The House of Representatives moved Thursday to crack down on a Pentagon program that Democrats say planted false and overly optimistic news stories about the Iraq war, using military analysts who appeared regularly on television.
Acting on a 2009 defense policy bill, lawmakers forbade the Defense Department from engaging in “a concerted effort to propagandize” the American people over the war.
The amendment by Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), which passed by voice vote, also would force an investigation by the General Accounting Office of efforts to plant positive news stories about the war. The overall bill passed 384-23.
The action follows an April 20 New York Times article that described how the Pentagon promoted its positive view of the war by cultivating former military officers who became regulars on Fox News, CNN and the broadcast networks.
The report prompted outrage among war opponents, who called it just the latest example of the Bush administration’s secretly trying to manipulate the media. Defenders of the war said the Pentagon merely tried to ensure that its views were understood by the retired officers, who have become a broadcast staple.
The Senate will not take up the defense policy bill until after next week’s recess. Its version does not yet include language about the military analyst program.
The White House, citing concerns with other provisions of the overall legislation, has threatened a veto.
“The American people were spun by Bush administration ‘message multipliers,’ ” Hodes said, using the Pentagon’s term for the retired generals and colonels.
“They were fed administration talking points, believing they were getting independent military analysis.”
Previous defense policy bills prohibited such “domestic propaganda,” said Hodes, arguing that the restriction was even more critical now.
But Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) called it “ridiculous” to suggest that the retired officers had been part of a propaganda program. He called them “a great resource” who had given both positive and negative views of the war.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said the amendment could endanger benign “propaganda,” such as the Marine Corps’ recruiting slogan: “The Few, the Proud, the Marines.”
The New York Times article was built, in part, on e-mails between the Pentagon and the analysts. The newspaper said those missives and interviews suggested “a symbiotic relationship in which the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.”
Some officers who voiced too much skepticism about the Iraq war were not invited back to the special briefings, the Times reported, and other analysts echoed the talking points “even when they suspected the information was false or inflated.”
The Pentagon announced about a week after the article’s publication that it would suspend the private briefings pending an internal review, which is continuing.
Representatives of NBC, CBS and ABC said Thursday that they were confident their analysts had not been improperly influenced. Fox News and CNN did not respond to requests for comment.
Nancy Snow, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton who studies propaganda, said the public had become largely inured to revelations that the government had tried to skew debate.
“When I tell audiences that the U.S. government is prohibited from propagandizing the American people, they just guffaw,” she said.
But Snow said she believed that public interest, and outrage, would be piqued if new details were reported.
Particularly galling, she said, would be evidence that analysts tilted opinions to favor military contractors who paid their salaries.
“The public will really become upset if these analysts appear to be profiteering from this military war machine,” said Snow, who once worked for the State Department’s U.S. Information Agency. “It always comes back to the pocketbook.”