Conflicts of Interest
A New York Times writer has them, but can only accuse others.


When I first read “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex”–which is essential reading for those who want to grasp the analysis below fully–in the New York Times, it had the feel of a hit piece. The author was David Barstow, and it seemed that either he was out to get Gen. (ret.) Barry McCaffrey, or someone had put him up to the task by suggesting the worst, most venal possible construction of the admittedly complex, interconnected business dealings in McCaffrey’s life.

In a nutshell, the article rehashes General McCaffrey’s various roles and interests in many of the official assessments of and recommendations for the U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It juxtaposes that work with McCaffrey’s role as a consulting analyst for NBC News and its affiliates, and with his personal business/consulting work for various defense contractors. Barstow implies that McCaffrey took money from contractors to push equipment and tailored his analyses and recommendations to make that equipment seem necessary. The report also suggests he withheld his harsh assessment of the situation in Iraq early in the war because he was afraid of being cut off from military sources by a vengeful Donald Rumsfeld, whom McCaffrey had criticized at length.

The story even tries to suggest that McCaffrey advocated extending the U.S. presence in Iraq because a company for which he consulted had a contract that would be profitable only if the U.S. stayed there another five years.

To be sure, General McCaffrey has a lot of balls in the air. He has potential conflicts of interest in spades. However, the military people he works with and the president of NBC News note that he is honest about his self-interest, and extremely scrupulous about the circumstances in which he is willing to make recommendations or lobby. At no point in Barstow’s piece, or anywhere else, is there any proof that McCaffrey formulates his analyses, makes his recommendations, or says things on TV in the service of his personal financial interests. Indeed, Barstow ultimately admits–and this is key–that when McCaffrey has been paid to push particular munitions, and has touted the need for such equipment, his efforts have not resulted in the companies’ getting Pentagon contracts.

Of course, it is an interesting conundrum. Media outlets pay ex-generals because they have an ability to analyze and explain what’s happening, and because they have contacts in the armed forces and at DOD who trust them and will be frank. Reporters often have a harder time getting honest, high-level information. On the other hand, ex-generals have bonds of loyalty to the military that may color their ability to provide a tough assessment.

Still, it defies reason to imply, as Barstow does, that McCaffrey shared the view of Gen. David Petraeus, Pres. George Bush, and others that a “surge” was a better tactic for turning things around than, say, a withdrawal, simply because he was being paid to lobby for particular weaponry. The opposite is far more credible: that he thought the particular hardware would help U.S. and Iraqi troops turn around the situation on the ground.

During a recent meeting with McCaffrey, I brought up the article. He shrugged it off. I pressed further, saying it sounded like someone very high up was behind it. He neither argued nor expressed agreement.

This isn’t just another scandal for the Times. For some readers, the paper’s Iraq and Afghanistan reporting have been crucial in rebuilding its reputation in Jayson Blair’s wake. I myself stopped reading the Times in 2003, following that catastrophe, but began again in 2005, when I saw that the paper’s Iraq reporting seemed to be accurate. By 2007, I believed its Afghanistan reporting to be worthwhile as well.