In our last interview at the Korner Kitchen in Bigfork, retired Major General Paul Vallely and I finally talk about propaganda.
This surprises me, even though propaganda has been the subject around which all our conversations have swirled. Vallely spent almost half his 32-year military career working in psychological operations, the branch of the U.S. Army that generates propaganda for use against America’s enemies. Vallely is now part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s military analyst program, through which he is provided special briefings on the war on terror and tours of regional hotspots including Iraq, Israel and Guantanamo Bay. Vallely is not paid by the Department of Defense (DOD), but he uses the information they give him, which he supplements with intelligence gathered from his own contacts, as fodder for his regular appearances as a military analyst on the FOX News Channel and about six national radio shows each week, including “The Sean Hannity Show” and “The John Batchelor Show.” Vallely also writes columns for the Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to having penned Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror, with coauthor Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney.
Vallely tells me there are two metaphorical categories of propaganda: black and white. Black propaganda, he says, is meant to give false information, to deceive the enemy. White propaganda, or “good propaganda,” he says, trades in truth.
I ask him whether what he does for a living, on television, on radio and in print, is black or white.
“It’s reporting,” he answers. “I’m trying to get a story out. So it’s propaganda if you don’t agree with me.”
Vallely continues talking about historic uses of propaganda going back to WWII, but my mind is hung up on his last statement. He uses reporting and propagandizing interchangeably.
There are certainly similarities. Both seek to tell a story, both seek to inform, and the reporter and the propagandist both select the information that their audience sees. But in the case of reporting, the idea (often abused) is to present information judged most important and/or useful to an audience. Propaganda turns reporting on its head, presenting information based on its importance to the propagandist.
So what are U.S. citizens being offered by military analysts in their quest to understand the war on terror: reporting, propaganda, or both?
Vallely has lived in Bigfork since 2003. The Korner Kitchen, where he invited me to meet him twice, is not the kind of place tourists go for meals. It’s the kind of place locals go to pass the time over bitter coffee. When Vallely walks in, the waitresses greet him by name. Behind him, in the corner by the door, a television is tuned to FOX News.
Like reporters, Vallely and the dozen or so military analysts who regularly appear on cable news stations have become mediators between people far removed from the war on terror and the war itself. Analysts purport to use their experience and their access—their “expert” status—to provide what’s presented as the most accurate news available on what our country is doing to fight this war and how the war is going. They also offer opinions on what the U.S. needs to do to win it.
Vallely has appeared on FOX so many times since Sept. 11, 2001, he’s lost count.
Sometimes, he appears in the reporter role, describing what’s supposedly happening on the ground in Iraq, or predicting the U.S. military’s next action.
He generally suggests that the war is going well, and predicts that it’s getting better.
Other times, he uses his access to editorialize. With the nation still debating the wisdom of invading Iraq at all, the analyst offered his advice:
On Dec. 3, 2001, Vallely and Ret. Colonel David Hackworth, another military analyst, who died earlier this year, and who coincidentally also lived in the Flathead for a time, agreed that once the war in Afghanistan was finished, Iraq should be the next target.
“I’ve said from the beginning that more roads will lead to Baghdad about September 11,” Vallely said then.
In a Dec. 11, 2002, interview on “Hannity & Colmes,” Hannity opined that the work of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq was “silly.” Vallely agreed that their work was a “waste of time,” adding: “We know from the fact from the defectors who worked on these programs, the laboratories have been put underground, the storage areas have been put underground. Until you get down underground, under these palaces, and try to find these things, it’s not going to be validated.”
Vallely has also weighed in on how the United States treats its prisoners of war.
During a Jan. 21, 2002, “O’Reilly Factor” episode on FOX, Vallely squared off with Michael Ratner, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner decried the fact that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were being held in cages, exposed to the elements. He said that by the terms of the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are to be held in quarters similar to those in which the detaining forces are housed.
O’Reilly asked Vallely if that was true.
“No, it does not say that,” Vallely responded.
In fact, it does. Chapter two, article 25, states, “Prisoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favourable as those for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area.”
But regardless of Geneva Convention niceties, Vallely and O’Reilly both support the Bush administration’s designation of detainees sent to Guantanamo Bay as “enemy combatants,” a term created by the administration that, they say, places them beyond Geneva Convention jurisdiction.
Vallely weighed in on the Guantanamo controversy again this fall. On Sept. 29 he toured Guantanamo and, upon his return, offered his take on the situation to the national media and to the Flathead’s Daily Inter Lake. Vallely described the prisoners held at Guantanamo as “the ones who will go back out and murder Americans.”
According to the Inter Lake, Vallely “bristled” at the mention of an article that compared Guantanamo to Nazi death camps.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Vallely will continue the Guantanamo debate in his next book, titled The Myths of Gitmo: Torture, abuse, or the truth, which he says is scheduled for publication this spring.
Such media work amounts to selling the American public an agenda in the war on terror. Nowhere is this clearer than in Endgame.
The book lays out Vallely’s plan in just 134 pages, not counting a 35-page introduction by Oliver North and numerous photographs of Vallely and McInerney’s visits to Iraq and Israel.
“When you lay the whole thing out, it’s not that complex to understand. It really isn’t,” Vallely tells me at the Korner Kitchen.
The plan is a systematic series of regime changes in Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The next target is Iran. Endgame promotes an economic embargo against the country, a seizure of its overseas assets, and a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, an important shipping route.
In an interview with the Executive Intelligence Review, Vallely argues that such a blockade “[W]ill push them to do something stupid. And we hope they do. And then bring the hammer down on them. We know they’re going to use [nuclear weapons] against us. There’s nothing wrong with pre-emption.”
Vallely is the sort of person you want to believe. Even Larry Johnson, a columnist with the online magazine TPM Cafe, who has become one of Vallely’s most vocal critics since Vallely became a vocal administration apologist in the Joe Wilson affair, tells me that Vallely is a “nice guy.”
Vallely has the look of a slightly more fit Winston Churchill. He is polite and friendly with waitresses. Both times I meet him, he orders all-American apple pie for lunch. And he is, or at least gives the appearance of being, a straight talker: He admits that his work could be considered propaganda, he’s frank about the prospect of war with Iran, and about the fact that it’s the access provided by the hardly-disinterested Department of Defense that makes his work as a military analyst possible at all. Despite the skepticism required by my own job, I can see how, by virtue of personality alone, people would be inclined to trust Vallely. I start to wonder if Vallely’s presentation is just part of what a psychological operations officer does. Is it just good PR? His folksiness is reminiscent of the president’s, but there’s no obvious way to tell if it’s as misleading.
Vallely graduated from West Point in 1961, and according to his FOX biography, he spent the next 32 years in the Army. Eventually “he commanded the 351st Civil Affairs Command that included all Special Forces, Psychological Warfare and Civil Military units in the Western United States and Hawaii,” finally retiring from the Army in 1991 as a Major General, having served as “Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army, Pacific.”
“A lot of these people like to get on television or the radio and pontificate,” Vallely says of his talking-head fellows on the punditry circuit, “but they never get out of the beltway.”
Vallely is kept up-to-date with DOD briefings, including some over which Donald Rumsfeld has presided. In addition, he says he has developed his own contacts in places like Baghdad and Israel.
When I ask Vallely why the American public should trust him as a source of information and opinion, he answers, “I try to deal in reality and facts. I have no political agenda.”
There are plenty of reasons for American consumers of media to be skeptical these days.
In January 2005, commentator Armstrong Williams admitted he had been paid $241,000 by the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, which he talked up on television appearances and in his syndicated column.
Three weeks later, the public learned that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, under a $21,500 contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, had publicly defended a $300 million Bush initiative aimed at strengthening families through marriage. Last month it was revealed that the U.S. military has been planting articles in Iraqi newspapers that highlight military successes in Iraq.
There are persistent accusations that the Bush administration hyped Iraq’s threat, leading people to believe war was the best option while playing down contradictory information.
Accusations that the Bush administration retaliated against dissenting former ambassador Joe Wilson by leaking his wife’s identity as a CIA agent have led so far to a grand jury indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby.
(Vallely, defending the administration, has said that in 2002, more than a year before her name appeared in a Robert Novak column, Wilson “outed” his wife as a CIA agent himself, multiple times, in Vallely’s presence, in the FOX studio green room. Wilson has vigorously denied the claim.)
Just as there are reasons to be skeptical of information distributed overtly and covertly by the Bush administration, so there are reasons to question Vallely’s credibility.
Like Vallely, Larry Johnson has appeared on FOX News as an analyst. Johnson worked for the CIA in the late ’80s, did counter-terrorism work for the State Department from 1989 through 1993, and has worked as a counter-terrorism expert for the military since 1994. Johnson says he was never invited back on FOX after he “had the audacity to claim we could not fight a two-front war—on terror and Iraq.”
In his online columns, Johnson questions Vallely’s credentials, his facts and his biography.
He believes Vallely is beholden to conservative ideology and calls him a “right-wing hack.”
Vallely’s claim that he has no political agenda appears to be a gray area in the white vs. black propaganda dichotomy. For example, asked if he cared who won the 2004 presidential elections, Vallely answered, “Oh God, yes. [Kerry is] a very dishonest guy.”
Vallely’s trips outside the beltway, to the hotspots of the war on terror, are also suspect. The DOD sponsors them, and Vallely admits that the DOD controls the trips, providing him an escort and setting the agenda for each day he is there.
Regardless, he says, “I’m able to see what’s going on. They can’t brainwash me anymore.” He then pauses and suggests that maybe “brainwash” isn’t the right word, and tells me to write that he “can’t be duped” instead.
“It’s pretty hard to take me into a country and have me not see what’s going on.”
He says he meets many of his contacts independently of the DOD, through his media work. One of his better contacts, he tells me, is a Baghdad-based deputy of Ahmed Chalabi’s. Chalabi was one of the U.S. government’s main sources supporting the claimed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and is now under investigation for currency fraud and theft of both national and private assets.
In prewar appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity & Colmes,” Vallely predicted that weapons of mass destruction would be found. False, as it turned out. When weapons weren’t found in Iraq, Vallely began saying that they had been moved to the Bekaa Valley in Syria. No evidence of that has been found, either. There was also his claim that the Geneva Convention does not require prisoners to be quartered as the troops are.
While the veracity of these claims is easy to check now, others are more difficult. In the case of Guantanamo Bay, it is the word of former prisoners there against Vallely’s as to how people are being treated.
Vallely’s FOX biography also would appear to shade toward shadow, propaganda-wise. It’s all true as far as anyone knows, but it leaves out the fact that in 1971, Vallely retired from the regular Army and became a part-time soldier in the Army Reserves.
When I ask Vallely about his bio, he changes the subject to the roots of Islamic terrorism, starting in the ninth century. He concludes this history by saying, “This stuff isn’t taught in school. That’s part of what I do is try to lay out the facts.”
When we finally get back to his bio, I ask if it’s true that he moved into the Reserves in 1971. He admits that he did, but says, “You don’t have to put that in, because there’s no difference for me.”
I ask if he was part-time or full-time, and he answers “a little bit of both,” explaining that he was called to active duty periodically.
All of what you’re reading here has been selected by me, of course, from an almost infinite trove of available information. The case I’m building could just be a matter of me trying to lead my audience to the conclusion that reporters are more reliable sources of information than military analysts.
Could be, but then I never proposed “MindWar.”
In 1980, Vallely, then a colonel commanding the Seventh Psychological Operations Group, a Reserve component of the Army’s psychological operations forces, co-wrote “From PSYOP to MindWar: The Psychology of Victory.”
His coauthor, Major Michael Aquino, who served under Vallely as his research and analysis team leader, has posted “MindWar” on his website. The site, www.xeper.org, doubles as the site for the Temple of Set, a religion Aquino founded when he became disenchanted with the Church of Satan. (Really. You can read all about it on the site.) Vallely says he hasn’t seen Aquino in years.
In 2003, Aquino wrote an introduction to “MindWar” explaining that it was meant to be a “staff study” to “encourage some futurethought [sic] within the PSYOP community.” “MindWar” was sent out to “various governmental offices, agencies, commands and publications involved or interested in PSYOP.”
The study proposes a transformation of the practice of psychological operations toward the practice of MindWar. One section, which gives a sort of definition of MindWar, is worth quoting at length:
“MindWar must reach out to friends, enemies and neutrals alike across the globe…
“State of the art developments in satellite communication, video recording techniques, and laser and optical transmission of broadcasts make possible a penetration of the minds of the world such as would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. Like the sword Excalibur, we have but to reach out and seize this tool; and it can transform the world for us if we have the courage and the integrity to enhance civilization with it. If we do not accept Excalibur, then we relinquish our ability to inspire foreign cultures with our morality…
“MindWar must target all participants if it is to be effective. It must not only weaken the enemy; it must strengthen the United States. It strengthens the United States by denying enemy propaganda access to our people, and by explaining and emphasizing to our people the rationale for our national interest in a specific war.
“Under existing United States law, PSYOP units may not target American citizens. That prohibition is based upon the presumption that “propaganda” is necessarily a lie or at least a misleading half-truth, and that the government has no right to lie to the people…
“[A]nd so it must be axiomatic of MindWar that it always speaks the truth. Its power lies in its ability to focus recipients’ attention on the truth of the future as well as that of the present. MindWar thus involves the stated promise of the truth that the United States has resolved to make real if it is not already so.”
Vallely denies that “MindWar” describes a roadmap for the use of PSYOPS against the American people, noting that it’s illegal for the military to do so. But Vallely and other DOD military analysts are now retired military.
After 9/11, Vallely suggested that all roads lead to Baghdad. Today, he believes, all roads lead to Tehran.
“Their ambitious nuclear weapons program makes regime change in Iran more than desirable; it makes it necessary—now,” Vallely writes in Endgame.
Whether Vallely is predicting the future or just softening the citizenry up for it with a preview he’s been spoon-fed by the DOD and the Bush administration is hard to say for sure. Either way, Vallely’s “Blueprint for Victory” offers a glimpse of what the future could hold. It’s a future of war as the ongoing solution to terrorism. The only question is whether Vallely is simply seeing that future or selling it.