Say Hello to the New, Media Savvy Pentagon

Under the Biden presidency, the DoD is entering an unprecedented era of slick media spin.

President Joe Biden’s wars may be the same, but the press tactics of his Pentagon are remarkably different than those of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. The Trump Pentagon’s press policy, if it can be said to even exist, was one of benign neglect. Obama’s Pentagon was evasive with the press, prone to secrecy and prosecution. Biden’s Pentagon is still coalescing, but the early signs indicate a DoD willing to engage with the press and get its story before the American public.

As long as it has control of the spin, that is.

Biden ordered his first airstrike on Feb. 25. It was against targets in Syria and was supported by Pentagon-led propaganda the likes of which I haven’t seen in the past 12 years. The Sunday following the airstrike, 60 Minutesaired a special segment interviewing military personnel who were present at Al Asad Air Base when it was attacked by Iranian missiles.

A key part of the interview was General Kenneth F. McKenzie’s story about waiting for Iran to download satellite images of Al Asad before evacuating its 1,000 troops. It’s a weird story—one that hinges on the audience’s ability to believe that Gen. McKenzie knew exactly when Iran would download a commercially available satellite image of Al Asad.

It also doesn’t hold water. There’s a robust community of professional and amateur satellite image watchers online. One of them, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, noticed the interview was weird and called bullshit on it. “I can't find any evidence that any commercial satellite firm offered for sale a picture from the days before the strike,” Lewis said on Twitter. “The most recent pre-strike images from @planetlabs and @airbus were taken December 30, more than a week prior.” His entire thread is worth a read.

More than a week after the strike, and a few days after the 60 Minutes segment, the Wall Street Journal reported that Biden called off a second airstrike in Syria after seeing women and children in the target area. The sources for this story are multiple unnamed “administration officials.”

On March 14, The Washington Postpublished an op-ed written by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The two cabinet members shared their glowing praise of Biden and extolled their boss’s commitment to its military alliances. “It would be a huge strategic error to neglect these relationships,” the two wrote. “And it’s a wise use of our time and resources to adapt and renew them, to ensure they’re as strong and effective as they can be.”

A 60 Minutes segment, a Wall Street Journal piece on the decency of the new commander-in-chief's airstrikes, and an op-ed in The Washington Post. Add to this a robust and detailed DoD press page and some proactive emails I’ve received from the military in recent weeks. As a journalist who often covers defense issues, it feels very different to interact with the Pentagon than at any other time during my career. As someone who also deals with tech companies, I feel like I’m getting a glossy spin machine. I used to be ignored.

I can’t stress how different this is and how new it feels. The Trump administration was antagonistic with the press and its Pentagon was no different. Sometimes it bumblefucked its way into telling a weird truth, but not often.

The Obama administration was a different beast all together, a nasty one. Obama promised transparency during his campaign, and then shut the books when he got into office. He pioneered the use of the 1917 Espionage Act to punish whistleblowers and investigate journalists. This was a law enacted during World War I. Like much American wartime legislation, it stuck around after the war ended and expanded in scope.

Obama’s justice department tossed out Espionage Act indictments like it was fighting a war in Europe. In 2013, Obama’s DOJ named Fox News reporter James Rossen as a co-conspirator in a case involving leaked information about the White House’s diplomatic negotiations with North Korea. Later that year, it seized the phone records of 20 Associated Press reporters while chasing down a leak. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder assigned two federal prosecutors to find the source of leaked information about U.S. drone strikes.

“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate,” Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in a Columbia Journalism Review article about Obama’s aggressive war on the press. Written in 2013, the CJR article claimed that federal authorities working under Obama had grown terrified of talking to the press.

Obama set a record for Espionage Act prosecutions, using the law eight times during his presidency. In the previous 90 years after its passage, authorities had only used it three times. Trump’s DOJ used Obama’s playbook and continued to use the laws to harass and prosecute leakers and journalists. 

Biden’s Pentagon, it seems, is more willing to engage with the press. It’s also adept at lying and covering its ass, and it’s important to remember that when we see generals on 60 Minutes or read op-eds by cabinet officials. The Pentagon said it only had 2,500 troops left in Afghanistan. The number is actually 3,500. The Pentagon has also insisted that it has no way to tell how many of its troops are refusing the Covid-19 vaccine. Which is weird considering Air Force Gen. Jeff Taliaferro told Congress that the number is about one third of all troops.

We’re in the early days of the Biden presidency and we’ve yet to see how he’ll react to leakers, whistleblowers, and the journalists who work with them. The early indication is that Austin’s Pentagon is willing to engage with journalists and talk to them, which means journalists will have to be extra scrupulous about calling out bullshit and lies when they see them. Often, it’s harder to see through a lie when it’s said with a smile.

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image at top: Maj. Gen. Matthew W. McFarlane, commanding general, 4th Infantry Division and Fort Carson, provides details about the newly opened Fort Carson COVID-19 vaccination site to local media. Scott Prater photo.