, a Naval Inspector General, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about his report on detainee detention operations and interrogation techniques, he briefed the military analysts. Whitman hosted the analyst briefing (pdf link, pages 1-13).

Church led with his report’s primary takeaway: “[W]e found no policy that condoned or in any way considered torture” or “condoned or in any way encouraged abuse of detainees.” But he also told the analysts that “interrogators were starting to clamp up and we were losing intelligence,” a point he mentioned he omitted from the report but for which a “debate” was necessary.

Whitman later opened up the floor to other officials who “might be helpful for you tomorrow as you’re having to talk through some of these issues.”

A leader from the Office of Detainee Affairs (whose name is redacted) assured the analysts “that from the beginning of the war on terrorism both the President and the Secretary of Defense made clear that all detainees would be treated humanely.” An Army official (name also redacted) followed by beginning, “Gentlemen, let me give you kind of the big headline up front.”

Whitman closed the military analyst meeting with a “reminder of the ground rules” that “the information is embargoed until 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, with any direct attribution to Admiral Church when the testimony begins and no direct attribution to our other officials.”

They were armed with their talking points before Church’s testimony even began.

He also invited the analysts to give their “feedback on doing this ahead of an event” as “opposed to after we’ve announced something,” with the additional solicitation “[i]f it works for you under these type of conditions I think we would like to bring you in early on something.”

The following day, Church’s report and testimony received withering criticism for failing to assess the accountability of senior officials involved in policies that led to abuse. But that wouldn’t deter the military analysts, especially one of the Pentagon’s most fervent and prolific members, Jed Babbin, former undersecretary of defense during the first Bush administration.

In his March 11, 2005 New York Post op-ed column (pdf link, pages 150-151), the day after Church presented his report to Congress, Babbin published an article titled “Torture Truths,” in which he not only parroted talking points from the briefing but added his own personal touch, warning that the United States must “reject the tide of political correctness that threatens to drown our interrogators.”

That day, Whitman emailed the article to then Pentagon public affairs chief Larry Di Rita (pdf link, p. 150), making clear that they “need to keep this dog feed.”

And with Whitman’s help, that’s exactly what they did.

In July 2005, records show (pdf link, pages 79-86) press secretary Eric Ruff contacting Whitman about a request from Babbin to interview Brigadier General Jay Hood — then the commander in charge of detainee operations at Guantánamo Bay — when Babbin filled in as host on “The Mark Larson Show,” a conservative radio program out of KOGO in San Diego.

Whitman replied, “We can work it,” adding, “but I hope you are getting a cut of Babbins [sic] action as his agent.”

In a following email to military public affair officials to secure Hood, Whitman assured them, “As you probably know, Jed is very friendly and supportive.” Soon, Whitman had not only worked it but sealed the deal, writing to Ruff three days later, “FYI — Hood is on with Babbin.”

Throughout the records, Whitman and his team, in return, expressed their fealty to Babbin, realizing a pliant and tireless operative when they see one.

After members of Whitman’s press office, including director Roxie Merritt and deputy director Gary Keck, lined up an appearance for Babbin on “The Bill O’Reilly Show” to discuss detainee abuse allegations, Whitman, in a particularly effusive March 2005 email (pdf link, p. 30), commended his crew and gushed, “Good work by all — Babbin will do us well — we should contact him and ask him if he needs anything — I will be happy to talk to him.”

Clearly, however, records also show that Whitman and his colleagues knew when it was time to cut loose a wayward analyst.

When 14 marines died in Iraq on August 3, 2005, military analyst Bill Cowan, a Fox analyst and retired Marine colonel, was scheduled to appear on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor. Whitman, along with other Pentagon pubic affairs officials involved in the program, received an email (sent by a redacted source pdf link, p. 3) that Cowan “wanted to give us a heads-up about what he’s going to say” and was also requesting “anything and everything we can give him [regarding] the deaths of the marines.” Cowan, though, whom Barstow reported had grown frustrated with the Pentagon program, also noted that his comments “may not all be friendly.”

In another email, Whitman offered, “I’ll talk to him if you like.” Within a couple of hours, Whitman also confirmed that he had arranged for one of two generals to speak with Cowan.

Though in this case, Whitman’s efforts notwithstanding, Cowan (Barstow also detailed) went too far off script for the Pentagon’s liking when he said that America “is not on a good glide path right now.”

Cowan told Barstow that the Pentagon “simply didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t carrying their water” so he was “precipitously fired from the analysts group” after the appearance.

Other documented communications illustrate Whitman’s shaping and sanctioning program activities such an August 2005 email (pdf link, p. 95), which shows Whitman as one of four senior Pentagon officials to approve the list of attendees for a scheduled military analyst trip to the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

“I’ve attached the list discussed and agreed to between Cully, Mr. Smith, Bryan Whitman, and Mr. Haynes, the sender (name redacted) wrote to then head of community relations Allison Barber.

The other three senior Pentagon officials cited include, at the time, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs Dorrance Smith, general counsel WJ Haynes and deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs Charles Cully.

Time and again, records show Whitman in the mix, championing the program.

“The analyt[s] are back from Iraq and starting to make do [sic] their thing — very positive contribution to the reporting,” Whitman crowed in this December 2005 email (pdf link, p. 106), on the success of the military analysts latest excursion and subsequent on-air offensive.

And throughout, Whitman is consulted on what messaging to spoon feed them, such as in this October 2006 email from Barber (pdf link, p. 115): “Do we have an official line for the military analysts on this?”

Records also show that Whitman, along with his colleagues in the program, received regular summaries and extensive systematic reports detailing the military analysts impact around the networks, on the radio, in print and online, such as in this excerpt from one such typical email from February 2005 (pdf link, p. 97), addressed (from a redacted source) directly to some of the usual senior officials involved in the program — Di Rita, Whitman, Barber and Ruff — and cc’d to dozens of others:

“TV Broadcast Summary: Analysts Tommy Franks, Jed Babbin, Don Shepperd, Montgomery Meigs and Jack Jacobs were all featured on national news stations (Fox News, CNN and MSNBC). Generally speaking, all agreed that the election was not as violent as expected and that the Iraqi security forces and American troops did a very good job. Several analysts alluded to the fact that there will be more danger ahead. The analyst mood was positive as Iraqi events unfolded. …The attached memo provides information on what each analyst said and how often they appeared on television.”

Whitman even proved a creative force in getting the most out of the analysts, seeing opportunities even in a national disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina.

Two days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, community relations director Dallas Lawrence wrote to Whitman (pdf link, p. 6), “Bryan, per our chat, at the conclusion of our conference call this afternoon with Bg Hemingway, I pulsed our analysts to see if there would be an interest in a 4:15 call today to discuss the DoD response to Katrina. …There was a universal positive response, several said they have been doing radio interviews throughout the day and have been asked several times, what DoD, specifically, is doing.”

Lawrence concluded the email by thanking Whitman and confirming that an RSVP list for the military analyst meeting on Katrina would arrive soon.

Part II of this expose will explore how the Pentagon press office and community relations worked in tandem on the military analyst program, and how “information dominance” drove not only this project but the embed program for reporters, about which Bryan Whitman was admittedly “heavily involved in the process.”

(with additional research by Ron Brynaert)

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