Culture of the Shilling

U.S. soldiers patrol through the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009. Many Afghans were still sleeping when President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said NATO and U.S. forces would hand over responsibility for securing the country to the Afghan security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow." Obama said if conditions are right, U.S. troops could begin leaving Afghanistan in 18 months. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq
Nathan Hodge writes for Danger Room, Wired's national security blog. He is the author of The Armored Suburban, a forthcoming book about the military and nation-building.

On February 25 journalist Thomas Ricks published an important scoop on his blog at Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, had requested keeping a brigade in northern Iraq beyond President Obama's deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces. The timing of the story was intriguing. Just two days earlier, Ricks had published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for US troops to remain in Iraq long term. "I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come," he wrote. The op-ed coincided with a policy brief by Ricks issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the Washington think tank where he is a senior fellow.

Ricks, a longtime military correspondent for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and author of the bestseller Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, had been a prominent critic of US policy in Iraq. Recently on his blog, he called the decision to invade "one of the biggest blunders in American history." But his op-ed, along with the rollout of the policy brief and the news story, was selling the idea of a long stay in Iraq.

CNAS, like most think tanks, bills itself as "independent and nonpartisan"; its leadership says that it takes no positions as an institution. But it played a key role in selling the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and now it could help prepare the ground for the president to reverse course on Iraq and keep a large force in the country.

It's part of a new influence game in Washington. Think tanks, once a place for intellectuals outside government to weigh in on important policy issues, are now enlisted by people within government to help sell its policies to the public, as well as to others in government. Institutions like CNAS are also heavily funded by major weapons manufacturers and Pentagon contractors, creating potential conflicts of interest rarely disclosed in the media.

Indeed, the presence of journalists on the payrolls of think tanks is crucial to their clout, lending them the imprimatur of neutral, nonpartisan news organizations. Since its founding in 2007, CNAS has played host to a string of reporters from major US newspapers: Ricks worked on his most recent book, The Gamble, at CNAS; Post reporter Greg Jaffe and former New York Times reporter David Cloud worked on The Fourth Star, a book profiling four Army leaders, while in residence; Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, veteran military and intelligence reporters for the Times, are researching a book on counterterrorism there. And CNAS isn't the only place where national security reporters have set up shop. Times military correspondent Michael Gordon is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a new think tank founded by Kimberly Kagan, the wife of Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a cheerleader for the "surge" strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Think tanks are also investing in new media: CNAS bankrolls influential blogs like Abu Muqawama (a counterinsurgency-themed blog written by Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger); Abu Aardvark (a Middle East politics blog by Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University); and The Best Defense (Ricks's daily take on military affairs). Lynch's and Ricks's blogs are published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, owned by the Washington Post. (Foreign Policy discloses the links to CNAS but has no upfront disclaimer about who funds CNAS.)

As newspapers close foreign bureaus and shrink newsrooms--threatening independent national security reporting at a time when the United States is involved in two wars--think tanks like CNAS have moved to fill the void in new and old media. And while tightfisted newspaper publishers may be less than generous with book leave, think tanks like CNAS and ISW offer a place to work on long-form journalism free of daily deadline pressure.

What enables journalists to make the leap to an institution like CNAS is its carefully cultivated image of bipartisanship. Its board of directors includes prominent Democrats and Republicans, which makes it easier to get past the standards editors. "I could go there without being branded," Jaffe told me. "It would have been a tougher sell to my bosses to go to AEI or the Center for American Progress."

Schmitt made a similar argument. "We've tried to keep our reporting middle-of-the-road, for our careers, and I think we were looking for an institution that would reflect that," he told me.

At first glance, it's an ideal arrangement. Jaffe and Cloud's book, for instance, was a fairly measured portrait of top leaders like Gen. David Petraeus, and, more important, CNAS doesn't dictate the journalists' views. "CNAS had zero control or influence over the book's content," Jaffe wrote me in an e-mail. "We got a small travel stipend ($5,000 each) and office space, but that was it."

But Jaffe's argument begs the question of whether think tanks, even centrist ones, truly offer the same independence that newspapers purport to have. CNAS is an instructive case. Two former Clinton administration officials, Michèle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, founded CNAS in 2007 as a way for centrist Democrats to reclaim a place in the national security debate ahead of the 2008 presidential race. It was an expert triangulation: Flournoy, Campbell and their associates staked out a hawkish (or, as they would term it, a "pragmatic and principled") position on Iraq, opposing early deadlines for withdrawal. After Obama's election, CNAS would emerge as a key feeder for the new administration's national security team. No fewer than fourteen CNAS grads would land slots in the Defense and State departments. Flournoy now occupies the number-three post at the Pentagon, and Campbell is the head of the State Department's Asia bureau.

How exactly did Flournoy and Campbell conjure up a think tank out of thin air? In addition to support from foundations like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ploughshares Foundation, CNAS received heavy backing from the military industry. Its list of donors includes major weapons manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon and BAE Systems. It also receives contributions from private security firms like Aegis Defence Services, as well as from KBR, the logistics support contractor notorious for overbilling the Pentagon for its services in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it generates income from research contracts with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, as do others like the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

CNAS has also emerged as an important conduit for military commanders to reach key audiences and set the terms of the debate in Washington. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal decided to launch a sweeping, top-down review of Afghanistan strategy, he invited CNAS's Andrew Exum, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to join his assessment team. Exum was not the only think tanker who took part in McChrystal's surge of policy nerds. As part of his review, McChrystal reached out to a small but influential circle of national security wonks, including Fred Kagan (AEI), Kimberly Kagan (ISW), Stephen Biddle (Council on Foreign Relations), Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Jeremy Shapiro (Brookings Institution). It was a calculated exercise in bipartisanship, but it was also a smart PR move: upon returning from their Pentagon-organized visit to Afghanistan, many of the participants in the strategic assessment would serve as an advance guard for McChrystal's upcoming request for a significant increase in troops and resources.