NPR correspondent speaks about national security in Kagin

By Andrew Guyton

Longtime National Public Radio correspondent and Minnesota native Tom Gjelten spoke at a packed Kagin Commons Tuesday night as part of an ongoing NPR lecture series at Macalester. Gjelten, perhaps most notable for reporting live from the Pentagon at the moment the third plane hit on September 11, is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and has worked at NPR since 1982, most recently as one of its national intelligence correspondents.A Peabody Award winner for NPR’s 2004 series “The War in Iraq,” Gjelten spoke at length on the New York Times’ recent story “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.”

The investigative piece revealed a Pentagon PR program designed to bolster public sentiment about the administration’s wartime decisions by providing a cadre of television and radio “military analysts,” almost all of whom were retired military officers themselves.

The retired officers were provided with incentives ranging from meetings with senior administration officials to access to classified intelligence, in exchange for exclusive promotion of administration talking points on relevant news issues. “Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay,” one such analyst said in an e-mail.

This story hit close to home for Gjelten, as he had personally recruited one of these analysts, retired Army General Robert H. Scales, to be NPR’s own military analyst in early 2003. “Recall the stuff I did after my last visit,” Scales said in an email to the Pentagon, according to the Times article. “I will do the same this time.”

Though Gjelten could not recall a time when Gen. Scales had spun war news on an NPR broadcast, and Gen. Scales was quoted in an interview as having said “None of us drink the Kool-Aid,” Gjelten pointed to this issue as just one of the many challenges facing national security reporters in this day and age. Gelten said that it is hard enough working with confidential sources already, and that being deliberately fed misinformation from people who are supposed to be impartial makes their jobs infinitely more difficult.

“How do we report this news seriously, soberly, fairly, accurately, comprehensively, but also maintain the independence that is so important for us as news organizations?” Gjelten asked.

Close to 500 people attended the talk, the large majority of which were not Macalester students.

Gjelten has taken two leaves of absence from his duties at NPR since the Iraq War began. He spent this time working on a soon-to-be-published book, “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause.” The book traces the forces that helped shape Cuba and change it from a Spanish territory into the Communist state it is today.

Gjelten said he chose to focus on the Bacardi family because of the close ties it had to Cuban leadership as far back as 1860. The company was one of the biggest supporters of Cuban independence from the U.S. and of the Castro revolution, but afterward, Gjelten said, something changed.

“When Fidel came along, the Bacardis were among his leading supporters, his leading financiers,” Gjelten said. He also said the company even paid its income taxes a year in advance after Fidel took power so that the new government would have a positive balance in the national treasury.

In 1960, things changed. “Fidel expropriated all their assets in Cuba across the whole country,” Gjelten said. “They went into exile, and as you can imagine, this progressive company did basically a 180 and went from being Fidel’s biggest supporters to being Fidel’s biggest adversaries, and instead of financing the revolution, they financed the counter-revolution.”

After his speech, Gjelten took questions from the audience on issues such as the role of a journalist in combating attempted governmental control of the media and how one assesses all potential consequences from running a sensitive story containing leaked information.

Other journalists that have spoken on campus through NPR’s Broadcast Journalism Series include CNN’s Aaron Brown, Ray Suarez of “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” American Public Media’s Jon Gordon and Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On the Media.