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TV's Conflicted Experts | The Nation

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TV's Conflicted Experts

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Perhaps Americans can be excused for imagining that "regime change" in Iraq would be a cakewalk. So did Don Rumsfeld, who lashed back at critics accusing him of approving a too-optimistic war plan. Like Rumsfeld, a veritable army of ex-generals playing military analysts on TV seem to have gotten the story wrong, too, and are only now, very belatedly, changing their tune.

About the Author

Vishesh Kumar
Vishesh Kumar is a freelance writer living in New York City.
Priyanka Motaparthy
Priyanka Motaparthy is a former Nation intern.
Daniel Benaim
Daniel Benaim is a Nation intern.

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I'd like to say that I came across the poet Agha Shahid Ali of my own accord, browsing through the shelves of a bookshop or library and taking immediately to his finely structured verse.

One might have expected a pro-military slant in any former general's initial estimation of the US invasion. But some of these ex-generals also have ideological or financial stakes in the war. Many hold paid advisory board and executive positions at defense companies and serve as advisers for groups that promoted an invasion of Iraq. Their offscreen commitments raise questions about whether they are influenced by more than just "a lifetime of experience and objectivity"--in the words of Lieut. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a military analyst for NBC News--as they explain the risks of this war to the American people.

McCaffrey and his NBC colleague Col. Wayne Downing, who reports nightly from Kuwait, are both on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a Washington-based lobbying group formed last October to bolster public support for a war. Its stated mission is to "engage in educational advocacy efforts to mobilize US and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein," and among its targets are the US and European media. The group is chaired by Bruce Jackson, former vice president of defense giant Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of the F-117 Nighthawk, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and other aircraft in use in Iraq), and includes such neocon luminaries as former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle. Downing has also served as an unpaid lobbyist and adviser to the Iraqi National Congress, an Administration-backed (and bankrolled) opposition group that stands to profit from regime change in Iraq.

NBC News has yet to disclose those or other involvements that give McCaffrey a vested interest in Operation Iraqi Freedom. McCaffrey, who commanded an infantry division in the Gulf War, is now on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies--all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts. Despite that, IDT is floundering--its stock price has fallen by half since March 2002--a situation that one stock analyst says war could remedy. Since IDT is a specialist in tank upgrades, the company stands to benefit significantly from a massive ground war. McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that "armor and artillery don't count" enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and... the Bradley fighting vehicle," and added for good measure that the "war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker." In March alone, IDT received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware.

Downing has his own entanglements. The colonel serves on the board of directors at Metal Storm Ltd., a ballistics-technology company that has contracts with US and Australian defense departments. The company's executive director told the New York Times on March 31 that Metal Storm technologies would "provide some significant advantage" in the type of urban warfare being fought in Iraq.

At Fox News, military analysts Lieut. Col. Bill Cowan and Maj. Robert Bevelacqua are CEO and vice president, respectively, of wvc3 Group, a defense consulting firm that helps arms companies sell their wares to the government. It recently inked an exclusive deal with New Zealand's TGR Helicorp and will help the company hawk its military aviation equipment to the United States. The firm trades on its inside contacts with the US military, and a message on its website reads, "We use our credibility to promote your technology" (accompanied by the sound of loud gunfire).

The networks don't seem too concerned about what the analysts do on their own time. "We are employing them for their military expertise, not their political views," Elena Nachmanoff, vice president of talent development at NBC News, told The Nation. She says that NBC's military experts play an influential role behind the scenes, briefing executive producers and holding seminars for staffers that provide "texture for both on-air pieces and background." Defense contracts, she adds, are "not our interest."

"We expect the analysts to keep their other interests out of their commentary, or we stop using them," says Kim Hume, Fox Washington bureau chief, though she concedes that the network has yet to sever its relationship with any analyst for this reason. She says the network is aware of various political and financial ties (Fox's website mentions wvc3 in Cowan's and Bevelacqua's bios) but refused to discuss the issue. Hume says only that Fox military analyst Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who represents several information-technology companies, is valuable as a commentator on psychological operations.

Shortly after the Vietnam War, Vallely pioneered a concept he called MindWar, a strategy that uses "electronic media--television and radio" in the "deliberate, aggressive convincing of all participants in a war that we will win that war." With the televised version of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we may be watching his theory at work--and at a tidy profit, too.

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