Who Pays the Pro-War Pundits?
September 16, 2014
Democracy Now! & Lee Fang / The Nation
Talking heads like former General Jack Keane are all over the news media fanning fears of ISIS. Shouldn't the public know about their links to Pentagon contractors?
Who Pays the Pro-War Pundits?
Conflicts of Interest Exposed for
TV Guests Backing Military Action
(September 15, 2014) -- A new report finds many talking heads who have been fanning the flames of war in the news media have ties to Pentagon contractors.
Reporting for The Nation, Lee Fang details how television analysts including retired generals Jack Keane and Anthony Zinni and former Department of Homeland Security official Frances Townsend have appeared on television recently, but their ties to military contractors were not disclosed.
Fang writes many of these commentators "have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world." Keane, for example, is a special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater, and a board member to military manufacturer General Dynamics. He is also a "venture partner" to SCP Partners, an investment firm that works with defense contractors.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to an investigative report that finds many talking heads who have been fanning the flames of war in the news media have ties to Pentagon contractors. In a piece headlined "Who's Paying the Pro-War Pundits?" reporter Lee Fang says many of these commentators, quote, "have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world."
Fang continues, "Ramping up America's military presence in Iraq and directly entering the war in Syria, along with greater military spending more broadly, is a debatable solution to a complex political and sectarian conflict. But those goals do unquestionably benefit one player in this saga: America's defense industry."
AMY GOODMAN: The ties of pundits to Pentagon contractors who stand to profit off war are not disclosed by the media where they proffer their views.
One of the worst offenders in this regard is retired General Jack Keane, who, according to the piece, has appeared on Fox News at least nine times over the last two months advocating military strikes against ISIS. Let's go to a clip from Sunday.
JACK KEANE: I do believe that the air campaign that's taking place in Iraq now will be expanded. But also we should expand immediately into Syria. He does not need congressional authorization for that. I'll leave it to him whether he thinks he should get that or not, but the fact of the matter from a military perspective, we should be bombing Syria and Iraq simultaneously now.
AMY GOODMAN: That's retired General Jack Keane, speaking on Fox News Sunday. He is introduced simply as a think tank leader and a former military official. Again, what's not disclosed is the range of his affiliations with Pentagon contractors.
Keane is a special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater, and a board member of the military contractor General Dynamics.
He's also a venture partner to SCP Partners, an investment firm that works with military contractors. Keane's think tank has also provided data on ISIS used by The New York Times, the BBC and other major outlets.
To find out more, we go to San Francisco to speak with the author of the piece, Lee Fang. He is an investigative fellow with The Nation Institute, contributing writer at the magazine.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lee.
LEE FANG: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, first, General Keane and some of the other people that you have found, not -- the issue is not so much who they work for, but that they are not identified as working for them when they're brought on television.
LEE FANG: That's right, Amy. We look at a number of prominent pundits, contributors to cable news networks, who have gone on television, appeared in the pages of different print outlets, submitted op-eds, and these individuals are only acknowledged or identified for their previous roles as officials at the State Department or former generals. Their current roles as advisers or board members to defense contractors have not been disclosed.
Many of these individuals have called for an escalation in the region, arming different militant groups, calling for an increased air campaign for entering the conflict in Syria -- many different military solutions to a very complex problem. But again, as you mentioned, these individuals have not -- their ties to military contractors, that could benefit from these policies, have not been disclosed.
You talked a little bit about former General Jack Keane. Well, Jack Keane is the Fox News military analyst. He appears regularly on the Sunday programs and on prime-time television. And remember, Fox News is the largest cable network.
They bring in over four million, sometimes 4.5 million, viewers in their prime-time news coverage. And in many cases, Keane is the only military voice, the analyst brought in to provide the military point of view, so many Americans are only getting his opinion without knowing that he works for many different defense contractors.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to comments made by someone else whom you cite in the piece, CNN commentator Frances Townsend, who has also been calling for a tougher stance on ISIS. She previously worked in the Bush administration. Let's go to two clips of Townsend on CNN.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Bombing ISIS targets in Iraq is not going to be enough, because all you're going to do is push them back into the safe haven that Syria has become. And so, we need a strategic plan to absolutely wipe out ISIS completely.
I would say this can't just be an Iraqi operation, because if you do that, then you push ISIS into Syria, where they enjoy safe haven. So you've got to have a broader strategy that includes the safe have in Syria.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was CNN commentator Frances Townsend. Lee, can you talk about who she is and why it's complicated that she's saying what she is?
LEE FANG: Right, Townsend is a former Bush administration official. She's also a contributor to CNN, meaning she's a regular guest, appearing almost every other day in some weeks. But she's also an adviser to several defense consulting firms. She also works at a holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes, which owns several defense contractors.
One of the largest is AM General, which makes Humvees and other armored vehicles. So, obviously, this is a company -- AM General, in particular -- that has benefited from the war in Iraq. They've sold many vehicles to the government there.
So, when she goes on television and discusses military action in Iraq, and in many cases solely talks about the need to increase military involvement in that region, she's not disclosing, again, how some of her current ties to military contractors could pose a conflict of interest.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by former head of CENTCOM, retired four-star general, Anthony Zinni, who has been advocating for a large deployment of U.S. troops to the region. He recently spoke to Fox News Radio following the release of the video showing U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff being beheaded.
ANTHONY ZINNI: I think, clearly, this is -- this group has to be dealt with, and dealt with firmly. The atrocities they've committed, near genocide in some cases, the beheadings that are absolutely horrific. So I think we need to do what we are capable of to destroy especially their conventional capability they've taken from the Iraqis and from others in Syria and Iraq.
So, I mean, I support the airstrikes. I think eventually we're going to have to have a security assistance program in place for the Kurds and the Iraqis to make sure that they can prevent the possibility of ISIS coming back.
AMY GOODMAN: That's General Anthony Zinni, again, advocating for more war in the Middle East. Did you call the networks, Lee Fang, to get their response to why they're not identifying these pundits or former generals as contractors for the contractors?
LEE FANG: We reached out to several of these pundits; they did not respond. If any of the networks or the pundits do respond, we'll certainly update the piece. But, you know, the general you just played a clip from, Anthony Zinni, is a board member to BAE Systems, one of the largest defense contractors in the world, based in the United Kingdom.
What's interesting is that last -- or, earlier this month, Bank of America released a research note explaining that BAE Systems, which is a stock that slumped throughout much of this year, they're expected to rebound because of the conflict in Iraq and Syria and in the region. So, this entire military strategy, the military escalation, certainly benefits companies like Zinni's firm, BAE Systems.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a correlation between the number of people advocating for war, or should I say the lack of a antiwar response in the media, with the polls that show overwhelmingly Americans are for striking Islamic State?
LEE FANG: Well, sure. Of course, military opinion is not monolithic, but on many of these networks, you hear from a limited set of opinions. Again, for Fox News, if you watch their prime-time coverage, which is absolutely dominating it -- it receives more viewers than the two biggest competitors, MSNBC and CNN, combined -- you only hear from a very small set of opinions.
Again, folks like retired General Jack Keane, they're the only military experts brought on for some of these prime-time programs. And so, of course, if Americans are only hearing from a very select point of view, they aren't hearing from a diverse array of expert opinion, that's going to influence public opinion.
And again, no one's saying that we shouldn't have some of these former generals speaking in the media. I think what many experts, media ethics professors and others, have called for is simply more disclosure.
AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, we want to thank you for being with us. A new piece in The Nation, we'll link to, "Who's Paying the Pro-War Pundits?"
LEE FANG: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the crisis of Ebola. We'll be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett. Stay with us.
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Who's Paying the Pro-War Pundits?
(September 12, 2014) -- f you read enough news and watch enough cable television about the threat of the Islamic State, the radical Sunni Muslim militia group better known simply as ISIS, you will inevitably encounter a parade of retired generals demanding an increased US military presence in the region.
They will say that our government should deploy, as retired General Anthony Zinni demanded, up to 10,000 American boots on the ground to battle ISIS. Or as in retired General Jack Keane's case, they will make more vague demands, such as for "offensive" air strikes and the deployment of more military advisers to the region.
But what you won't learn from media coverage of ISIS is that many of these former Pentagon officials have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world.
Ramping up America's military presence in Iraq and directly entering the war in Syria, along with greater military spending more broadly, is a debatable solution to a complex political and sectarian conflict. But those goals do unquestionably benefit one player in this saga: America's defense industry.
Keane is a great example of this phenomenon. His think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which he oversees along with neoconservative partisans Liz Cheney and William Kristol, has provided the data on ISIS used for multiple stories by The New York Times, the BBC and other leading outlets.
Keane has appeared on Fox News at least nine times over the last two months to promote the idea that the best way to stop ISIS is through military action -- in particular, through air strikes deep into ISIS-held territory.
In one of the only congressional hearings about ISIS over the summer, Keane was there to testify and call for more American military engagement. On Wednesday evening, Keane declared President Obama's speech on defeating ISIS insufficient, arguing that a bolder strategy is necessary. "I truly believe we need to put special operation forces in there," he told host Megyn Kelly.
Left unsaid during his media appearances (and left unmentioned on his congressional witness disclosure form) are Keane's other gigs: as special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater; as a board member to tank and aircraft manufacturer General Dynamics; a "venture partner" to SCP Partners, an investment firm that partners with defense contractors, including XVionics, an "operations management decision support system" company used in Air Force drone training; and as president of his own consulting firm, GSI LLC.
To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world. For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006.
Keane did not immediately return a call requesting comment for this article.
Disclosure would also help the public weigh Keane's policy advocacy. For instance, in his August 24 opinion column for The Wall Street Journal, in which he was bylined only as a retired general and the chairman of ISW, Keane wrote that "the time has come to confront the government of Qatar, which funds and arms ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas."
While media reports have linked fundraisers for ISIS with individuals operating in Qatar (though not the government), the same could be said about Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where many of the major donors of ISIS reportedly reside. Why did Keane single out Qatar and ignore Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? Is it because his company, Academi, has been a major business partner to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar's primary rival in the region?
Other examples abound.
In a Washington Post story about Obama's decision not to deploy troops to combat ISIS, retired Marine General James Mattis was quoted as a skeptic. "The American people will once again see us in a war that doesn't seem to be making progress," Mattis told the paper. Left unmentioned was Mattis's new role as Keane's colleague on the General Dynamics corporate board, a role that afforded Mattis $88,479 in cash and stock options in 2013.
Retired General Anthony Zinni, perhaps the loudest advocate of a large deployment of American soliders into the region to fight ISIS, is a board member to BAE Systems' US subsidiary, and also works for several military-focused private equity firms.
CNN pundit Frances Townsend, a former Bush administration official, has recently appeared on television calling for more military engagement against ISIS.
As the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit that studies elite power structures, reported, Townsend "holds positions in two investment firms with defense company holdings, MacAndrews & Forbes and Monument Capital Group, and serves as an advisor to defense contractor Decision Sciences."
"Mainstream news outlets have a polite practice of identifying former generals and former congressmembers as simply 'formers' -- neglecting to inform the public of what these individuals are doing now, which is often quite pertinent information, like that they are corporate lobbyists or board members," says Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College.
Media outlets might justify their omissions by reasoning that these pundits have merely advocated certain military strategies, not specific weapons systems, so disclosure of their financial stake in the policy need not be made. Yet the drumbeat for war has already spiraled into calls for increased military spending that lifts all boats -- or non-operational jets for that matter.
When the Pentagon sent a recent $2 billion request for ramped-up operations in the Middle East, supposedly to confront the ISIS issue, budget details obtained by Bloomberg News revealed that officials asked for money for additional F-35 planes.
The F-35 is not in operation and would not be used against ISIS. The plane is notoriously over budget and perpetually delayed -- some experts call it the most expensive weapon system in human history -- with a price tag now projected to be over $1 trillion. In July, an engine fire grounded the F-35 fleet and again delayed the planned debut of the plane. How it ended up in the Pentagon's Middle East wish list is unclear.
"I think an inclination to use military action a lot is something the defense industry subscribes to because it helps to perpetuate an overall climate of permissiveness towards military spending," says Ed Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School for Journalism.
Wasserman says that the media debate around ISIS has tilted towards more hawkish former military leaders, and that the public would be best served not only with better disclosure but also a more balanced set of opinions that would include how expanded air strikes could cause collateral civil casualties. "The past fifty years has a lot of evidence of the ineffectiveness of air power when it comes to dealing with a more nimble guerrilla-type adversary, and I'm not hearing this conversation," he notes.
The pro-war punditry of retired generals has been the subject of controversy in the past. In a much-cited 2008 exposé, The New York Times revealed a network of retired generals on the payroll of defense contractors who carefully echoed the Bush administration's Iraq war demands through appearances on cable television.
The paper's coverage of the run-up to a renewed conflict in the region today has been notably measured, including many voices skeptical of calls for a more muscular military response to ISIS. Nonetheless, the Times has relied on research from a contractor-funded advocacy organization as part of its ISIS coverage.
Reports produced by Keane's ISW have been used to support six different infographics used for Times stories since June. The Times has not mentioned Keane's potential conflict of interest or that ISW may have a vested stake in its policy positions.
The Public Accountability Initiative notes that ISW's corporate sponsors represent "a who's who of the defense industry and includes Raytheon, SAIC, Palantir, General Dynamics, CACI, Northrop Grumman, DynCorp, and L-3 Communication." As the business network CNBC reported this week, Raytheon in particular has much to gain from escalation in Iraq, as the company produces many of the missiles and radar equipment used in airstrikes.
In addition to providing reports and quotes for the media, ISW leaders have demanded a greater reaction to ISIS from the Obama administration. In The Weekly Standard this week, ISW president Kim Kagan wrote that President Obama's call for a limited engagement against ISIS "has no chance of success."
ISW's willingness to push the envelope has gotten the organization into hot water before. In 2013, ISW suffered an embarrassing spectacle when one of its analysts, Elizabeth O'Bagy, was found to have inflated her academic credentials, touting a PhD from a Georgetown program that she had never entered.
But memories are short, and the media outlets now relying heavily on ISW research have done little to scrutinize the think tank's policy goals. Over the last two years, ISW, including O'Bagy, were forcefully leading the push to equip Syrian rebels with advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to defeat Bashar al-Assad.
For Keane, providing arms to Syrian rebels, even anti-American groups, was a worthwhile gamble. In an interview with Fox Business Network in May of last year, Keane acknowledged that arming Syrian rebels might mean "weapons can fall into radical Islamists' hands."
He continued, "It is true the radical Islamists have gained in power and influence mainly because we haven't been involved and that is a fact, but it's still true we have vetted some of these moderate rebel groups with the CIA, and I'm convinced we can -- it's still acceptable to take that risk, and let's get on with changing momentum in the war."
That acceptable risk Keane outlined has come to fruition. Recent reports now indicate that US-made weapons sent from American allies in the region to Syrian rebels have fallen into the hands of ISIS.
Keane, and ISW, is undeterred. The group just put out a call for 25,000 ground troops in Iraq and Syria.
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