On its face, it seems like an idea any enterprising editor could have come up with: Gather a group of veterans of the Iraq war who also have journalism experience, including some highly decorated soldiers. Then send them back to the areas of Iraq in which they served, this time as reporters embedded with the troops still fighting there, and get their assessment of the security situation and whether the surge is working.
Someone has organized just such an expedition, and this Monday eight veterans left for Iraq. But the "Back to Iraq" trip wasn't put together by the Washington Post or the New York Times; it's the brainchild of Vets for Freedom (VFF), a pro-war group. VFF is nominally nonpartisan, but it has a remarkable number of ties -- some previously unreported -- to Republicans generally and John McCain's campaign specifically. And it has run attack ads against Barack Obama.
It's unremarkable to send reporters with thin journalistic credentials to Iraq, or to promise that journalists with a known political bias will report "objectively." Conservative and liberal publications send their preferred reporters to Iraq all the time, and their representatives come home, unsurprisingly, with differing conclusions. But what about sending political activists and GOP operatives to Iraq in the guise of journalists, with the cooperation of the U.S. military and on the taxpayers' dime, so that the activists can come home and proselytize for the Republican presidential candidate's position on the war?
For journalists, getting to Iraq isn't cheap. At a minimum, there's the airfare to Kuwait, plus the cost of body armor, helmet, protective eyewear and insurance. But once they're in Iraq, embedded reporters don't have to spring for much else. The military typically flies the journalist from Kuwait to Baghdad and supplies food, lodging and transportation within Iraq. (VFF flew commercially from Kuwait to Baghdad.) The military provides translation and personal bodyguard services, acting as a sort of super-fixer. Without embed status, the on-the-ground costs for any reporter or private citizen traveling in Iraq are dramatically higher. The cost of security alone, which often means an armored car and a driver as well, drives the price of any Iraq trip sky-high. In an e-mail, a reporter for a major American daily who has been to Iraq as an un-embedded reporter said that paying for non-embedded reporters involves "an infrastructure cost that can be very pricey, in the millions of dollars each year."
Under the Pentagon's standards for Iraq embeds, the people that Vets for Freedom is sending to Iraq qualify as journalists. Six of them have impeccable military credentials but no reporting experience, with clippings largely limited to Op-Eds. A would-be embed, however, needs only to provide the military's public affairs officers with three samples of published or broadcast work, and proof that he or she is credentialed by a publication. Three conservative media outlets -- the Weekly Standard, National Review Online and BlackFive.net – have provided the eight members of VFF's Iraq team with credentials. Asked about how the Vets for Freedom received clearance as embeds, Army Sgt. Brooke Murphy, media operations NCO with the Multi-National Force-Iraq's Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, emphasized that the military does not conduct ideological vetting. " "We don't screen reporters or media personnel for political agenda or political affiliation ... We give groups that want to come over the chance to report on what's going on in Iraq, provided that the information that they report doesn't jeopardize national security or the safety of our soldiers."
From the mission statement that appears on VFF's Web site, it's also clear that the purpose of what it has dubbed the "Back to Iraq" trip fits within the bounds of journalism, albeit advocacy journalism of the foregone-conclusion variety, strident conservative division. "Its [sic] essential for the American people to know the facts about what is happening in Iraq. Some media outlets, and certain politicians, still fail to assess the situation objectively; so Vets for Freedom is heading Back to Iraq to let them know what has been accomplished, what still needs to be done, and how we should proceed in order to attain sustainable security in Iraq."
But VFF's representatives in Iraq are political activists first, and journalists second. Or third. VFF chairman Pete Hegseth, who is making the trip, has campaigned for McCain. According to disclosure records, another, executive director Joel Arends, was on the McCain campaign's payroll between March 2007 and February 2008; he was also working for VFF at the time. David Bellavia, one of VFF's co-founders and now its vice chairman, introduced the presumptive Republican nominee at an event sponsored by VFF by saying, "You can have your Tiger Woods. We've got Sen. McCain." Another member of the Back to Iraq team was the star of one of the group's anti-Obama ads.
The rest of VFF is similarly connected. Former executive director Wade Zirkle, one of the group's co-founders and a member of its board of advisors, had been listed as a member of McCain's Virginia leadership team. He's still a member of Veterans for McCain, as is fellow VFF co-founder Knox Nunnally, who also heads VFF's Texas chapter.
Almost everyone who's been listed as a press contact for the group over the past year has a long history with Republican causes, or with the PR effort in Iraq, or both. Brian Marriott was the Bush campaign's political director in Missouri in 2000; later, he worked as an advance man for President Bush and Vice President Cheney and as a special assistant for media relations to the chairman of the FCC. Communications director Adam Fife started at VFF shortly after returning from a stint as strategic communication advisor to the Multinational Force-Iraq. Adriel Domenech, formerly a press contact for the group, had also returned from a civilian public affairs position in Iraq not long before he began working for VFF. Before that, he worked for Bush's reelection campaign.
But by traveling to Iraq as journalists, VFF enjoys the cost savings of the military's embed program. This is at least the third time VFF has sent fact-finders to Iraq; in all three cases, they went as embedded journalists. But VFF leaders say they chose to have their team members become embedded reporters for journalistic, not financial, reasons. "I think it's just the most unfiltered, transparent approach," Bellavia says. "We want to know what these soldiers think."
All this may raise questions about the group, but there's likely no problem involved with campaign-finance law. Lawrence Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, says it is probably not illegal for a group involved in the presidential campaign to be using the monetary benefits of the military's embed program to subsidize trips to Iraq. (Noble adds that the connections between VFF and McCain's camp do not by themselves constitute illegal coordination between a PAC and a presidential campaign. "There's no broad statement that you can make that you can't have somebody who works with an organization involved in a campaign.")
Still, VFF's decision to embed reporters does raise concerns for experts in media ethics. Christopher Hanson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism who researches media-military relations and who covered the first Gulf War, says that "subsidized journalism" funded by nonprofits "is on the rise across the political spectrum." He doesn't think that's necessarily a bad thing as long as there's full disclosure of the funding. But he also thinks that VFF's case brings with it a different set of issues. "If essentially you have reporters who are the founders and the activists in the organization, then getting credentialed and going with preconceptions ... and then going out and campaigning, that's highly questionable, and that deserves scrutiny. It seems to me that to some extent the question is, Is there any chance that any of them change their views or is it simply a kind of a fraud?" Hanson said, cautioning that he doesn't know the group's intentions and is not accusing them of fraud.
"It's not independent journalism," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "If I were [VFF], I'd be saying, 'Gosh, the Army should be paying me PR fees.'"
Additional reporting by Vincent Rossmeier.