GAO Says Pentagon's Officer PR Program Is Legal and Ethical

GAO finds no problem with Pentagon PR campaign, despite issues raised in a Pulitzer-winning story.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

In another twist that raises new questions about a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning story, the Government Accountability Office has given its blessing to a wartime Department of Defense program that briefed retired military officers about operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before they went on TV to talk about the conflicts. "There is no doubt that DoD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the administration's war policies" with the program, said the GAO. "However, we conclude that these activities did not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition."

The program started in 2002 and was meant to brief retired officers about the wars before they talked about them on TV or radio or to print reporters. A story about the program, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand," won a Pulitzer for the Times. The prize citation said the story "revealed how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended."

The Pentagon's inspector general probed the story and initially said that the program did nothing wrong, but that evaluation was withdrawn after stories about it appeared.

Now the GAO has also said that the program was legal and ethical. In fact, the GAO cited a prior 2006 Times story revealing the program, debunking the Pulitzer-winning's story suggestion that it was a secret.

The GAO report, signed by Acting General Counsel Daniel Gordon, was requested by House and Senate Democrats who were concerned that the Pentagon was violating a law that prohibits using appropriations for propaganda. The GAO said that, unlike propaganda, the retired officers program was about helping pundits tell the straight story about the wars. "Federal agencies have a responsibility to inform the public about their activities and programs, explain their policies, and disseminate information in defense of those policies or an administration's point of view," the report said.

However, the GAO added that the Pentagon should consider new policies in a similar type of program to address concerns that there might have been potential competitive advantages for defense contractors with ties to the retired officers used in the program.

The GAO finding was seen as a victory for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. An aide said, "Sooner or later the truth prevails, as it has here."

The Times reporter involved didn't respond to an E-mail about the GAO report.

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