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Pentagon Guests Are Primed for Promotion

Influential Americans give glowing reviews to the military after their hands-on PR tours. Critics question the cost, and the motives.

July 01, 2005|Kevin Sack | Times Staff Writer

The Pentagon did not have to wait long to get what it wanted from Martha Zoller.

The day after she returned from a weeklong Defense Department tour of military bases around the country, the conservative radio talk show host was regaling her listeners in Gainesville, Ga., with stories of all she had seen and done.

She and her 53 counterparts -- university presidents, newspaper publishers, business executives, elected officials -- had shared a private breakfast with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a reception with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a last lunch on American soil with soldiers headed to Iraq.

They had trained on flight simulators at Moody Air Force Base, fired rocket launchers at Ft. Bliss, skimmed across Chesapeake Bay in a Coast Guard cutter, toured a nuclear-powered carrier off San Diego and taken abuse from a Marine drill instructor on Parris Island. Three businessmen caught enough of the "oooh-rah" spirit to return home with buzz cuts.

"We just had a terrific, terrific time," Zoller reported in her May 2 broadcast on WDUN-AM, the first of several about her trip.

While other federal agencies have been accused of running propaganda campaigns recently by covertly hiring friendly columnists and distributing mock newsreels to broadcasters, the military has for decades used strikingly transparent programs to achieve comparable ends.

Every year, thousands of influential civilians are invited to fly in Air Force jets and cruise on Navy warships, all while being fed a diet rich in military boosterism. Many pay for the privilege -- or have their employers do so -- although the programs are significantly subsidized by the government.

The oldest and most prominent is the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, or JCOC, the tour taken by Zoller and the others. About 70 times since the program's founding in 1948, the Pentagon has used JCOC to impress civilian leaders with the wizardry of its weapons and the determination of its service members.

The JCOC website explains that participants must be "regionally or nationally influential citizens." The program's nomination form makes it clear that a participant must have "an established regional or national audience" and must be "willing to commit to sharing what he/she learns during JCOC with his/her audience."

Several weeks after this year's trip, Pentagon officials could already count their successes.

On her first day back, JCOC participant Jennifer J. Burns, an Arizona state legislator, took to the House floor in Phoenix to convey her admiration for the military.

"What we really learned," the Republican told colleagues, "is that our superiority comes from the men and women who volunteer to serve."

The following week, another participant, Thomas J. Anton, a lawyer from Bakersfield, appeared on Fox News Channel to promote a Pentagon program that encourages volunteerism in support of the troops.

In past years, attendees have returned to write glowing op-ed columns, like a 2004 piece by Hawaii businessman T. Michael May in the Honolulu Advertiser: "The U.S. Military Is Something to Be Proud Of."

The previous year, Joseph W. McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, wrote in his newspaper that "the caliber and spirit of the forces were evident even on a one-week tour."

"These people on the trip become fabulous ambassadors for the men and women in the military," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, who oversees JCOC. "And that's exciting for us."

Barber rejected the notion that the tours were propagandistic. "What we're doing," she said, "is educating people about their military and where their taxpayer dollar is going, and they get to make up their own judgment and assessment."

She said the program carried special import during wartime because participants gained "a greater appreciation for the sacrifice our men and women in the military have volunteered to make."

But some critics question the military's motives, saying that JCOC and related programs provide a sanitized and one-sided view, with a heavy focus on technological might, in an effort to win support for Pentagon acquisition budgets.

"This is the same administration that doesn't want to show us what the ultimate sacrifice looks like," noted Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton and the author of two books on propaganda in diplomacy and war. "Why don't we see the body bags coming in?"

Since 1951, Congress has regularly included clauses in appropriations bills banning the use of government funds "for publicity or propaganda purposes" within the United States. There has been little congressional guidance, however, about how to define propaganda.

That has left the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to identify prohibited activities as those that are self-aggrandizing, covert or purely partisan.

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