Pentagon didn't break rules, says GAO

The Department of Defense (DOD) did not violate ethics rules by encouraging retired military officers to appear on news programs as media analysts in the buildup to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new government report.

The report, requested of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) by Congress, says there is no evidence that the Pentagon attempted to conceal any outreach to former military officers, nor did it pay them for positive coverage. But, the report says, the Defense Department's goal was obvious.

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"Clearly, DOD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the [George W. Bush] administration's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the" retired military officers, wrote Daniel Gordon, GAO's acting general counsel, in the report.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) initially asked the GAO in May 2008 to investigate the Defense Department's actions, following a series of articles in which The New York Times revealed a network of military analysts the Pentagon had nurtured, most of whom gave the Bush administration positive reviews in the run-up to the two wars.

Phone calls and e-mails to Feingold's office went unreturned Tuesday.

The report concludes Pentagon outreach to retired military officials began in October 2002 during a roundtable meeting with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Subsequently, the Pentagon held weekly or monthly conference calls and at least 16 roundtable meetings between the retired officers and senior Pentagon employees.

During those meetings and calls, Defense Department officials addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the broader war on terrorism, conditions at the Guantánamo Bay prison facility and other issues of concern to the Pentagon.

The retired officers were also taken on at least nine trips to Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, always accompanied by staff from the Pentagon's public affairs office. All told, at least 22 Pentagon employees were involved in reaching out to the former officers.

The Defense Department also paid more than $1.8 million to a media analysis firm, Omnitec Solutions, to report on coverage the Pentagon received in newspapers, on television and on the Internet.

None of those activities violated statutes, however, because products given to the retired officers were clearly marked as Defense Department materials, GAO found. Further, the Pentagon did not pay for favorable coverage it received.

In 2008, the day after Feingold requested the GAO report, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) asked the Defense Department's inspector general to look into the allegations as well. In January, the inspector general determined there was insufficient evidence to conclude the Pentagon had engaged in propaganda.

Eventually, nearly four dozen members of Congress asked for inquiries before the GAO report was codified in last year's Defense Department authorization bill.

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News reports and members of Congress also raised questions about whether the former military officers, many of whom later went to work for defense contractors, received preferential treatment in exchange for positive coverage, questions the GAO called "legitimate."

"We believe that legitimate questions were raised by Members of Congress and the press regarding the intersection of DOD's public affairs activities and the possibility of compromised procurements resulting from potential competitive advantages for defense contractors with commercial ties to [retired military officers]," the report said.

And, warned Gordon, the Pentagon should take steps to keep the public trust if the now-defunct program ever resurfaces.

"While DOD understandably values its ties with retired military officers, we believe that, before undertaking anything along the lines of the now-terminated program at issue in this decision, DOD should consider whether it needs to have additional policies and procedures in place to protect the integrity of, and public confidence in, its public affairs efforts and to ensure the transparency of its public relations activities."