Private Military Contractors Writing the News? The Pentagon's Propaganda at Its Worst

Less than a week after the Washington Post reported that the Department of Defense will pay private contractors $300 million over the next three years to "produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to 'engage and inspire' the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government," Virginia Sen. Jim Webb wrote a strongly worded letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I have serious reservations about the need for this expenditure in today's political and economic environment," he wrote. "Consequently, I am asking that you put these contracts on hold until the Armed Services Committee and the next administration can review the entire issue of U.S. propaganda efforts inside Iraq."

Such a review, if it were to happen, would be a formidable undertaking, one that would have to start with the declaration of the "War on Terror" itself. It's a project the Bush administration has always approached as a PR campaign as much as a military one. Who can forget former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card's explanation for the need to introduce the Iraq War to Americans in September: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." And remember the short-lived attempt by administration officials to re-brand the "War on Terror" by renaming it the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"? (Reports at the time were that administration officials worried that the original phrase "may have outlived its usefulness," due to its sole focus on military might.)

Regardless of what you call it, the so-called "War on Terror" has cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in propaganda costs alone. As with so much of modern war-making, most of this work is carried out by private military contractors. With the word "Halliburton" now shorthand for waste, fraud and abuse for many Americans, taxpayers' tolerance for war profiteering has reached new lows -- especially when private military companies operating with no oversight undermine the very "hearts and minds" that mission propaganda is supposedly meant to advance.

Selling the War to Americans

Perhaps one of the Bush administration's most egregious PR undertakings in the war on Iraq was revealed this spring, when the New York Times blew the lid off the Pentagon's military analyst program, in which more than 75 retired military officials were recruited to spout pro-war rhetoric on major networks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. These "message force multipliers," as they were branded, were provided with thousands of talking points by the Department of Defense starting in 2002. In one memo, dated Dec. 9, 2002 and titled "Department of Defense Themes and Talking Points on Iraq," a quote from Paul Wolfowitz -- "We cannot allow one of the world's most murderous dictators to provide terrorists a sanctuary in Iraq" -- was followed with a bullet point: "Saddam Hussein: A Global Threat."

The investigative piece by the Times said the project "continues to this day," seeking to "exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air."

"Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse -- an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks." It would be hard to overstate the implications of such a program, particularly for a country that claims to be a beacon of democracy.

Although the Pentagon was said to have suspended its PR briefings of retired military officials shortly after the Times story broke, since claiming that its inspector general is conducting an investigation, in reality there has been precious little fallout. However, in one promising move, earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission sent five letters of inquiry to TV military analysts in an apparent probing of the program. According to one report, "at issue is that some of them were also linked to Pentagon contracts, raising the issue of conflict of interest. In its letter signed by the chief of the investigations and hearings division enforcement bureau, the FCC suggests that TV stations and networks may have violated two sections of the Communications Act of 1934 by not identifying the ties to the Pentagon that their military analysts had." Diane Farsetta at PR Watch, who has written extensively on the Pentagon's pundits, particularly their work on behalf of defense contractors, says, "the good news is that that's (a first) step toward conducting an investigation."

Profiting off the "War of Ideas"

Beyond the Pentagon's pundit "scandal," the fact that propaganda contracts continue to be awarded to the very companies that have previously been implicated in ethical breaches for disseminating unattributed U.S. propaganda abroad is reason enough to renew alarm. More than the dollar amount, what is outrageous to Farsetta about the most recent propaganda contract is that it is "blatantly illegal." "If you look at this most recent contract," she explains, "one of the 'strategic audiences' is U.S. audiences." According to federal law going back to World War II, she says "no taxpayer money can go to propagandize U.S. audiences."

The Washington Post story describes the contract as the latest in a series of cutting-edge PR initiatives undertaken since 2003 that represent a revolution in what it calls "the military's role in the war of ideas." "Iraq, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on such contracts, has been the proving ground for the transformation."

Read More Show less
ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up