Barry McCaffrey, a retired general and the top anti-drug official during the Bill Clinton administration, is a prominent military commentator for MSNBC and NBC's Nightly News whose initial enthusiasm for an aggressive "war on terror" eventually soured after the conflict in Iraq became a counterinsurgency war. He is president and founder of BR McCaffrey Associates, an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm, and he sits on the boards of several defense firms, including DynCorp International, Global Linguist Solutions, and McNeil Technologies.
McCaffrey was also on the board of the now-defunct Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), an advocacy group founded in 2002 to promote war with Iraq as a step toward "regional peace, political freedom, and international security." Serving alongside McCaffrey were neoconservative ideologues associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) as well as several hawkish public officials, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and ex-CIA chief James Woolsey.1 McCaffrey signed PNAC's 2005 letter to congressional leaders calling for funding to increase the size of the military ground forces in order to meet the "generational commitment" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.2
McCaffrey's ability to impartially assess U.S. security policies as an analyst has come under scrutiny due to his ties to Pentagon officials and to his financial interests in military contractors that benefited from the decision to go to war. In April 2008, the New York Times identified McCaffrey as one of several dozen retired military officers (including Paul Vallely and Thomas McInerney) who were part of a controversial Pentagon program that sought to manage public opinion on the Iraq War by debriefing retired military figures who were then interviewed as experts by news media, without revealing their connections to the administration.3 Because many of these men were attached to military contractors, the Times reported, they valued the access and were more inclined to present the administration's line on air. Without saying how or by whom McCaffrey was debriefed, the newspaper reported, "Two of NBC's most prominent analysts, Barry R. McCaffrey and the late Wayne A. Downing, were on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an advocacy group created with White House encouragement in 2002 to help make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein. Both men also had their own consulting firms and sat on the boards of major military contractors." (The Pentagon suspended its program in the wake of the New York Times exposé.)4
Brian Williams, NBC's news anchor, disputed the Times' implication that McCaffrey and Downing were not objective analysts. He wrote, "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."5
A 2003 investigation by The Nation pointed to McCaffrey's and Downing's ties to the defense industry and to militarist groups like CLI as being "offscreen commitments [that] raise questions about whether they are influenced by more than just 'a lifetime of experience and objectivity'—in the words of Lieut. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a military analyst for NBC News—as they explain the risks of [the Iraq War] to the American people."6
The Nation explained McCaffrey's conflict of interest: "McCaffrey, who commanded an infantry division in the Gulf War, is now on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital, and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies [IDT]—all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts.… Since IDT is a specialist in tank upgrades, the company stands to benefit significantly from a massive ground war. McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that 'armor and artillery don't count' enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, 'Thank God for the Abrams tank and ... the Bradley fighting vehicle,' and added for good measure that the 'war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker.' In March alone, IDT received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware."7
McCaffrey has criticized the George W. Bush administration's handling of the occupation of and war in Iraq, particularly the performance of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In August 2006, McCaffrey said on NBC's Nightly News, "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, [Zalmay] 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."8
In 2003, McCaffrey penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that characterized Rumsfeld as "in denial of reality" of the situation in Iraq.9 "[Rumsfeld] publicly states the situation on the ground in Iraq is being distorted by the media and characterizes the violence as comparable to Washington, D.C., crime levels. He has denied there is a 'guerrilla war' and insisted that the only opposition is a handful of 'dead enders.' He points with increasing defensiveness to the small number of coalition forces (besides the courageous Brits) and the increasing hours of electricity per day as evidence that his policies are working," McCaffrey wrote. "In my judgment, the manner in which we intervened, and ended the regime, has been a major source of our subsequent problems. It's not enough to achieve victory—which we did; you've got to achieve a situation in which your adversary recognizes that he's been defeated, and that violent resistance is futile—which we didn't."
After a trip to Iraq in late 2007, McCaffrey came back impressed with the seeming progress made there, though he disputed administration claims that the improvement was a result of its "surge" strategy. "I think the issue at stake is not whether things are better in Iraq; they are unquestionably like night and day change in the level of violence. The real question is what caused [the decrease in violence].… The least important aspect of the so-called change in strategy was the surge."10
Before being appointed director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the second Clinton administration, McCaffrey was a four-star general who, according to his biography on the website of his consulting firm McCaffrey Associates, "at retirement … was the most highly decorated serving General, having been awarded three Purple Heart medals for wounds received in his four combat tours."11 He is perhaps best known for his controversial role in the first Gulf War, in which he led the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division on March 2, 1991—two days after a ceasefire agreement—in a full-force assault on Iraqi Republican Guard forces that he believed were attacking his division.
In a 2000 investigative report for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported on allegations made in an anonymous letter sent to military officials that McCaffrey's wartime actions amounted to war crimes. In the March 2 assault, Hersh reported that, "Apache attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and artillery units from the 24th Division pummeled the five-mile-long Iraqi column for hours, destroying some 700 Iraqi tanks, armored cars and trucks, and killing not only Iraqi soldiers but civilians and children as well. Many of the dead were buried soon after the engagement, and no accurate count of the victims could be made." According to Hersh, the 24th Division repeatedly fired on Iraqi civilians, POWs, and fleeing soldiers who did not return fire. An Army investigation cleared McCaffrey of any criminal action, yet some doubt lingered, Hersh reported. "General Peter Barry, the C.I.D.'s [the Army's Criminal Investigations Division] commanding officer, assured me that by the time the investigation shut down some of the Army's senior leaders realized that there was 'a certain element of truth' to the allegations made by the anonymous letter writer. 'Whoever wrote the letter had detailed knowledge,' Barry said. 'But establishing the criminality is difficult.'"12
In 1994, McCaffrey was promoted to a four-star general and commander-in-chief of the Southern Command. Two years later, he joined the Clinton Cabinet as the "drug czar" in charge of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Hersh reported in 2000 that, "The appointment was widely seen as one that would boost Bill Clinton's standing with the military in an election year and put a hero of the Gulf War to work on America's other war. McCaffrey's new war is in Colombia, where he is the Administration's most enthusiastic supporter of a greater American military presence to counter the increasing strength of anti-government guerrilla groups."13
Anti-Drug Campaign and Controversy
Upon taking up his post as ONDCP head in 1996, McCaffrey was labeled as the general who would lead the U.S. fight in the "war on drugs."14 As Hersh reported in 2000, "McCaffrey serves as the architect of and main spokesman for the Clinton Administration's $1.6-billion plan to provide, among other things, more training and weapons for the Colombian Army in an effort to cut drug production and export."15 Though McCaffrey came to see the battle against drugs as less of a war and more of a "cancer affecting social life"16 that needed to be fought with therapy, prevention, and education, he never wavered in what he saw as the accompanying necessity of funding and training foreign armed forces involved in combating the drug trade. As the Associated Press reported in 2000, "'They [the Colombian government] are really in a perilous situation, and I think we ought to stand with them,' McCaffrey said, noting that the United States will give 63 helicopters in 2000."17
As drug czar, McCaffrey was accused of undertaking a media "propaganda" campaign to disseminate his office's anti-drug message. According to Salon.com, in the late 1990s, when advertising revenue for dot-coms skyrocketed, network TV channels began to balk at contractual arrangements they'd made with the government to run anti-drug ads. McCaffrey's ONDCP offered a compromise. Reported Salon.com, "The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought—in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo."18 Networks received government money when their shows—including ER, Beverly Hills 90210, Chicago Hope, The Drew Carey Show, and 7th Heaven—ran episodes that included anti-drug messages that were approved of by McCaffrey's drug office. For example, two ONDCP-approved episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 in which a character descends into drug addiction garnered Fox somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 from ONDCP, Salon reported.
Although show writers and producers were unaware of the arrangement between the networks and the government, according to Salon, "government officials and their contractors began approving, and in some cases altering, the scripts of shows before they were aired to conform with the government's anti-drug messages."19
Commenting on the program, Jay Schwartzman, president of the public interest law firm Media Access Project, told Salon, "This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment.... The broadcasters scream about the First Amendment until McCaffrey opens his checkbook."20