By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
So, in this space yesterday, I had a little fun with the New York Times. I hope it's obvious to our frequent readers that the Times's news pages are normally my first journalistic stop every morning -- for all the arguments over ideology, the paper's depth and breadth are often without parallel. In fact, it is quoted here more than any other publication, for good reason.
A few of you correctly noted I've yet to respond to the recent Times front-page article on the military analysts employed by the television networks, including this one.
I read the article with great interest. I've worked with two men since I've had this job -- both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals -- Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I'm sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.
I made four trips to Iraq with Wayne. We were together, in close quarters, for over two months at the start of the war and survived at least one harrowing adventure. I won't attempt to respond on Wayne's behalf, and I know Barry McCaffrey has his own response to the article.
All I can say is this: these two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq. If you've had any exposure to retired officers of that rank (and we've not had any five-star Generals in the modern era) then you know: these men are passionate patriots. In my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers. I knew full well whenever either man went on a fact-finding mission or went for high-level briefings. They never came back spun, and never attempted a conversion. They are warriors-turned-analysts, not lobbyists or politicians.
As far as Wayne was concerned, he was an NBC News employee, and while he would never do anything to diminish his decades of extraordinary service (nor would we expect him to), we all marveled at how quickly he took to the notion of being a journalist -- taking a good, hard, critical look at the Pentagon as an entity, the way "analysts" do.
And about General McCaffrey: I was among those who fielded complaint calls -- from the Pentagon, from the White House, from the highest levels of the Administration -- protesting his harsh criticism of the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the war effort. General Downing and I (during some unscheduled "down time" in the Iraqi desert at the height of the invasion) watched the U.S. military supply line in the distance, driving through the darkness, undefended. Because he viewed it as a result of fighting the "war on the cheap," he was infuriated by it, and said so. General McCaffrey's criticisms were too numerous to mention, but here's a particular favorite from Nightly News on August 3, 2006:
"Well, I think some of the debate over civil war is absolutely nonsense. It's been a civil war for a couple of years. Thousands are being killed and wounded. It is clearly a struggle between the Shia, the Sunni and to some extent the Kurds. Secretary Rumsfeld, in my judgment, is increasingly going to become irrelevant to this debate. The ambassador on the ground, Khalilzad, General George Casey, General John Abizaid and the White House are going to have to sort this out. It's a very bad situation, and it's getting worse."
Another man deserves mention here: Jack Jacobs is a familiar face to MSNBC and NBC News audiences. We have employed Jack as an analyst for years. He is also a personal friend. Most important: he's among 105 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. I serve on the Board of the Medal of Honor Foundation -- our job is to raise awareness and funds for the recipients, as I've done rather unabashedly in this space over the past two years. Jack, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, travels often to embark on tours of the combat zone, and I've always regarded his analysis as rock-solid... and he has never hesitated to take a whack at the Pentagon brass.
I think it's fair, of course, to hold us to account for the military analysts we employ, inasmuch as we can ever fully know the "off-duty" actions of anyone employed on an "of counsel" basis by us. I can only account for the men I know best. The Times article was about the whole lot of them -- including instances involving other networks and other experts, who can answer for themselves. At no time did our analysts, on my watch or to my knowledge, attempt to push a rosy Pentagon agenda before our viewers. I think they are better men than that, and I believe our news division is better than that.