By: Joe Strupp
The New York Times’ revelations that the Pentagon has been secretly guiding retired military officers — many with links to defense contractors — in their media assessments of the Iraq War have raised concerns about the use of those former military officials in newspaper commentaries, or quoting them in news stories. Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, said the report “raises a red flag.”
The Times and The Washington Post have each printed Op-Ed pieces by some of the same generals cited in the Times’ story as receiving talking points, and in some cases free trips, from Pentagon officials related to the war. Editorial page editors at both papers said the new revelations raise concerns about future use.
“It makes you suspicious, absolutely,” said Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the Times, which published at least nine Op-Ed’s by generals who had the ties to the Pentagon. “When generals write for you now, you have to look at that. But you have to do that anyway. Anybody who participated in that program has to be scrutinized more closely.”
Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Post, which ran at least one Op-Ed by former Gen. Barry McCaffrey, mentioned in David Barstow’s Times article, in 2006, said: “Retired generals are entitled to speak out like anyone else, but I would have the same expectation of them to disclose anything that might be relevant.”
On Tuesday, Hiatt e-mailed a specific reponse to the McCaffrey column.
“The NYT article serves as another good warning to all editors to insist on full disclosure of conflicts of interest, but there is nothing in it that
makes me sorry we published this oped,” Hiatt wrote. “I believe Gen. McCaffrey is independent enough to speak his own mind, and sentences such as this suggest to me that he was not taking dictation from the Pentagon: ‘We are in a very difficult position created by a micromanaged Rumsfeld war team that has been incompetent, arrogant and in denial.'”
Rosenthal defended the Times’ publication of the nine former military officials who had written for the paper’s Op-Ed pages. He said that none of the Op-Ed’s dealt specifically with assessments of the war or any specific business entities with which the author had ties.
“We have gone over what they wrote for us. About half of them didn?t write about Iraq at all, so there is no conflict there,” he said. “They are either critical of the administration, not writing about Iraq, or writing about specific issues like using a laptop computer in warfare. In no case is there someone offering an assessment.”
The Times story about the issue named only one of the retired generals who had written for the Times, James Marks. “His was a piece about if he was invading Falluja, this is how he would do it,” Rosenthal said. “There was no assessment of how the war was going. No briefing information. He talked about how to invade a city, the vulnerability of it.”
Rosenthal declined to reveal the names of the other eight former generals who had written for the Op-Ed page, but he said the news department informed his department last week about the forthcoming story, prompting a review of those columns. “None of the articles fell into the category of assessing the war,” Rosenthal said. “There is one about gays in the military.”
Still, none of the Op-Ed’s disclosed that the author had close ties to the Pentagon publicity machine . Rosenthal acknowledged that, adding that the newspaper did not know about the arrangement. But he said it was not a conflict because the issues written about were not related.
“The story was about giving people access to the Pentagon to get them to say things about Iraq that were not true,” Rosenthal said. “If one of those people is writing about some other subject, that is irrelevant. There is no instance in which a general who attended a briefing at the Pentagon repeated it on our Op-Ed pages.”
Rosenthal said the paper requires any outside contributor to fill out a questionnaire about their potential conflicts, including business ties. He said none of these contributors had conflicting relationships, at least none that they revealed. “What do you disclose and when?” he said. “Do you have to disclose that you attended a briefing? When you deal with retired military officers, you have to assume their view is shaped by their background.”
Rosenthal said the paper would not likely change its background reviews and disclosure rules for Op-Ed writers. “We have a pretty rigorous approach right now,” he said. “And it is based on what we are asking people to write about.”
Other Washington editors said the Times story also raises concerns about use of former generals in news stories. Cox’s Alexander said, “The Times story obviously raised questions about due diligence for selecting them and quoting them. He said his reporters had used former generals, but not often: “If we were to seek comment from them, we would probably ask them about whether they had connections that would make them less than neutral.”
John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, agreed. “The reader is entitled to know where this or that commentator is coming from on an issue,” he said. “It doesn?t necessarily disqualify them from commentating, it must be transparent.”
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post, said he could not recall if any of the former generals cited in the Times story had been used as news sources. But he said, “when we know people are lobbyists, former military people, we write about that.”