Further politicization of the U.S. military's public statements

An exchange with Centcom's public affairs officer raises further questions about the politicization of military claims.

Published July 24, 2007 11:45AM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

In light of the decision last week by Gen. David Petraeus to choose Hugh Hewitt, of all people, to interview him, and in light of the post I wrote concerning Gen. Petraeus' three-year history of dubious and seemingly partisan claims about the Iraq War, I submitted an interview request to Centcom, in Iraq, with the hope of asking the General about these matters. The following e-mail exchange ensued with Col. Steven A. Boylan, the Public Affairs Officer to Gen. Petraeus:

My original email

I am a Contributing Writer at Salon Magazine and a contributor to the nationally syndicated Alan Colmes Show on radio.

I am writing to request an interview with General David Petraeus, to be broadcast in its entirety on the Alan Colmes Show, along with a full, unedited transcript to be published as the feature story on Salon.

There was some controversy triggered when Gen. Petraeus this week gave an exclusive interview to highly partisan, pro-war Republican talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt. Concerns were expressed that Gen. Petraeus was submitting to interviews only with those who have a reputation for conducting highly reverent and uncritical interviews with Bush officials and military commanders.

As a fervent supporter of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, Hewitt's questions were, as one would expect, designed to enable Gen. Petraeus to make statements without any questioning or challenge.

As I am much more of a war skeptic than Hewitt, both the questions I would pose and the audience which would be exposed to the interview would be different than the one Gen. Petraeus conducted with Hewitt. It is my sincere hope that Gen. Petraeus, in order to facilitate as honest and robust a public discussion as possible, is willing to discuss the situation in Iraq and the merits of the current strategy with both supporters and critics of the initiative.

According to publicly available reports, the audience size for the Hugh Hewitt Show is roughly equal to the audience size for the Alan Colmes Show. The readership of Salon is vastly larger than the readership of Hewitt's blog. Thus, the interview I am requesting with Gen. Petraeus would be for a larger audience than the Hewitt interview, and presumably, the audience would reach a much different segment of the American political landscape.

All Americans, across the political spectrum, are deeply interested in the events in Iraq. I would think that Gen. Petraeus would be interested in reaching as many Americans as possible with his assessments, not only those who are already political supporters of the current administration.

I would make myself available for any date and time that is convenient for Gen. Petraeus and would look forward to a real opportunity to hear from the General in a civil and constructive setting.

Glenn Greenwald

Reply from Col. Boylan

Dear Mr. Greenwald,

Thank you for your note and request to interview Gen Petraeus. I am more than happy to add you to the very long list of requests that we have and continue to work through.

I have read the couple of posts concerning the interview that your reference, but I would have to say I disagree with the assertions that have been submitted as well respectfully disagree with your assertions in this case that it was an exclusive interview with the station. Should any real research be conducted, it would quickly reveal that Gen Petraeus has and continues to conduct interviews across the spectrum of media to include all five networks, all main stream newspapers and radio as well. I venture to say that the TV networks to include CBS Radio, AP Radio, PBS, NPR, IraqSlogger, a host of others, the BBC and of course Newsweek and Time Magazine's Joe Klein is if anything, not a supporter of the current administration.

Gen Petraeus has conducted well over 100 interviews/media engagements since his initial press conference in March and so far, this is the first time that anyone has accused his engagement with the media to be anything but forthright and open. I think if you review the transcript, Gen Petraeus answered the questions in a very open and honest manner describing the progress as well as the challenges that face us here in Iraq.

Again, thank you for your request and I have added it to the very long list of requests that we are making our way through.

All the best,


Steven A. Boylan

Colonel, US Army Public Affairs Officer to the Commanding General Multi-National Force - Iraq

My reply

Dear Col. Boylan:

Thank you for agreeing to add me to the bottom of the very long list of pending interview requests for Gen. Petraeus. I can only hope that whatever forces of good fortune enabled Hugh Hewitt to surge to the top of that list will be equally kind to my request.

I'm aware that Gen. Petraeus, over the past several months, has been interviewed by numerous journalists such as Brian Williams and Jim Lehrer. Prior to sending you my request, I had read or viewed most if not all of those interviews.

It was not until Gen. Petreaus chose to grant an exclusive and lengthy interview to Hugh Hewitt, an overt and highly partisan supporter of the war, did controversy arise over his choices of interviewers. Mr. Hewitt is no objective journalist, but a rank partisan and full-throated supporter of the administration's war policies.

My interview request was based on the premise that Gen. Petraeus, having made himself available to such a dogmatic, right-wing partisan advocate, also ought to make himself available to a war skeptic who questions and/or opposes the current war policy -- i.e., someone whose war views, in stark contrast to those of Hugh Hewitt's, are in harmony with the vast majority of American citizens. The two examples you cited are hardly cases where Gen. Petraeus has done so. Neither the BBC (an objective news outlet whose reporters do not advocate war opposition) nor Joe Klein (an original supporter of the Iraq invasion who currently opposes troop withdrawal) hold or express views on the current strategy or the war generally which are representative of the anti-war views of the American people.

As you know, the war in Iraq is the most highly charged political issue in our country. Having addressed Hugh Hewitt's steadfastly pro-war views and his Republican audience, I sincerely hope that Gen. Petraeus will make time available to address questions that are more questioning and scrutinizing of the current strategy.

Glenn Greenwald

Reply from Col. Boylan

Dear Mr. Greenwald,

Rest assured that you are on the list that we work on a continual basis. If you find that you will be here in Iraq, please let me know as most of the interviews that Gen Petraeus prefers to do are here in Iraq face-to-face and mostly on battlefield circulations.

If you are looking for a tactical discussion on the strategy, then I would be able to recommend other more appropriate interviews.

As to your other issues with his interview, I fail to see what questions you took issue with from the radio program, which by the way was not an exclusive since he does interviews with great regularity.

The questions that were asked were many of the same questions that he receives from just about every news outlet of late with of course the issues of what the news of the day has been and what we have released of late. We also up front let all know that we are not going to get into the politics of the situation which many want us too, so if they want to go that route, they will loose a lot of air time by asking him questions that he will refer you back to the political leadership of the country.

I have put the questions that were asked of him in the interview below and am very curious as to which questions you too issue with, remembering that at the time of the interview, we had just conducted a large press brief on Iranian influence:

[List of questions asked by Hewitt]

On a side note, if Alan Colmes is interested on having Gen Petraeus on his program, then I would ask that someone from his program or himself contact me to discuss.


Steven A. Boylan

I think it's fair to say that there is little need for me to block large amounts of time from my calendar in anticipation of this interview. Nonetheless, there are several points worth noting from all of this:

(1) Col. Boylan's claim that "we are not going to get into the politics of the situation which many want us too" and, if asked, Centcom commanders will simply "refer you back to the political leadership of the country" is highly questionable. As Dan Froomkin documented in his superb WashingtonPost.com column from last week -- entitled "Bush's Baghdad Mouthpiece" -- the U.S. military command in Iraq has been, with increasing transparency, making claims that perfectly bolster every one of the White House's most inflammatory and controversial political assertions.

Froomkin (just as the blogger Bernhard did earlier this month) traces this development to the appointment of Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner -- until recently a White House aide -- as Chief military Spokesman in Iraq:

Until recently he was a member of the White House's national security staff, holding the title of senior director for Iraq. Since taking up his new post in May, Bergner has made a series of politically charged allegations against both al Qaeda and Iran, many of which have been basically unverifiable.

Fromkin notes that "Bergner has made quite a splash since taking over as military spokesman in Iraq in May," and lists several extraordinary claims from him designed to bolster the White House's political agenda and which have been subsequently called into question.

In particular, "the White House's favored talking point when it comes to the war in Iraq is an attempt to link the violence there with al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and 9/11," as well as to the Iranian Government (though not the Saudis). Those highly political claims were precisely the points emphasized by Gen. Petraeus in his interview, at Hewitt's prodding.

Moreover, back in January, Gen. Petreaus appeared at a Senate hearing and fully embraced Joe Lieberman's most politically charged (and reprehensible) accusations against U.S. Senators that they were emboldening America's Enemies by questioning the President's Iraq policy, prompting GOP Sen. John Warner to warn Petraeus -- as The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks put it -- "that he needed to be more careful about appearing to wade into a political debate and warned Petraeus to not let himself be trapped into portraying members of Congress as unpatriotic for disagreeing with President Bush."

It would be welcomed if the Commanding General were apolitical. But Gen. Petraeus' long record makes clear that he is not. And his decision to provide one of the most blindly partisan, pro-Bush, right-wing radio talk show hosts with an exclusive, lengthy interview -- precisely the political strategy used by the White House for so long -- is part and parcel of that overt politicization.

(2) This is not a new observation, but Col. Boylan's response illustrates why it is so important to highlight the government-worshipping "journalism" of easily manipulated people like Joe Klein and David Broder. Note how Col. Boylan cites Klein as though he is some sort of counter-balancing example to Hewitt -- the same Klein who supported the invasion of Iraq and routinely writes things like this, from January:

I'm afraid I'm going to get cranky about this: The Democrats who oppose the so-called "surge" are right. But they have to be careful not to sound like ill-informed dilettantes when talking about it.

The latest to make a fool of himself is Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who argues that those who favor the increase in troops are either cynical or delusional. Mostly the latter. Delusional neocons like Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan, to be precise.

But what about retired General Jack Keane -- whom Krugman doesn't mention -- and the significant number of military intellectuals who have favored a labor-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Baghdad for the past three years? They are serious people. They may be wrong about Iraq now, reflexively trying to complete a mission that has been lost, but they are not delusional. The counterinsurgency doctrine they published in 2006 is exactly what the U.S. military should be doing in places like Afghanistan. And they, not Kagan and Kristol, are the motivating force behind Bush's new policy.

As for K & K, Krugman's right: they've been wrong about Iraq. But at least they've taken the trouble to read the doctrine and talk to key players like Keane and General David Petraeus. Liberals won't ever be trusted on national security until they start doing their homework.

Hugh Hewitt couldn't have said it better himself. This is someone who sputtered around prior to the invasion, finally supported it, and now pretends he didn't, all while giving lectures to "liberals" and war opponents about what "unserious fools" they are. Klein, while paying lip service to "surge" opposition, hails Petraeus' brilliant counter-insurgency strategies and spends his time demonizing war opponents as morons while lavishing "surge" proponents and Bush's chosen military commanders with the most obsequious praise.

That is who Col. Boylan then gets to hold up as an example of "liberal" "journalists" to whom Gen. Petreaus has given interviews. That is why there are few things more damaging than how reverent and gullible and authority-worshipping and Beltway-defending are those assigned to play the "liberal pundit" role in the Beltway court.

(3) Obviously, the issue here is not whether it is me personally who interviews Gen. Petraeus. But having delved quite deeply and continuously into the political pool -- including spending nice quality time last week with one of the most politicized (and Bush-adoring) partisans on the planet -- he also ought to subject himself to interviews with someone who shares the views of the vast majority of American citizens with regard to this war, and ought specifically to address his years-long record of making highly partisan and ultimately discredited claims about all the Great Progress we were supposedly making in Iraq for the last four years.

Along those lines, today's NYT article by Michael Gordon reports on a "secret" strategic document prepared by the top military command in Iraq that envisions a large U.S. occupying force in that country through at least 2009. The document purports to describe a fundamental shift in our strategy -- from the previously failed policy of Gen. Casey to the Grand New Successful One of Gen. Petraeus. But in identifying the reasons why Gen. Casey's strategy failed, this is what the Gordon writes:

The previous plan, developed by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who served as General Petraeus's predecessor before being appointed as chief of staff of the Army, was aimed at prompting the Iraqis to take more responsibility for security by reducing American forces.

That approach faltered when the Iraqi security forces showed themselves unprepared to carry out their expanded duties, and sectarian killings soared.

But the military official in charge of the training of Iraqi forces during that time was Gen. Petraeus himself. And while they now claim (because it is politically necessary to do so) that the "old strategy" failed, Gen. Petraeus continuously assured Americans for years that we were making "huge progress," that the "bottom line" was that Iraqis are 'fighting for their country" and "increasingly leading that fight." And those statements, whether by design or unintended effect, misled Americans into believing that the situation in Iraq was far better than it was.

Particularly in light of how the administration is attempting (with the able aid of media propagandists) to hold Gen. Petraeus up as the apolitical straight-shooter to whose assessments we must all defer (an impression which Col. Boylan seeks to bolster), he ought to be made to account for that history. His series of highly optimistic claims over the last four years -- as well as Centcom's quite recent unreliable and political assertions -- should be subjected to real scrutiny. Joe Klein and Brian Williams obviously aren't going to do that, so someone should.

UPDATE: A new Washington Post poll released today conclusively reveals just how widespread the consensus view among Americans has become regarding the Iraq war and the "surge."

Vast majorities, for instance, disapprove of Bush's handling of the war (31-68); trust the Democrats in Congress more than Bush to handle Iraq (32-55); believe that the Iraq War was not worth fighting (36-63); believe that we should withdraw our forces even if that means civil order is not restored there (39-59); believe that the "surge" has either worsened the situation or made no difference (22-75); believe the "surge" will not improve the situation (34-64); support setting a deadline of next Spring for withdrawal (43-55); support a policy change to focus only on training Iraqi troops rather than fighting insurgents (21-74); believe that Congress, rather than President Bush, should have final say in when we withdraw (31-62); and believe that Democrats in Congress have done too little or about the right amount, rather than too much, to force Bush to change his Iraq policy [too much (17%); too little (49%); about the right amount (31%)].

Having made himself available to address "questions" from someone, like Hewitt, who holds views on the Iraq War which can only be described as fringe, Gen. Petraeus ought to address questions from someone whose views on the war are representative of those held by the vast majority of Americans, as reflected above. At least recently, he has not.

UPDATE II: In comments, EJ reminds me of something I meant to include here but forgot. Over at Harper's, Ken Silverstein recently reported about "a program run by the Pentagon's Office of Public Affairs" which "seeks to bypass the mainstream press by working directly with a carefully culled list of military analysts, bloggers, and others who can be counted on to parrot the Bush Administration's line on national security issues". As Silverstein writes:

The Surrogates unit arranges regular conference calls during which senior Pentagon officials brief retired military officials, civilian defense and national security analysts, pundits, and bloggers. A few moderates are invited to take part, but the list of participants skews far, far to the right. The Pentagon essentially feeds participants the talking points, bullet points, and stories it wants told.

The Bush administration has long used the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys and Rich Lowrys and Brit Humes and other ideologically loyal minions as their primary interviewers and vessels for message dissemination, and this is now clearly the U.S. military's media strategy as well. There is nothing in the Bush administration that is not politicized from top to bottom.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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