As reported in The New York Times last year, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and others 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.” As the FCC launches an investigation, we thought we'd replay our interview with Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, a former Green Beret and Fox News contributor through 2005.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the Federal Communications Commission said it is investigating, as The New York Times reported last spring, whether many of those talking heads had been coached and even subsidized by the Pentagon. Were the networks and their audiences duped by wolves in civilian clothing? Were the Pentagon surrogates further compromised by undisclosed ties to military contractors enriching themselves in Iraq?
Last spring we spoke to one of the analysts named by The Times, Major Robert Bevelacqua. A former Green Beret and Fox News contributor through 2005, Bevelacqua had his first sit-down with the Pentagon brass in 2003. MAJ. ROBERT BEVELACQUA: And, of course, I'm the lowest-ranking guy in the room ‘cause 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? MAJ. 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. Now, that's when I started referring it to 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? MAJ. ROBERT BEVELACQUA: 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, so 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? MAJ. 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, I was - 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? MAJ. 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 got to tell you, you know, I'm not a Republican, I'm not a Democrat. I'm extremely independent. I’d 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? MAJ. 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 ‘cause 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? MAJ. 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 it is - 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. MAJ. ROBERT BEVELACQUA: Take care. BOB GARFIELD: Robert Bevelacqua is a former Green Beret and a former military analyst for Fox News.
We spoke to him last April. When we called him this week, he said he had not yet been summoned by investigators at the FCC, but he did have a recent sit-down with the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office, which is conducting its own investigation, at the behest of Congress, of the talking heads controversy. He said he wasn't allowed to say more.