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Pentagon officials won’t confirm Bush propaganda program ended

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[Read Part I and Part II of this series.]

The covert Bush administration program that used retired military analysts to generate favorable wartime news coverage may not have been terminated, Raw Story has found.

In interviews, Pentagon officials in charge of the press and community relations offices — which worked in partnership on the military analyst program — equivocated on the subject of whether the program has ended.

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Last May, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General issued a memorandum rescinding a Bush administration investigative report on the retired military analyst program because it “did not meet accepted quality standards for an Inspector General work product.” The now-retracted report had exonerated officials of using propaganda and referred to the program as just “one of many outreach groups.”

Yet Donald Horstman, Pentagon Inspector General deputy director, also stated in the memorandum that his office wouldn’t probe further because the “outreach program has been terminated and responsible senior officials are no longer employed by the Department.”

Raw Story’s investigation, however, has shown that some “responsible senior officials” are still employed by the Defense Department, including Bryan Whitman, who remains a chief Pentagon spokesman and head of all media operations, and Roxie Merritt, who is head of the Pentagon’s community relations office.

Raw Story has discovered that Horstman’s other justification for not reopening an investigation at the time – “because the [retired military analyst] outreach program has been terminated” – remains an open question.

A week after David Barstow’s New York Times expose on the program broke in April 2008, Whitman said the military analyst program’s suspension was only “temporary.”

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Reiterating at the time that he thought the program was merely a way to better inform the American public, he also said, “It’s temporarily suspended just so that we can take a look at some of the concerns.”

When Raw Story asked Mr. Whitman if this program was still being run out of the Pentagon, he first replied firmly, “No, not at this point.”

But then, in what seemed an attempt to downplay his role in the program, he quickly added, “Again, it’s not one of my programs and it would be up to the leadership of public affairs, a new assistant secretary of defense, making any sort of determination to go forward if they deemed it appropriate, necessary, whatever.”

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“It’s hard for me to tell what future leadership might decide to do,” Whitman continued. “Again, since it’s not part of the media operations aspect of public affairs here, it’s not a program for which I will be making a decision about.”

Raw Story also asked Roxie Merritt if she could confirm that the military analyst program has been officially terminated.

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Ms. Merritt, in an email interview, first replied, “[A]t the present time, we don’t have regularly scheduled conference calls with retired military analysts” but that “we would not, however, preclude responding to queries for information from or provide future opportunities for them to talk to defense leaders and program managers.”

Merritt also noted that should there be regularly scheduled conference calls with the military analysts again in the future, they would be shared in various publicly accessible formats.

She added, though, “Obviously, there are operational security and privacy act issues and other government regulations that must be handled carefully, but we make every possible effort to be open and transparent.”

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Asked then to confirm if, in the interim, her office has been open to providing information on an individual basis to retired military analysts, Merritt replied, “Sure. If asked, we would provide them with the same information that we would provide you if you had a question about DoD.”

During the interviews, neither Whitman nor Merritt expressed concern about the way the military analyst program was run by the Bush administration.

Iraq then and Afghanistan now

Internal Pentagon documents show that the military analyst program was stepped up in 2005, when US public support for the war in Iraq began to sour. Today, as recent polls show American support for the war in Afghanistan plummeting, the Pentagon and the Obama White House are facing a similar problem.

If the military analyst program, in some form or another, is still being run from the Pentagon, then the two most senior players in the Bush administration propaganda project remaining at the Defense Department, Bryan Whitman and Roxie Merritt, would be poised to step up activities once again.

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And they are not currently under the watchful eye of any direct superiors who’ve been brought in by the Obama administration.

While Whitman said that the future of the program would be up to the next assistant secretary of defense, he also confirmed that that position, which is filled by political appointment, remains vacant.

No one, he added, has even been nominated yet.

Merritt is in a similar position of enhanced authority because the position above her has yet to be filled. Currently serving as President Obama’s director of the Pentagon office for community relations, she’s also its de facto chief until a new deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications is appointed.

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What’s more, Merritt — whose email signature line was “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of All Who Threaten It” (p. 30) — formerly worked as Whitman’s press office director at the time of the military analyst program’s increased activity in 2005.

Whitman and Merritt’s career civil servant status also continue to buffer them from scrutiny regarding political or ideological motivations, regardless of their activities in the Bush administration.

Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, an expert in military strategy and operations who has taught at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College and has been critical of Bush administration strategy, expressed disgust at the Bush holdovers who took part in propaganda against the American public, regardless of whether they were political or career appointees.

Commenting on Whitman’s presence in the Obama administration, Gardiner said, “He should be so tainted with what the Bush administration did that that in itself would be enough that he should be gone, even if he’s a career appointee.”

“The list of things that Pentagon public affairs participated in during the run-up [to the Iraq war] and immediately after the invasion are horrendous,” Gardiner continued.

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But he pointed out that Whitman “serves as a career person as long as his performance is satisfactory to his immediate superiors.”

As to suggestions that Whitman be held accountable by a congressional investigative body for his part in the military analyst program, Gardiner noted, “Congress doesn’t evaluate individual performance of people. It evaluates the performance of organizations.”

Journalist and historian Norman Solomon said he found an “unfortunate logic” to Whitman remaining at the Pentagon.

Solomon, who recently visited Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission, told Raw Story, “A White House that sees fit to continue on with Robert Gates might see no problem with continuing on with Bryan Whitman.”

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He added, “The empirical answer [to why he remains] would be that he’s still useful.”

Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich, who is currently independently covering the Afghanistan war, believes that “to some extent, the Obama administration is just simply replicating all the same mistakes of the Bush administration – particularly the war in Afghanistan.”

“And if you’re going to do that,” he explained in an interview with Raw Story, “then you need propagandists who can make stuff up to make the war seem more popular in the short run.”

(Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter to Raw Story; additional research provided by Ron Brynaert)

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