Peace Researcher 39 – January 2010


- Sagar Sanyal


A military or an intelligence agency embodies a concentration of power. At times, concentrations of power and their deployment may be necessary. However, a cautionary acknowledgement is that there is a potential for concentrations of power being used for unjust purposes. I take it to be an uncontroversial precautionary principle that we should bind concentrations of power with various checks and balances to minimise the possibility of their being used for unjust purposes.


With respect to the US military and intelligence agencies, such checks and balances include strong democratic accountability. Any policy regarding use of the military should be vetted by an informed public. Another check is to neutralise as far as possible any systematic pressures to deploy the military. The public (or elected representatives) may still determine that military or covert action is appropriate in a given case. However, the absence of systematic pressures to act thus would ensure that this power is only deployed when determined to be necessary. I discuss various domestic US institutions that either reduce democratic accountability of the military and intelligence agencies or that create systematic pressures for their use. The discussion addresses the following four questions.


1. What sorts of groups are likely to benefit most from military intervention by the US government?

2. Through which institutions are these interests able to have disproportionate influence on foreign policy?

3. Are there any institutional features that increase the likelihood of a significant component of military and covert intervention in US foreign policy?

4. Are there any institutions that reduce the ability of a relatively peaceful public majority to counter the influence of the relevant special interests?


In answering these four questions, I discuss various institutions. These include: lobbying and campaign finance pressure from the defence industry and from other industries on policy makers; “revolving door” appointments in the relevant industries and the relevant policy offices; the threat of reducing jobs in a Congressional district; the maintenance of a proliferation of US military bases abroad; the secrecy of various intelligence and military activities of agencies in the US and the lack of oversight by Congress; the poor performance of mass media; and the propaganda (or psychological operations) of the Defense Department. These institutions operate in various ways, as distinguished by the various subheadings above. Some of the institutions create a pressure on foreign policymakers to intervene politically or militarily, others make certain types of intervention more attractive in comparison to alternative ways to address a given problem. Some institutions make it easier for the identified special interest groups to shape policy without the critical attention of either Congress or of a significant proportion of the voting population.


What Sorts Of Groups Are Likely To Benefit Most From Military Intervention By The US Government?


Systematic pressures to deploy the military are likely to emerge from the defence industry (which supplies the Government with weapons and various services in the event of military action) and from large industries (especially extractive industries) that might benefit from using covert or overt military action that secures access to natural resources or to markets in foreign lands. With respect to pressure from the defence industry, this idea of the military-industrial complex has occupied popular discourse at least since former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech upon leaving office. With respect to pressure from extractive industries, this idea has been discussed popularly in the context of colonialism and empire.


Defence Industry


Traditional defence companies make the goods of war, such as weapons, ammunition, aircraft, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. They also provide technical services to maintain these weapons and services such as logistics, training and communications support. The major US companies in this industry include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon. These five are also among the six largest defence companies worldwide (the other being the UK company BAE Systems).


More recently, private intelligence gathering companies have been contracted by Government intelligence gathering agencies. Major such companies include Science Applications International Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton and CACI International (see Jeremy Agar’s review of Tim Shorrock’s “Spies For Hire”, elsewhere in this issue. Ed.). The services of CACI include the provision of interrogators, four of whom have been accused of being directly or indirectly responsible for torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib (Shorrock 2008: p281).


Private military contractors or PMCs offer personnel (as opposed to equipment) for combat zones. Their services include armed combat services, retired officers to provide strategic advice and military training; logistics; intelligence; maintenance services to armed forces; and tactical combat operations. Camp Doha in Kuwait, which served as the launch pad for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was not only built by a PMC but also operated and guarded by one. Significant use of PMCs began in the early 1990s and has boomed in the 21st Century (Singer 2005).


There are problems peculiar to the growing PMCs and to the intelligence gathering companies that are not shared by other aspects of the defence industry. For instance, while US military personnel are accountable to a system of laws defining acceptable conduct and to an institution for enforcing these laws, private contractors hired by the Pentagon may not be. While US intelligence agencies may be legally bound by laws circumscribing permissible spying and may be subject to established oversight institutions to enforce these laws, contracted intelligence gatherers may not be so easily bound by enforceable law and their activities may remain hidden from any oversight under the guise of a business secret.


These companies have significant interests tied to US foreign policy. Here are the revenues from defence activities for 2007 for some of the larger companies. Lockheed Martin received $US38.5 billion; Boeing received $US32b; Northrop Grumman $US24b; Raytheon $US19.8b. Of the intelligence gathering companies, SAIC received $US6.5b and Booz Allen Hamilton received almost $US3b ( companies have significant business deals with the US Departments of Defense and State, and various US intelligence agencies. Insofar as covert or overt military or political intervention abroad by US government agencies requires the products and services of the arms, intelligence gathering and private contractor companies, the companies have an interest in the US government pursuing such foreign policies.


There are also ways for the defence industry to profit from US foreign policy other than by directly selling their products to the US military establishment. The companies can sell their products to the governments of other countries. An aspect of US foreign policy is its training of foreign militaries. The US State Department’s International Military Education and Training programme offered military training to 133 countries in 2002 (for comparison, there are 189 member countries in the UN). Such close contact between US military instructors and foreign officers and familiarity (during training) with US-made weapons translates into an inside track in weapons sales to these foreign governments. The seller of weapons in these transactions might be the Defense Department or private companies licensed to sell weapons by the State Department. This is a lucrative trade. The US is the biggest seller of munitions worldwide and exported $US44.82 billion in arms over the period 1997-2001 (Johnson 2004: pp132-3).


Non-Defence Industries


Various industries (often extractive industries) would like access to the natural resources of foreign countries. Cost minimising motives predispose such companies to use means at their disposal to ensure the cheapest possible access to these resources. A foreign political aspirant’s declared intention to nationalise, say, the country’s oil industry or to raise the royalties demanded for resources, would encroach on the cost minimising motive of the company. If the company C from the US competes against a company from foreign country F over access to natural resources in a third country T, C might win the access to the resources if the political regime in T is friendlier to the Government of the US than to the Government of F. These sorts of considerations create an interest in influencing the US government to pursue a certain type of foreign policy, to bring about a certain sort of regime in a foreign country. Let me mention two of the better known examples of such intervention.


The US and British backed coup deposing Prime Minister Mosaddeq of Iran in 1953 and US support of the ensuing dictatorship of the brutal Shah is an example of covert US action tied up with oil interests. Mosaddeq had nationalised the country’s oil industry which at the time had a significant role for British oil interests. The United Fruit Company successfully pressured the Eisenhower government to topple democratically elected President Arbenz of Guatemala via the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1954. Arbenz’s agrarian reform agenda was set to hurt the company’s interests, which included large landholdings in the country.


Through Which Institutions Are These Interests Able To Have Disproportionate Influence On Foreign Policy?


This is a matter of the means by which a special interest group can influence the relevant foreign policymakers in the US government. As with any special interests, these ones are likely to seek to influence policy through lobbying and campaign finance. This influence can target both the Executive branch (through political parties) and Congress. A “revolving door” between highly placed officers in these companies and highly placed officers in the Executive branch of Government also raises concerns about conflict of interest improprieties. An additional influence of defence companies on Congresspersons is through the threat of removing skilled defence jobs from the Congressional district. The degree of influence afforded by such mechanisms is disproportionate to the number of voters benefiting from the decision. The majority of voters may have little to gain from the policy, and may even be against military intervention. However, organised, wealthy and well-connected special interests have greater influence on policymakers through lobbying and campaign contributions than do unorganised, relatively poor and relatively poorly connected voters.


Lobbying, Campaign Contributions, Political Engineering And Front-Loading


A six year study (1998-2003) of Department of Defense contracts, found that the ten largest defence contractors all spent heavily on both campaign contributions (a combined $US35.7 million) and lobbying ($US414.6 million). The return on their investment was a combined $US340 billion in contracts over that time (Center for Public Integrity, 2004). Other major lobbying industries include the energy industry. Campaign contributions and lobbying are aimed both at Congresspersons and at the Executive. To influence the Executive branch, attention might be lavished on senior members of the relevant political parties, and on the Presidential candidates.


Former Defense Department military analyst, Franklin Spinney, describes the two techniques of front-loading and political engineering used by defence companies. Political engineering involves defence contractors spreading jobs and profits over as many Congressional districts as possible. Complex weapons systems often involve sub-systems that are sub-contracted to other firms. Such sub-contracting increases the ability to spread production across Congressional districts. This maximises the number of Congresspersons who stand to lose jobs and revenue for their district’s economy (and potentially stand to lose votes as a consequence) in case the defence contract is cancelled. Such pork barrel politics also allows Congresspersons to ingratiate themselves with constituents by “winning” defence contracts for their district.


Those approving a defence programme may have qualms about its cost. Front-loading is the idea of attaining this approval by quoting unrealistically low figures in order to get the seed money for the programme. Once the programme is begun, it is easier to get approval for the actual, higher, costs, since failure to approve the costs would leave nothing to show for the seed investment. The approval is also made easier by political engineering, as many Congresspersons stand to lose jobs and revenue in their district. By presenting an unrealistically low estimate of the cost, the contract is made easier to approve. By political engineering, the contract is made difficult to terminate. Individuals in the Pentagon or Department of Defense are happy with the setup as they get control over a growing volume of resources and weapons. Individuals in the Congress are happy because this funnels Government money (via Department of Defense and via defence contractors) to their districts. The contractors are happy as they ensure greater demand for their products (Spinney 1998 [originally 1990]).

Revolving Door

An example of the institution of a revolving door is in private equity firms. A growing number of private equity firms are investing in defence companies in order to win contracts from the Department of Defense and the newly created Department of Homeland Security. This growth is understandable given the size of the potential pool available to contractors in this area. Half of the Defense Department budget (approximately $US900 billion between 1998 and 2003) has gone to contractors rather than paying for direct costs such as payrolls for the uniformed armed services (Center for Public Integrity, 2004). A 2004 report on private equity firms investing in defence companies revealed that such equity firms employ five of the past nine Defense Secretaries, two Secretaries of State, two National Security chiefs, two CIA Directors and dozens of distinguished retired military officials (Ismail, 2004b). For a discussion of the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm with some of the greatest revenue from defence contracts in recent years, see Ismail 2004a.


Here is an example of a revolving door between the Defense Department and the defence industry. In 1992 Dick Cheney held the office of Secretary of Defense. In that year, the Defense Department paid the company Brown & Root a total of $US8.9 million to produce a classified report detailing how private companies could help provide logistics for American troops. In the same year, that company won a contract to provide logistics for American troops. Between 1992 and 1999 the Defense Department paid Brown & Root over $US1.2 billion for its work.


Cheney left the office of Secretary of Defense in 1992 and between 1995 and 2000 he was Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton (of which Brown & Root was a subsidiary). When Cheney began his tenure at Halliburton, the latter was doing less than $US300 million a year in business with the Defense Department. By 1999, this figure had grown to over $US650 million (Bryce 2000). The obvious worry is that these ex-officials will be able to gain influence with their former colleagues in Government and gain a competitive edge for their defence companies over competitor companies. Another worry is that if Government officials are promised lucrative careers in a company after retirement from office, they may be willing to pull strings to favour that company in the awarding contracts.


Are There Any Institutional Features That Increase The Likelihood Of A Significant Component Of Military And Covert Intervention In US Foreign Policy?


There are three institutional factors to discuss – the proliferation of US military bases abroad, US training of foreign militaries and pressure from the defence industry. The US maintains a large number of military bases around the world. This makes it faster and cheaper to deploy troops whether for small scale covert operations, or, if the bases are large, also for larger and overt interventions. In addition there are the pressures from defence industry lobbies which would stand to gain contracts from any intervention. If a given problem can be addressed both through military/covert intervention and through other means, these institutions serve to systematically make the former means more attractive for the relevant foreign policy makers in the US government.


The US institution of training foreign militaries creates a channel of support for the relevant militaries through arms and intelligence. Such support can be a harmful sort of intervention in itself if the foreign military is repressive of the domestic population. The institution of training sometimes also allows the US to influence a foreign military to carry out US foreign policy by proxy, bypassing any domestic US compunction about the intervention. The Defense Department reports that in September 2001, there were 725 US military installations on foreign soil (Department of Defense 2002). These are the officially disclosed numbers. In addition, there exist bases that are undisclosed or secret, either because public knowledge that an installation is American would be politically embarrassing for the host government or for other reasons [1].


Since this was written, some more up to date figures have become available. “The global reach of the US military today is unprecedented and unparalleled. Officially more than 190,000 troops and 115 civilian employees are massed in approximately 900 military facilities in 46 countries and territories (the unofficial figure is far greater). The US military owns or rents 795,000 acres of land, with 26,000 buildings and structures, valued at $US146 billion” (New Statesman, 30/9/09; “Obama’s Empire: An Unprecedented Network of Military Bases That Is Still Expanding”, Catherine Lutz). Ed.


The presence of overseas bases in geopolitically strategic regions of the world potentially reduces the cost of at least small scale interventions abroad as personnel and equipment may not need to be moved from the US to the target region. The bases also provide personnel with an official reason for their presence in a region. This official reason can be the cover for covert operations. Thus, once a decision is made to militarily or politically interfere in a foreign country, the large number of bases stationed overseas may reduce the cost of an intervention or make a covert intervention easier to disguise. Pressure from defence industry lobbies to prefer an interventionist alternative to a more diplomatic one may make itself felt informally through the close ties between the governmental defence Establishment and the industry.


The US relies increasingly on its armed forces and intelligence agencies to deal with foreign policy issues at the expense of diplomatic resources. The general strategy has been to build close ties between the US military and the local military in a given region and thus open a channel of influence. Programmes of military training and education, security assistance and foreign military sales have formed a part of this strategy. A distinct feature of this approach (as compared to official diplomatic relations) is that Defense Department-related agencies are better able to operate covertly and to engage with unstable foreign powers without public scrutiny.


Within the US military, Unified Combatant Commands (UCCs) are joint military commands composed of forces from more than one service (such as the Army and the Air Force). There are six UCCs in charge of six broad regions of the world, carving up all inhabited continents. The commanders in charge of each region, called combatant commanders, are four star generals or admirals and report only to the Secretary of Defense and the President. They oversee such matters as arms sales, military bases, intelligence and special operations among others. These commanders have considerable impact on foreign policy in their region and often have more impact than US ambassadors operating in the region. One major type of influence is in the cultivation of close relations with local military organisations, often in the form of training missions by US Special Forces of the local military. These close relations serve as a conduit for arms sales, allow the possibility of US spying, and act as a channel of influence upon the local armies to carry out policies favoured by the US Defence Department (Johnson, 2004, p124).


The growing influence of the Defense Department in foreign policy, exhibited for instance in the significant powers available to the regional UCCs, makes it more likely that at least a part of the US foreign policy position in relation to a country will be in the form of military intervention. At times this will be because of explicit policy decisions in the US Executive branch to deal with a perceived crisis not by diplomacy but instead by intervention in the form of arming of local military and paramilitary forces or influencing local militaries to enact US foreign policy by proxies or by other covert operations.


However, even in the ordinary course of events and in the absence of any perceived crisis, arms sales and US training of foreign militaries can be a potentially harmful form of US military and political intervention abroad. For example, such training may support (in effect, if not by intent) the military of a repressive government against the wishes of the repressed population by supplying it with arms, training and techniques to keep rebellious populations under control (Lumpe, 2002, p16). The interest of the combatant commanders or of the Defense Department in maintaining cooperative relations with the local military may trump any concern about the human rights record of the local military or the level of domestic popular support for the Government even if the latter sorts of concerns have been raised by the State Department or by Congress (Lumpe, 2002, pp24-5). For some indication of the breadth of such influence, note that US special operations forces alone (leaving aside regular military forces) train foreign troops in around 150 countries annually (Lumpe, 2002, p1).


Here is an example. In 1991, Indonesian troops trained by the US and supplied by US weapons massacred hundreds in East Timor. This led Congress to cut all funding for Indonesia under the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET). However, the Defense Department secretly continued its military relations with Indonesia by initiating a new programme – the Joint Combined Exchange Training Program (JCET).The programme purported to give US Special Forces training in foreign languages and familiarity with the local military, but in fact allowed 36 training exercises with the Indonesian Special Forces between 1992 and 1998 (Johnson, 2004, pp137-8). The US Special Forces trained their counterparts in urban guerrilla warfare, surveillance, sniper marksmanship and psychological operations (Biddle, 2002).


Are There Any Institutions That Reduce The Ability Of A Relatively Peaceful Public Majority To Counter The Influence Of The Relevant Special Interests?


I discuss three institutions here – lack of democratic accountability; the poor performance of the mass media; and Government propaganda. Some of the military and covert interventions occur with little oversight by Congress. In such cases, there is not even a formal democratic check on the policy through Congressional representatives. The intelligence agencies, for example, conduct projects that are not properly identified on the budgets approved by Congress. Historically, projects by US intelligence agencies have included not merely spying, but also political intervention in other countries, arms exports, supporting of coups and political assassinations.


The poor performance of the mass media means that when a decision to militarily intervene is publicly aired, much of the voting public does not receive a balanced account of the issue. Academic analysis of the US mass media system notes various factors that contribute to the poor performance. A factor that relates closely to mass media, but that nonetheless deserves independent mention is that of Defense Department PSYOPS (psychological operations) programmes. Even when these are theoretically aimed at an international audience rather than the domestic one, the nature of global news coverage in mass media is such that the psyops influence domestic audiences as well. US voters other than an identified group of special interest formally have the capacity to influence the Government policy making and to temper the influence of their fellow constituents in the identified group. However, these are institutional reasons that reduce the likelihood and efficacy of the tempering.




Special Access Programs or SAPs are highly classified programmes funded in a way to keep the budget secret. The budgets for such programmes can be acquired through fake labels for projects or by channelling funds from other Government agencies to the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies. The Defense Department began this practice with the Manhattan Project during World War 2, which allowed the atomic bomb to be built without Congressional knowledge.


Such Special Access Programs (also known as black projects covered under a black budget) are extensively used and can be well funded. For some indication, in 1992, a Library of Congress report noted that the GAO (Government Accountability Office) had identified 185 such programmes and that recent estimates (since authoritative indicators are unavailable) suggest secret military spending of $US30 to $US35 billion per year (Caldwell, 1992). Since then, the black budget is thought to have expanded. In 2003, it was reported to be at its highest since 1988 (Morgan, 2003). Much of the programme involves research and development of expensive technology and weapons such as aircraft. However, the black budget also includes the budget for covert action by the many intelligence agencies.


Given the aim of plausible deniability for covert action, it is often difficult to establish where the authorisation for a specific covert action was initiated (Church Committee, 1975, p10). Since the 1970s’ Watergate scandal, there has been a requirement that CIA covert activity (if not covert activity carried out by other intelligence services) be authorised by a Presidential finding. Moreover, a selected group of Congresspersons receive briefings on the Special Access Programs – the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence. However, even this reporting requirement may be waived at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense (Johnson, 2004, pp117-8; 2006, p103). These provisions have not worked as intended. Congress forbade CIA funding of the Contras – an armed guerrilla group seeking to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. The CIA got around the problem of inadequate funding for their support of the Contras by diverting funds raised through arms sales to Iran and by turning a blind eye as traffickers smuggled cocaine into the US and diverted some money to the Contras. [2]


Moreover, in the absence of Presidential findings on a specific issue, the CIA has used “worldwide findings” as authority to initiate certain types of covert action. Covert operations can also be funded by seeking funds from corporations or foreign governments either as political favours or when some interests of these agents coincide with relevant interests of the decision-makers in the US government (Johnson, 2006, pp103-4).The 2005 US covert intervention in the Iraqi elections used retired CIA agents and other non-governmental personnel and funds not necessarily appropriated by Congress in the belief that it is only necessary to brief Congressional intelligence committees if the CIA operation is an officially sanctioned one (Hersh, 2005).


Mass Media


At times, a decision to intervene abroad is debated publicly before the intervention. One possible check on a representative government’s power to intervene is the action of a majority of the population exercising their democratic power over governmental policy. The majority public opinion about the justice of, or need for, a proposed intervention depends partly on the factual information available to the public, and on its consequent ability to assess the reasons advanced for the intervention by the Executive branch of the Government. The institution with primary responsibility and capacity for the dissemination of such factual information is the domestic mass media. [3]


In cases where the Government view has been captured by special interests who seek intervention, it is to be hoped that the news media would thoroughly assess the proposal to intervene to present the public with the requisite information to judge the cogency of the case for intervention. However, institutional analysis of US mass media suggests reasons that the news media’s discussion of a proposed intervention may tend to be insufficiently critical of Government pronouncements. Let me outline some of the relevant analysis.


In the US mass media system, the dominant news organisations operate as profit maximisers, and thus seek to minimise cost. They earn an income largely from advertising and have costs that include paying reporters and journalists and paying for independent investigations. Profit maximisation places certain sorts of pressures. It is costly to maintain a large staff of reporters to assign to stories as they arise, and it is costly to ask them to research each story, interview relevant sources, and seek out dissenting opinions. Wealthy and well organised groups can afford to make press releases, publications, briefings, and video and audio news releases about issues that affect their interests. Such groups can disseminate the press releases free of charge to news media. The cost minimising imperative of news organisations means that they will tend to have a bias towards accepting and presenting such cheap sources of news, and if at all possible, avoid incurring the cost of researching the issue themselves.


The groups with the requisite wealth for making such free press releases are, overwhelmingly, the corporate sector and the Government. Thus, simply by the cost minimising imperative, news media have a tendency to over-represent the views of the corporate sector and the Government. The corporate sector has long pursued a strategy for influencing media coverage of corporate issues by funding think tanks that can act as a nominally independent (not explicitly representing a corporation) source for interviewees. A very substantial US government effort in this field has long been maintained by such bodies as the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and other armed forces (see the sources cited in Herman and Chomsky, 2002, p20).


All this would not be so problematic if news outlets that were credulous and uncritical due to cost minimising pressures were balanced by other news outlets that are duly sceptical and that invest resources in independent research and scrutiny. We cannot hope to design a media institution that guarantees all and only the truth relevant to each important story. The best we can do is to design a system in which the poor performance of some news outlets is not too detrimental to the level of information available to the public, thanks to the better performance of competing news outlets. Informed by the diversity of voices, citizens can then make up their own minds as to what is best supported by evidence. This public good is undercut if a small number of voices dominates the relevant media and thus drowns out smaller voices. As a systematic consideration, it is desirable that the diversity of voices be relatively equal in power and reach in important respects, so that a more powerful competitor cannot drown out its rivals.


However, the mass media system in the US is highly concentrated. This is an important part of the explanation for the media’s poor performance. Even if critical voices exist that consistently expose relevant evidence that is mostly ignored by most media, the critical voices may not reach the majority of the public. The bulk of the mass media in the US is owned by about half a dozen giant conglomerates – Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, General Electric and Bertelsmann (Bagdikian, 2004, p3ff). There are other large media corporations that round out the dominant companies but that do not match the overall dominance of the big six. There are also some companies with particular dominance in a given medium, such as Clear Channel in radio, or Gannett in newspapers.


The power of the major media outlets lies not only in the fact that they are the direct source of news for a massive proportion of the public, but also in the fact that they set the agenda for many minor media outlets. Small news outlets that are not owned by the large media conglomerates must minimise costs like their competitors. They too try to cut spending on reporters and on investigative resources. As a result, much of their international and national news and analysis is taken from the major outlets. This is one way in which, the major outlets are agenda setters. What they choose to discuss, the facts they present in the discussion and the tenor of their coverage set the agenda for smaller outlets who do not have the resources to independently investigate stories while remaining competitive against the major companies.


Propaganda Or PSYOPS


A related problem that bears distinct mention is that of Government propaganda. The over-reliance on Government sources and a failure to seek out critiques of these or to fact-check them is made even more problematic when the Government sources engage in what is (euphemistically) called psychological operations or PSYOPS. In an article (19/2/02), the New York Times reported that the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organisations”, the goal being to “influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries” (Hart, 2005). Amidst public outrage, the Pentagon closed the office, but Defense Secretary Rumsfeld quietly admitted that all of its tasks would simply be carried out by other agencies.


A relatively recent development in Government news releases is the use of video and audio news releases (VNRs and ANRs). These are produced to resemble news segments on television and radio. These have long been in use by corporations to smuggle favourable coverage of their product (i.e. advertisement), into news broadcasts. The segment is intended to pass as news because it informs viewers of some technological or pharmaceutical innovation. While the public relations (PR) firms producing these releases generally take care not to make false claims, they have an imperative to avoid dissenting views, downplay criticism, include paid testimonials and exaggerate effectiveness as much as possible short of a lie. US government departments, including the Defense Department also use such releases. The releases often include reporting by former television news reporters and are in all other ways indistinguishable from news clips. Given the cost cutting imperatives of the media companies, they have an incentive to cut down on their staff of reporters or on their budget for independent news gathering, and to resort to such news releases as far as possible. Significant US government use of VNRs and ANRs has occurred at least under the Clinton and the most recent Bush Administrations.[4]


Often the Government-produced releases are distributed to international news organisations like Reuters and AP, from where they reach major US networks, and then feed through to local affiliates (Barstow and Stein, 2005). While the Government claims that it informs the recipient organisations about the producer of the segment, this information may get lost as it travels the chain from international news organisations, to local ones. Even if the information reaches the broadcasting agent, in the absence of a legal requirement to the contrary, the agent has an interest in neglecting to mention the source, to cast its news show in a favourable light by promoting the impression that the show’s own reporters created it.


The Congressional Government Accountability Office has released at least three reports stating that the use of such releases in news may constitute “covert propaganda” on the part of the Government, despite government pronouncements that the fault lay not with them but with the news broadcasters who failed to disclose the origin of the video and audio segments. The GAO has no enforcement abilities and the Government has, for the most part, taken no note of the reports (Barstow and Stein, 2005).


Another recent revelation about Defense Department propaganda relates to retired military officials (Barstow, 2008). Retired military officials are widely used by news stations as independent military experts (not tied to either the Government or to defence companies) not merely on strategic decisions of troop movements, but also on broader policy for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in President George W Bush’s first term argued that in a spin-saturated news climate, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and independent. Retired military analysts were identified as such voices. Since news shows were increasingly using these analysts, they were targeted as particularly influential. The idea was to treat them as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” (Defense Department terms) who could be counted on to deliver the Administration’s themes and messages to the public in the form of their own opinions.

The analysts were not paid to echo the Government view. However, the analysts collectively represent about 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. Such military contractors derive an advantage from inside information about the military’s needs that is unavailable to their competitors. Analysts are of greater use to the military contractors if they can boast inside access. The Defense Department offered just such insider access. The analysts received hundreds of private briefings from senior military leaders, officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department. They were taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. Moreover, the Defense Department maintained a close watch over the interviews and opinion pieces delivered by these analysts. Those who were critical of the Administration’s policy were not invited back, thus losing their valuable inside access.


References (all accessed on May 10, 2009).


Bagdikian, Ben H, 2004; “The New Media Monopoly”, Beacon Press, Boston


Barstow, David; (20/4/08); “Message machine: behind TV analysts, Pentagon’s hidden hand”; The New York Times;


Barstow, David and Robin Stein; (13/3/05); “Under Bush, a new age of pre-packaged TV news”; The New York Times;


Biddle, Kurt; 2002; “US training of Indonesian armed forces”; US Foreign Military Training”; Lumpe, Lora (ed.); p19

Bryce, Robert; (25/8/00); “The candidate from Brown & Root”; The Austin Chronicle;


Caldwell, George; 1992; “US defense budgets and military spending”; Library of Congress (USA);


Center for Public Integrity; (29/9/04); “Summary: Center Report Finds $US362 Billion in No-Bid Contracts at the Pentagon since 1998”; Center for Public Integrity;


Church Committee (in full, United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities); 1975; “Interim Report: alleged assassination plots involving foreign leaders”;


Department of Defense (USA); 2002; “Base Structure Report: a summary of DoD’s real property inventory”;

Hart, Peter; 2005; “Pentagon Disinformation Should Be No Surprise”; Extra; FAIR;


Herman, Edward and Noam Chomsky; 2002; “Manufacturing Consent” (updated ed.); Pantheon Books; New York


Hersh, Seymour M.; (25/7/05); “Get out the vote”; The New Yorker;


Ismail, Asif M.; 2004a (18/11/04); “Investing in War: The Carlyle Group profits from government and conflict”; Center for Public Integrity;


Ismail, Asif M.; 2004b (18/11/04); “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: private equity firms follow in Carlyle Group’s footsteps”; Center for Public Integrity;


Johnson, Chalmers; 2004; “The sorrows of empire”; Verso; London


Johnson, Chalmers; 2006; Nemesis; Henry Holt; New York


Lumpe, Lora; 2002; “US foreign military training: global reach, global power and oversight issues”; Foreign Policy in Focus


Morgan, Dan; (27/8/03); “Classified Spending On the Rise; Report: Defense to Get $US23.2 Billion”; The Washington Post;


National Security Archives (b); “The Contras, cocaine, and covert operations”; George Washington University;


Shorrock, Tim; 2008; “Spies for Hire”; Simon &Schuster


Singer, Peter W.; 2005; “Outsourcing the war”; The Brookings Institution;


Spinney, Franklin; 1998; “Defense Power Games”; original version published by Fund for Constitutional Government in 1990; updated 1998 version


Stauber, John and Sheldon Rampton; 1995; “Toxic sludge is good for you”; Common Courage Press; Monroe (The relevant section can be accessed at



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[1] See for a graphical representation of global US military presence.

[2] See National Security Archives

[3] For a longer discussion of US mass media in relation to US military acts in general and the current Iraq War in particular, see


[4] VNRs have been used not only by corporations and by the US government, but also by foreign agents wishing to influence the US public. A PR firm hired by the Kuwaiti Emirate upon Iraq’s invasion of the country in 1990 sought to create pro-Kuwait and pro-war feelings in the American public prior to the US intervention (the 1991 Gulf War). Among other means of influence, was the use of VNRs. See Stauber and Rampton, 1995 chapter 10. The relevant section can be accessed online at