A recent New York Times article (8/7/16) detailed, in often scathing terms, what many media critics already knew: that think tanks are frequently not objective, neutral arbiters of information, but corporate- and government-funded agenda-promoters with an academic veneer to give the appearance of impartiality.
One of the two think tanks the Times’ Eric Lipton and Brooke Williams raked over the coals was the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which published a report advocating the expansion of drone sales while being funded by drone makers, namely General Atomics (emphasis added):
As a think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies did not file a lobbying report, but the goals of the effort were clear.
“Political obstacles to export,” read the agenda of one closed-door “working group” meeting organized by Mr. Brannen that included Tom Rice, a lobbyist in General Atomics’ Washington office, on the invitation lists, the emails show.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin, drone makers that were major CSIS contributors, were also invited to attend the sessions, the emails show. The meetings and research culminated with a report released in February 2014 that reflected the industry’s priorities.
“I came out strongly in support of export,” Mr. Brannen, the lead author of the study, wrote in an email to Kenneth B. Handelman, the deputy assistant secretary of State for defense trade controls.
But the effort did not stop there.
Mr. Brannen initiated meetings with Defense Department officials and congressional staff to push for the recommendations, which also included setting up a new Pentagon office to give more focus to acquisition and deployment of drones. The center also stressed the need to ease export limits at a conference it hosted at its headquarters featuring top officials from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps….
“CSIS will not represent any donor before any government office or entity, including congressional lawmakers and executive branch officials,” Mr. Hamre, the chief executive, said in his statement to the Times. “We do not lobby.”
The result was a victory for General Atomics.
As the Times also notes, CSIS is funded largely by Western and Gulf monarchy governments, arms dealers and oil companies, such as Raytheon, Boeing, Shell, the United Arab Emirates, US Department of Defense, UK Home Office, General Dynamics, Exxon Mobil, Northrop Grumman, Chevron and others.
Anyone with a seven-year-old’s understanding of causality can conclude that CSIS would, in the aggregate, promote the expansion of the military and surveillance state, since that’s who pays their bills; what the Times did was reveal a specific, rather direct example, using heretofore secret documents.
New York Times readers didn’t need a smoking gun in any event, since CSIS’s agenda can be seen with simple inference. Since it was the Times that broached the topic, let’s use what CSIS fellows have written or said in the Times over the past year, and see if they ever called for the defunding or de-escalation of the military state:
- CSIS op-ed (12/3/15) hyping the threat of ISIS and by implication calling for more surveillance of Americans
- CSIS op-ed (2/18/16) calling for an “international precedent” for an encryption backdoor
- CSIS op-ed (2/23/16) calling for an encryption backdoor
- CSIS senior fellow (5/17/16) helping the US military with its pro-LGBT (a/k/a “woke imperialism”) rebranding efforts
- CSIS fellow (5/27/16) saying that Africa was no longer seen by the US through a “peacekeeping lens” but was now a battlefield with enemies that could potentially threaten the US
- CSIS “military budget expert” (6/10/16) criticizing Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter for not moving fast enough on its new cybersecurity recruitment initiative
- CSIS op-ed (7/5/16) calling for more biometric security and dismissing privacy concerns as “irrational” “nervous dystopian projections”
- CSIS fellow (7/8/16) saying the White House hasn’t “fully acknowledged” the shift in Europe and how it could damage NATO
- CSIS senior fellow (7/9/16) insisting nuclear weapons remain in Europe due to increased threats from Russia
- CSIS fellow (8/5/16) insisting Boko Haram is “increasingly unstable”
One of the starkest examples, one that FAIR noted at the time, was a New York Times article (8/20/15) last year, warning about the US “lagging behind” Russia in the Arctic Ocean, that was based almost entirely on a CSIS report warning of “Russia’s strategic reach” near the north pole. As we noted in September, the piece failed to mention Russia has 14 times the Arctic coast of the US, and thus it made sense it would have roughly that many more icebreaker ships. The “gap” was just asserted, based primarily on US military say-so and a CSIS report that breathlessly insisted Russia was getting the better of the US in the Arctic. The New York Times even helped out, using a wildly deceptive map implying Arctic parity where none existed:
In May, the torrent of media articles hyping the “Arctic gap” asserted by CSIS and the US military paid dividends, with Congress allocating an additional $1 billion to the Navy’s budget to pay for icebreaker ships. Another bill, the Icebreaker Recapitalization Act, calling for Congress to fully fund “six heavy-duty polar icebreaker ships,” has been introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D.–Wash.).
While the contracts are not awarded yet, Lockheed Martin—one of CSIS’s top donors–is said by market analyst The Motley Fool to be an “obvious choice” to build the new fleet. Their runner up to build the new icebreakers? Huntington Ingalls Industries, who also donated generously to CSIS.
No instances of CSIS calling for the defunding or de-escalation of the military state in the New York Times could be found by FAIR. FAIR reached out to CSIS spokesperson Andrew Schwartz, asking him to cite any examples of CSIS ever saying the threat of Russia or Islamic extremism was overestimated, or advocating for less surveillance or military spending. He did not respond at the time of publishing.
It could be a coincidence that CSIS always errs on the side of more military spending, more surveillance, more hyping of threats from Russia and ISIS, and that these conclusions were reached based on a dispassionate examination of the facts. Or the New York Times could read its own reporting, and treat deep-state think tank war-boosters as just that. At the very least, if they are to be cited, the paper could note that they are funded by interests heavily invested in promoting the expansion of a NATO/GCC-led military apparatus, so the reader can know that the bespectacled quasi-academic being interviewed or proffering charts and maps is not entirely without strings. (Noting that someone commenting on war is funded by those who profit from war seems entirely reasonable, no?).
The media would understandably be hard-pressed to drop think tanks altogether. Their insta-pundits lend gravitas to articles for writers on deadline and, just as they do for lawmakers, think tanks do much of the research heavy-lifting. But the think tank industry, as the internal emails New York Times revealed make clear, is often based on laundering influence through ostensibly neutral-sounding “institutes” or “centers,” with the fact that the average media consumer won’t know who funds them being part of the service offered to donors.
This is true not just in the military field, but in every policy area that affects corporations’ bottom lines, as is suggested by the Times‘ reporting on the even more ubiquitous Brookings Institution promoting the JPMorgan bank’s image:
JPMorgan, in a document dated a month before the agreement was signed, said the pending donation to Brookings “deepens/extends relationships with important client base among business and civic leaders both in the US and abroad.”
And Brookings was ready to do its part.
“Our events, which in part target these audiences,” said an internal 2014 Brookings memo, referring to the Global Cities Initiative and federal and state leaders, “have yielded 100+ media hits, with 97 percent of them referencing GCI and 90 percent referencing JPMorgan; by the end of this year, we will have held events in 13 domestic markets and nine international markets.”
At times, Brookings officials seemed worried they were not doing enough for the bank.
“No one wants to create overt marketing opportunities for JPMC, but we need to carve out roles and thought leadership opportunity for market presidents,” said a 2013 Brookings memo, referring to a dinner with the bank’s executives. “We need to do a better job tying it back to JPMC.”
These “media hits” would not be possible if the corporate agenda wasn’t laundered through the pseudo-academic credibility of a think tank, whether it’s a giant bank trying to improved its image via Brookings or an arms manufacturers trying to promote the war industry via CSIS.
“John Smith, funded by Raytheon, the Department of Defense and Chevron, says Russian aggression is unprecedented” sounds far less credible than “John Smith, senior fellow at CSIS, says Russian aggression is unprecedented”—even though they are, in effect, the same thing. In light of the New York Times report, perhaps it’s time for media to start spelling out what’s happening for readers.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.