As reported in The New York Times last weekend, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and others have turned, again and again, to military analysts – retired members of the armed forces hired by broadcast and cable networks – for their supposed expertise on the war. Only, it turns out, the analysts were often coached by the Pentagon in what the Times said were “hundreds of private briefings.” Among those named was Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, a former Green Beret and Fox News contributor through 2005. Bevelacqua discusses his own role in the march to war.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If you wanted an unbiased assessment of the war in Iraq, who would you turn to? [CLIPS] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cowan is a retired U.S. Marine and a Fox News military analyst. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS MATTHEWS: Welcome back to Hardball. While the political battle over Iraq, the war funding and the troop patrol issues eat up, General Barry McCaffrey just got back from Iraq. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And we're joined now in our studio by Major General Robert Scales, one of NPR's military consultants. [END CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: As reported by David Barstow in The New York Times last weekend, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR and others have turned again and again to military analysts, retired members of the armed forces. Only it turns out the analysts were often coached by the Pentagon in what The Times said were "hundreds of private briefings." They were treated to tours of Iraq and frozen out when they failed to tout the Pentagon line.
As if that weren't compromising enough, many of the analysts have financial ties to military contractors who stood to benefit from positive appraisals of the war.
Among the many analysts named by The Times was Major Robert Bevelacqua, a former Green Beret and Fox News contributor through 2005, who had his first sit-down with the Pentagon brass in 2003. MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: And, of course, I'm the lowest-ranking guy in the room because I'm a former major, and the majority of the folks there were retired generals – some three-stars, two-stars – basically the whole Milky Way.
A large oblong table and a packet which contained slides and general information, or talking points, if you will, that the Pentagon wanted to use. The intent was obvious. It was to give us the party line so we would at least have it and know it verbatim.
Of course, at no time did they say, guys, this is what you've got to say when you get on the air. BOB GARFIELD: Although in The Times you're quoted as saying, "It was them saying we need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you," how long before you figured that out? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: That became obvious for me after my trip back from Iraq in October of 2003. Having spent a month on the ground and then going back to one of these sessions, it became obvious to me that they really didn't know what was happening in Iraq.
And they weren't interested in telling the reality of the situation on the ground to the American people. They were going back to their standard talking points. And from what I saw on the ground, it was a full-blown insurgency. And this was in '03. That's when I started referring to it as the Kool-Aid session, and I no longer participated. BOB GARFIELD: Now, were you hired by Fox to give an independent analysis of the situation in Iraq from a Green Beret's point of view? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: I was hired to provide analysis initially on the campaign in Afghanistan, which was predominantly all special forces. I started off on CNN, did a couple of interviews, received the phone call from Fox, was invited, went to Fox and started to do interviews and provide analysis on a number of different shows, and it took off.
Well, into the Afghanistan campaign the war drums for Iraq started to get beaten. I was a Desert Storm veteran, so I knew mechanized tactics. I knew special operations tactics. I had been on the ground in Iraq. So for me not to be commentating on the war was ridiculous, and naturally I just fell into that role. BOB GARFIELD: What kind of reception did you get from the Fox hosts when you did not parrot more or less what the Pentagon was telling you? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: I was called into one individual's office following my trip from Iraq to do a debriefing in which I was asked my opinion. After giving my opinion, it was basically jammed back down my throat – I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. BOB GARFIELD: This was a Fox News host who told you, you didn't know what you were talking about? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: It's a pretty senior individual that has his own show. And where I really became uncomfortable was my analysis would get questioned because it didn't fit a certain party line. And that, for me - I have some serious issues with that.
And I've got to tell you, you know, I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I'm extremely independent. I voted in one presidential election in my life because I thought I had a choice, and that was for Ross Perot.
So I don't like being jabbed on either side or labeled as conservative or liberal. I try and play it down the middle of the road. And that's where my analysis went, down the middle of the road, and it just so happened to be on the wrong side. BOB GARFIELD: Now, in The Times, the piece makes clear that there were swirling conflicts of interest. There was the relationship between the Pentagon and the supposedly independent analysts of the war. There was also the relationship between the analysts and their other employers, in many cases, military contractors. How did that figure into the dynamic of what was said on television and what was not said? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: You know, I can only speak for myself. I can't speak for other folks, other than what I heard, overheard in the Green Room, and that was folks expressing concern about airing an opinion that may adversely affect them while at work.
At the time, I was working for a mid-sized firm that did have some DOD contracts, and I had the owner of that company flat-out tell me, you need to be careful what you say on the air. Never say anything contradictory about George Bush because it could affect us. I quit two weeks later. BOB GARFIELD: The Times story is kind of horrifying on the face of it, and we've discussed what it had right. Was there anything that David Barstow got wrong? MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: Yeah. David Barstow forgot that there were human beings with blood flowing through their veins that got behind the camera. To come out and say that they were all puppets and that they all promulgated information whether they agreed with it or not is not very accurate.
And is it any mystery that a room filled with conservative men that spent their life serving their country probably would support an administrative position on going to war?
So he missed, for me, he missed that human component of the story. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Bob, thank you very much. I appreciate your time. MAJOR ROBERT BEVELACQUA: Take care. BOB GARFIELD: Robert Bevelacqua is a former Green Beret and former military analyst for Fox News.