Alicia C. Shepard
What are your thoughts?
—Chantal de la Rionda, Office of the Ombudsman
By Alicia C. Shepard
The New York Times revealed last week that the Pentagon has long covertly pressured and pampered more than a dozen retired military officers hired by broadcast networks as analysts to ensure positive spin on the Iraq war.
Among those cited was a military consultant for NPR.
After a two-year investigation, Times' reporter David Barstow described how the Pentagon cultivated military analysts for TV and radio by providing special access hoping in exchange for positive spin on the war, particularly after it started going badly. In some cases, analysts used that access to promote their post-military careers with defense contractors.
Deep into the 7,600-word piece on April 20 Barstow mentioned an NPR military analyst, Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr. (Ret.) in an email he sent to the Pentagon that could be construed as Scales trying to gain favor in order to be sent to Iraq for high-level briefings. Scales denies this.
"Any thought that I'm a mouthpiece for this administration is ridiculous," said Scales in an interview. "I only ask that you review my positions on the toll that the war is taking on our soldiers and my frustrations with the inability of the administration to translate military advantage into political success and you will get my point. My main purpose for involving myself with the media is to explain warfare and the military to a society that is detached from us to a great degree."
In February 2003, NPR hired Scales, and Army Lt. Gen. Thomas G. Rhame (Ret.), to be on call as independent analysts partly because both were commanding generals in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and they could speak articulately about the Army.
Scales also was attractive to NPR because he was a Vietnam vet, former head of the Army War College and wrote the Army's official account of the Gulf War. NPR installed a high-quality audio phone line in Scales' home, and paid him $100 an hour, according to his contract. When war broke out in March 2003, Scales appeared on different NPR news shows — a total of 36 times in 2003, including 11 times during NPR special news reports in first days of the war.
Scales also appeared on Fox News as a paid consultant. Between 2003 and 2004, he appeared on Fox 32 times with the title "military analyst," which negated any exclusivity for NPR.
Even after his NPR contract ended in March 2004, Scales continued to appear on air in an unpaid capacity. Since February 2003, he has been on NPR 67 times, most often (28 appearances) on All Things Considered (ATC). The latest was March 28, when he gave ATC listeners an assessment of the fifth anniversary of the war.
While Scales has a stellar military background, he is also president of Colgen, Inc., a defense consulting company. But rarely was he identified on air as a defense consultant. Only once in December 2006 was Scales' relationship to Colgen mentioned.
At the same time NPR hired Scales, the network also hired Rhame for $100 an hour, but did not install a home phone line, according to his contract.
Rhame is now a vice president of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), a private, non-profit educational organization that supports Army personnel and their families. During Operation Desert Storm, Rhame commanded the 1st Infantry Division.
Rhame has appeared on NPR news shows 48 times — 43 of them in 2003. Unlike Scales, his affiliation with AUSA was often mentioned.
NPR put the two generals on contract because competition for military expertise among the electronic media was fierce as the war ramped up and NPR wanted its own experts on call.
"We were facing the unique situation that everyone was looking for the same resource," said Bruce Drake, former NPR vice president for news who left in 2005 and is with Congressional Quarterly. "Doing contracts for regulars was not something we often did. It was a pretty hectic time and there was a lot going on. I don't think there's any more mystery."
It was Tom Gjelten, NPR's Pentagon correspondent in 2003, who recommended Scales and Rhame based on their military expertise. Gjelten said they were not vetted for business ties that might pose conflicts.
"We didn't honestly even consider that as I recall," said Gjelten, who now covers intelligence agencies. "In the New York Times' analysis, it's a fairly complicated triangular scenario that produces a conflict: A General wants to be a military analyst on NPR or some other news organization in order to curry favor with the Department of Defense which in turn will benefit him in his defense contracting. That's a hypothetical scenario we have to be concerned about."
While Scales and Rhame may not have been vetted by NPR, it doesn't appear that either had any glaring business conflicts.
Rhame works for a non-profit. Scales sees himself as a historian and futurist who, as an independent consultant, writes papers and manuals. In fact, in the summer of 2004 Scales was one of the first retired generals to contend that the military — not just the Bush administration — should bear some blame for what was going wrong in Iraq.
Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee in 2004, he criticized the military for spending too much money on technology and not enough on educating its officers and soldiers about Iraq and Afghanistan.
"War is a thinking man's game," he testified. "A military too used to solving war-fighting problems just with technology alone should begin to realize that war must also be fought with intellect. We need to think about outthinking rather than out-equipping the enemy."
Scales co-founded Colgen, Inc. in 2003 with retired Col. Jack H. Pryor. Colgen is "a defense consulting and services company that advocates land power as the preeminent force in the defense of the nation," according to its web site.
"I write papers, manuals, articles, give speeches and briefings mainly on military history, concepts, future warfare and insights from Iraq and Afghanistan among other topics," said Scales, who has a PhD in history from Duke University. "In general, my clients hire me based on my reputation as a defense intellectual."
Both Gjelten and NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman say Scales does not spout the Pentagon's line.
"I have known Scales for years and like Tom (Gjelten) never heard him spin," said Bowman. "I have always found him to be well informed, decent and a straight shooter, and he was certainly no great fan of the (former Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld Pentagon, like many former and current Army generals who were also not fans."
Here is what The Times wrote about Scales:
Robert H. Scales, Jr., a retired Army General and analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio whose consulting company advises several military firms on weapons and tactics used in Iraq, wanted the Pentagon to approve high-level briefings for him inside Iraq in 2006.
"Recall the stuff I did after my last visit," he wrote. "I will do the same this time."
This was a reference to a trip Scales made to Iraq in October 2005, sponsored by the office of the secretary of defense.
"What I meant to say was that I went in 2005 and I came back and reported on what I saw and I will be perfectly open to do the same thing again," Scales told me.
But the Pentagon did not approve his request for a second visit in 2006. Scales says he returned to Iraq for eight days last November at the invitation of General David H. Petraeus, the current U.S. commander.
"When I think things are going well, I'll say that," said Scales. "When they are going badly, I'll say that. If NPR's audience is concerned about me being under the influence of contractors or the administration, they are wrong. Frankly, I was lumped together with a whole bunch of people who were cited in this article and the inference was somehow I was a shill for the administration. I'm not."
The Times story about the military analysts did not give Scales' an opportunity to explain his role, except for a quote that "none of us drink the Kool-aid." In other words, Scales said he and other generals did not automatically accept the Pentagon's arguments.
"The idea that I can't think for myself is what I find so disturbing about The Times' piece," said Scales.
After reading The Times story, however, about 40 NPR listeners either called or emailed to say they found it difficult to see Scales as anything but a lapdog for the Pentagon. Some said Scales should never appear on air again. Another suggested that all Scales interviews should be deleted from NPR's archives.
"As Ombudsman, you should demand that Scales be fired," wrote Vincent Valdmanis.
Since Scales is no longer on contract with NPR, he can't be fired. Rather than toss Scales off the air and lose his practical and scholarly knowledge of the Army, in the future NPR should always be transparent and identify him as a defense consultant with Colgen.
NPR's audience can evaluate what Scales says through that lens. NPR should also append a note to each archived Scales' appearances that indicates he is also a defense consultant with Colgen. What also is needed, and I believe NPR will now begin doing, is a more careful vetting of all experts before they go on air.
As soon as NPR editors read The Times' piece, emails began flying trying to assess the damage and determine how to proceed. NPR waited until Wednesday on Talk of the Nation to first discuss this issue publicly. The Bryant Park Project followed up the next day with two pieces on how the media was ignoring The Times' story.
Within two days after The Times story appeared, NPR had developed detailed guidelines for vetting on-air guests and looking for potential conflicts of interests that even guests may not consider.
"Generally, I think The New York Times piece was a good wake-up call for all of us," said Christopher Turpin, executive producer of All Things Considered. "After consultations, Ellen Weiss, vice president for News has already implemented good common sense changes in our procedures that balance aggressive vetting with the practicalities of booking guests on exceedingly tight deadlines. I'll certainly make clear that my staff get the message loud and clear."
The Pentagon too has re-thought its practice. On Friday, Pentagon officials suspended the special briefings for retired military media analysts.