Yesterday, the New York Times published an article detailing a U.S. Army scheme to “kill” an upcoming Times investigation into concussions sustained during mandatory boxing classes at military academies. Things didn’t quite pan out the way Army brass intended in that particular case, but the same strategy has successfully been used to manipulate the media in the past.
In a meeting at the Pentagon earlier this month, Army Surgeon General Patricia Horoho urged West Point superintendent Robert Caslen to delay releasing the results of a Freedom of Information Act request about the concussions to the Times, according to a summary of the meeting obtained by the paper. In the meantime, Horoho would distribute a favorable study conducted by the Army about the concussions to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, in hopes that those papers would give the boxing class story a more positive spin before the Times got a chance to publish its story.
Neither paper published the study, but at least one outlet took the bait regarding a separate Army-related story earlier this year.
The meeting summary also quotes Horoho making reference to a February story in the Colorado Springs Gazette about workers at an Army hospital in Fort Carson verbally abusing and otherwise mistreating veterans with mental health problems. “We were able to do something similar with the 4th ID when The Colorado Springs Gazette attacked them with treatment of wounded warriors last year — killed any scrutiny from the media and killed their story,” Horoho is summarized as saying.
Before the Army released an internal investigation into the hospital in response to the Gazette’s FOIA request, Horoho invited a small group of competing reporters to the Pentagon, in an apparent effort to put a positive spin on the story before the Gazette could publish it story. “The event resulted in several stories that had her playing down the mistreatment of soldiers with mental health issues,” according to the Times.
One such story was published by the Army Times on February 10. Under the headline “Army surgeon general: WTU problems aren’t systemic,” reporter Kyle Jahner wrote of a Pentagon “round-table update” to reporters about allegations of abuse at Army rehabilitation centers known as WTUs, or Warrior Transition Units. At the meeting, Horoho told reporters that complaints at of harassment at WTUs were not indicative of a system-wide issue, and that many of complaints by soldiers had already been resolved.
From the Army Times:
Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army surgeon general, affirmed that while even one case of abuse isn’t tolerable, most of the complaints turned out not to be medical care-related and about 24 cases of harassment have been dealt with. And she said the reports documented issues that the Army already uncovered itself.
“They weren’t concerns that an outside source came to us and said do you realize you have these problems,” Horoho said at a round-table update on her command for members of the media at the Pentagon on Friday. “We have eight different avenues (for) our warriors and their family members to have their voices heard. When those concerns come up, each of them is looked at and then we take appropriate action.”
Horoho also said at the roundtable meeting that the Army had gotten out in front of media reports about the alleged harassment, Jahner wrote. Jahner’s article interprets that claim as a reference to a two-part Dallas Morning News investigation from November 2014 about claims of harassment at three Texas WTUs. But Horoho wasn’t “getting out in front” of those stories—they’d been published three months before. However, she was decidedly ahead of the Gazette’s Fort Carson story, which was published five days after the Army Times piece.
The Freedom of Information Act—under which the federal government is legally bound to release certain types of documents and information in response to requests from journalists, researchers, and citizens—is not a trivial aspect of the reporting process, especially for those journalists who cover the Department of Defense. When David Barstow published his Pulitzer-winning 2008 look at the Pentagon’s orchestration of “military analysts” who went on TV to drum up support for the Iraq War, he did so after a FOIA investigation; Jason Leopold’s reporting on Guantanamo Bay, the CIA, and other DOD matters for Vice News is conducted almost exclusively via FOIA.
Horoho and Caslen both acknowledged that the meeting summary obtained by the Times was genuine, but claimed that they’d been misrepresented. “I am flat-out angry about this. Of all the topics, [concussions of soldiers] is very important to me,” Horoho said. If she really cares that much about keeping members of the Army healthy, she might stop interfering with reporters whose work might help them.