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August 16, 2006

Behind the Front: The Creation of Vets for Freedom

-- by Dave Johnson

This piece originally appeared on The Patriot Project. Please help support their work.

If there is one underlying belief of modern conservatives, it is that the truth is not as important as what you can get people to think is true. Hence, the importance of a good PR strategy.

Since launching the Iraq war, the White House has frequently complained that the mainstream news media is not reporting enough "good news from Iraq." In the fall of 2005 the approach of the 2000th military fatality brought with it a new round of conservative complaints about the treasonous American media. With remarkably coincident timing the far-right, Republican-aligned Media Research Center (MRC) released in October a study of war coverage that, surprisingly, echoed and amplified the White House’s complaints, claiming that "the three commercial network nightly news broadcasts have been overwhelmingly biased in their coverage of Iraq". MRC claimed in their summary that:

"• Network coverage has been overwhelmingly pessimistic.
• News about the war has grown increasingly negative.
• Terrorist attacks are the centerpiece of TV’s war news.
• Even coverage of the Iraqi political process has been negative.
• Few stories focused on the heroism or generous actions of American soldiers.
• It's not as if there was no "good news" to report"

Columbia Journalism Review commented at the time on the MRC study:

"Our biggest caveat about MRC's numbers is this: Balance does not require reporting an equal number of good acts and bad acts if you are in an arena where bad acts prevail."

As public approval of the Iraq occupation – and of President Bush and Republican candidates in the upcoming elections – declined, the White House grew more adamant on this, and finally began to take steps to turn things around. (Not to turn around the war effort itself, mind you, only public perception of how it is going.) One component of the White House turnaround effort came to light in November of 2005, when the Los Angeles Times reported that the Defense Department was paying a defense contractor to "place" "good news" stories in Iraqi newspapers:

"As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the US military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the US mission in Iraq.

... The stories trumpet the work of US and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout US-led efforts to rebuild the country. 

... Records and interviews indicate that the US has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year.

The operation is designed to mask any connection with the US military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.

[. . .] The arrangement with Lincoln Group is evidence of how far the Pentagon has moved to blur the traditional boundaries between military public affairs - the dissemination of factual information to the media - and psychological and information operations, which use propaganda and sometimes misleading information to advance the objectives of a military campaign."

A quick look at the Lincoln Group shows that it was co-founded in 2003 by Christian Bailey and unknown partners, a 30-year-old with "a reputation as a socialite with ties to young Republicans," according to England’s Sunday Times. The Times goes on to say:

"In America, he linked up with fashionable young Republicans and became a co-chair of Lead 21, an organisation linking business and politics, which he once described as "the big supporters, the big donors to the Republican party in five years' time". Public relations firms with warfare information experience - some of which have come under uncomfortable scrutiny themselves - were amazed when Bailey's fledgling firm leap-frogged over theirs to win huge defence department deals."

So here we have a mysterious, recently-formed, politically-connected PR firm that is formed to set up a stealth campaign effort to use soldiers as fronts to put "good news" stories into the press.

And as this PR effort was being undertaken in Iraq, it appears that a very similar White House-promoted PR effort was getting underway here at home.

First, Some Background

The Herald Group PR firm was formed in September, 2005, by former White House spokesmen Taylor Gross, who had, according to SourceWatch, "coordinated Republican media coverage during the 2000 presidential election ballot recount in Florida," Matt Well, who "resigned his position as Director of Public Affairs with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission June 30, 2005," and had "also headed field operations for the American Tort Reform Association" (for more information on how this relates to the conservative movement see the Commonweal Institute report, The Attack on Trial Lawyers and Tort Law), and Doug McGinn, another Republican Party-connected conservative movement operative including a stint with Empower America (see this, this and this.)

In the story, PR Group to Strive for a 'Campaign Mentality', the Washington Post wrote:

"Three communications and political veterans have launched a strategic communications and public affairs shop, the Herald Group . The principals are Matt Well , director of public affairs for the Securities and Exchange Commission; Taylor Gross, a Bush White House spokesman; and Doug McGinn, who worked at Dittus Communications and earlier at Empower America.

Well says they want to bring "a campaign mentality" to strategic communications and public affairs by integrating communications, lobbying, grass-roots mobilization and other disciplines to influence public policy."

An early Herald Group client was Wal-Mart, or, more accurately, Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFFWM), a stealth front-group for Wal-Mart. From the story Dec 22, 2005 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story, Wal-Mart chipping in for advocate:

"Washington, D. C., team of professionals behind Working Families make up the media campaign's stealth bombers.

They include a former White House spokesman Taylor Gross, 30, who coordinated Republican media coverage during the 2000 presidential ballot battle in Florida, when street fights flared over who won the presidency.

Gross's public relations firm, The Herald Group, opened in September. It includes Matt Well, another veteran of the turbulent 2000 campaign as the Republican Leadership Council's director of issues advocacy. Well also headed field operations for the American Tort Reform Association, which advocates caps to punitive damages awarded by courts."

Illustrating the stealth front-group nature of WFFWM, the article, Secret Wal-Mart Memo Exposes Wal-Mart Front Group:

"The truth is Working Families for Wal-Mart is nothing more than Wal-Mart's own personal right-wing front group. Many of its board members are either paid by Wal-Mart directly or have business relationships with the company, and the group has contracted with two right-wing firms, The Herald Group and Crosslink Strategies."

In Wal-Mart Tries to Enlist Image Help, the NY Times writes:

"As a result of the close relationship between the company and the Working Families for Wal-Mart, some current and former suppliers say, the advocacy group's membership drive amounts to Wal-Mart's leaning on its suppliers to help burnish the company's image - a request many said would be hard to turn down, given the company's importance to their business. ... The Working Families for Wal-Mart representative who made the Texas presentation in late April is Terry Nelson, the former political director of the 2004 Bush presidential campaign, whose firm, Crosslink Strategy, consults for both Wal-Mart and Working Families for Wal-Mart."

Pay close attention to the modus operandi operating here: Just as with the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, what we have here is conservative, party-aligned political operative PR firms setting up well-funded front-groups to attack opponents. Using a front group provides the real backers a degree of separation, insulating them from criticism for the nature of the attacks and smears.

(Incidentally, one of the first projects of The Herald Group was The Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund, beginning September, 2005, which promoted former Republican Party Chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. See also, 8 months later, Storm aid donations still await disbursing. Was this yet another Republican operation that leaves people asking where all the money went?)

Enter Vets for Freedom

Almost immediately following the The Herald Group's formation (September), client-organization Vets for Freedom was launched (January), describing itself as:

"...a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the unbiased, nonpartisan truth of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to educate the public and mobilize public support for the Global War on Terror."

This "non-partisan" organization’s website was designed by The Donatelli Group/Campaign Solutions, which previously had worked with the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as well as the White House-associated Judicial Confirmation Network, yet another well-financed, party-affiliated front group. Other Donatelli Group/Campaign Solutions clients include Bush-Cheney 2004, The Republican National Committee, the 2004 Republican National Convention, several state Republican Party organizations, the Republican Attorneys General Association, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Citizens for a Sound Economy and Tom DeLay. (To really get the picture go see the whole list. Really.)

The "non-partisan" Vets for Freedom originally had a privacy statement on their website that read, "We may from time to time share the information our visitors provide with other Republican candidates and other like-minded organizations."

The "non-partisan" Vets for Freedom included William Denman "Wade" Zirkle, who had helped run Republican Jerry Kilgore's 2005 campaign for governor of Virginia, and was campaign manager for Republican Todd Gilbert's 2005 race for the Virginia House of Delegates.

The "non-partisan" Vets for Freedom also included Vice-Chairman David Bellavia, a former Army Staff Sergeant, who shortly before the announcement of Vets for Freedon, which is supposedly "...a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the unbiased, nonpartisan truth..." had published an anti-Democrat article, The Party of Defeat at David Horowitz's FrontPageMagazine.com, writing:

"...I am at a loss to understand what Representative John Murtha (D-PA) was thinking when he recently delivered his defeatist comments about our military efforts. 

... Rather than acknowledging the vital mission being carried out by the troops, the Democratic leadership prefers to disparage our efforts. 

... Former administrations ignored the present danger in this region for years before 9/11, and today we in the trenches pay the price for our past inability to confront our enemies. 

... The actions of Kerry, Kennedy, Dean, et al.- voting against the immediate pullout of the troops and then supporting Murtha’s ignorant remarks on every television program that offers an invitation - constitute a political attack on the troops, an attack that is aiding our enemy.

… dissent will embolden our desperate Islamofascist enemy... Instead of supporting our cause, they stoke the fires of the Islamist faithful...

[...] Not only does the Democratic leadership deny the transparent fact that Iraq is indeed the front line in the War on Terror, but it feels the need to apologize for our nation's ability to deliver unrelenting, but prudent lethality onto our deserving enemies. .. Against this strategy of defeat, the president has called for staying the course."

But though Vets for Freedom repeatedly claimed to be "non-partisan" it turned up recently that “Vets for Freedom Action Fund” is a "527' organization. (This information only became available after the IRS released July 31 filing data.) So-called "527" groups are named after section 527 of the tax code, and are created primarily to influence the nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates for public office. For example, Swift Boat Vets For Truth and Club for Growth are 527 groups. Opensecrets.org writes:

"527 groups are tax-exempt organizations that engage in political activities, often through unlimited soft money contributions. Most 527s on this list are advocacy groups trying to influence federal elections through voter mobilization efforts and so-called issue ads that tout or criticize a candidate's record."

And Common Cause writes:

"In the 2004 election, 527 groups influencing federal elections spent an estimated $400 million. About 25 individuals alone gave $146 million to these groups, some of which were staffed by political operatives who had close ties to the national political parties. The fear was that 527 groups would be a backdoor route for parties to once again collect soft money, and to evade Federal laws on the books for more than 50 years that have prohibited labor unions and corporations from using their treasury funds to influence federal elections."

So there are questions about whether Vets for Freedom is really an "unbiased," independent organization. Adding to these questions, on June 25, The Buffalo News published a ground-breaking expose of Vets for Freedom, titled, Former vets with GOP ties boost war effort in blogs, (reprinted here) exposing how Vets for Freedom was yet another Republican-Party-affiliated front-group, along with organizations like Swift Boat Vets for Freedom:

"A former spokesman for President Bush recently offered to several newspapers supposedly objective freelance stories from Iraq by two combat veterans who lead a pro-war group with deep Republican ties.

Several months after revelations that a Pentagon contractor was paying Iraqi news outlets for favorable war coverage, former White House spokesman Taylor Gross approached at least four major newspapers, including The Buffalo News, with the offer.

Gross' pitch to The News said the two highly decorated veterans could serve as embedded correspondents and "offer balanced and credible viewpoints gained directly from those closest to and most affected by the Iraq War." One of the reporters, former Marine Lt. Wade Zirkle, helped run Republican Jerry Kilgore's 2005 campaign for governor of Virginia."

The Lieberman Wedge

An August 9 Vets for Freedom Action Fund solicitation letter from Wade Zirkle directly aligns the organization with current White House PR efforts, stating their mission as being, "To stand in opposition to any candidates that calls for the irresponsible, immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan." Echoing an August 9 White House statement that "the extreme left in their party" defeated Joe Lieberman, for example, the Zirkle letter says "the radical left ousted Joe Lieberman." A clue to why the messages were so similar arrived in the following day’s LA Times story, Partisan Crevasse May Be Widening, which explained:

"The Republican response Wednesday was highly coordinated, tightly matching a set of GOP talking points distributed to activists and strategists. The effort also paralleled an internal strategy memo ... that laid out the party's intent to mobilize its base for the election by highlighting Bush's actions in Iraq and the notion that Democrats were weak in their approach to "foreign threats."

The Zirkle letter went on to say of Vets for Freedom's mission, "To reject the notion of preset timetables to dictate troop withdrawal, which is a signal of defeat to our enemies." The letter echoed the White House claim that "the majority of the mainstream media is only focusing on the bad news,' and joins in the coordinated campaign to attack Congressman John Murtha for criticizing the White House Iraq strategy, nearly accusing him of treason, saying "John Murtha's words are detrimental to our Nation's fight against global terror."

In the last few days Vets for Freedom has directly entered Connecticut politics, taking out full-page ads supporting primary-loser Joe Lieberman against the Democratic nominee. (Patriot Project will have more on this development in the near future.) Clearly intending to drive a wedge into the Democratic Party, the modus operandi looks to be part of a larger election strategy with Vets for Freedom operating as yet another front-group set up to advance the conservative agenda and attack Democrats.

Is truth really only what people can be made to think it is? Will there someday be consequences to our democracy from this use of professional "perception management?" Over and over again we see well-financed, politically-connected front-groups, posing as something they're not, insulating their real backers from exposure and criticism. They hire a PR firm -- make that "strategic communications specialists" -- to set up a front-group to plant stories in the press and manipulate the public. The planted stories typically evolve into smears, and good people are hurt. But it seems to work, over and over again.

The Patriot Project is working to expose this tactic and to thereby diminish its effectiveness.

Posted by Dave Johnson at August 16, 2006 7:58 AM

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