Politics & Policy

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.

Another great source of information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Barry McCaffrey’s trip reports. I call them “Barry’s blunt trauma.” (Not that I call him “Barry” to his face; I call him “General McCaffrey.”) In the three years I have been reading them, I have been consistently struck by his clear, unsentimental evaluations of events and conditions in the field. Where he sees progress, he says so. Where he sees complications and failure, he says that, too. His reports provide a highly technical, articulate, and authoritative expression of pretty much exactly what I have observed as a correspondent in the region. He is seeing the same reality that I see–and his recommendations are consistent with the combat realities many of us see on the ground.

The Barstow piece seemed to have a very clear agenda. While I can’t tell you whether any of its facts are incorrect, it is obvious that the reporter construed all possible conflicts of interest, or cases of dual interest, as venal. You might not realize it from reading the Times piece, but it’s possible that McCaffrey objected to Rumsfeld’s attempt run the war on the cheap because it was not going to work. It didn’t. Similarly, it might be that McCaffrey consults for companies because they make the kind of armor that he thinks Iraqi and the American soldiers need. And if his contacts allow him to understand that they want particular bells and whistles–is that inherently corrupt?

To its credit, Barstow’s article makes clear that the DOD Office of Inspector General has examined and cleared all alleged conflicts.

In response to the piece, McCaffrey wrote a letter to Clark Hoyt, public editor at the Times, outlining Barstow’s own conflicts of interest: The article focused on a report that contradicted many other articles Barstow had written; Barstow referred to these as “articles in the New York Times” without noting his authorship.

Clark Hoyt sounds like my kind of journalist. Willing to go against the tide. Willing to report the unpopular when needed, and move out smartly. Mr. Hoyt’s response to General McCaffrey’s letter is much anticipated.

Michael Yon is an independent reporter whose work is reader-supported. To make the investment in his future work, contribute here.

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