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Military Intelligence Mania

Newscasts scramble for experts

By RICHARD HUFF Daily News TV Editor

s the American military fans out in Afghanistan, some of their retired colleagues are spreading their wings on TV.

It's nearly impossible to turn on a news channel without seeing a former military insider laying out potential battle plans in the war against terrorism.

Been There, Done That: Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey serves as an analyst on MSNBC. Also getting plenty of airtime are doctors and bioterrorism experts attempting to explain the threats and reality of anthrax and smallpox.

According to news executives, finding the right person to serve as an analyst can be as difficult as gathering the news itself.

"I felt like there was a scramble and everyone got snatched up," said NBC News vice president Eleana Nachmanoff.

Shortly after it was clear that President Bush would send troops to war, executives raced to set up deals with war experts and terrorism scholars.

Each network now has a cadre of experts, including such retired military men as Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme commander, on CNN, and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a former drug czar, on MSNBC.

"They have to be able to speak English," said Bill Shine, Fox News Channel's executive producer. "They have to be able to take all the acronyms people use and make it so the audience and lay people can use it."

Overall, news executives search for a few specific traits in military experts.

Preferably, they are recently retired, so they'll have some familiarity with the current tools of war.

The higher the rank the better, although that doesn't mean a lower-ranked officer won't be suitable for the job.

They must be able to easily convey what may be happening on the battlefield.

"I think we're looking for a level of expertise," said Judy Milestone, CNN's senior vice president of network booking. "As it does turn out, we're using generals, but not all four-star generals."

Though retired military officials may be in contact with friends still on duty, some of what they use to explain information comes from the public domain, which is then combined with their own knowledge.

For example, MSNBC's retired Gen. Bernard Trainor routinely severs ties with his active-duty colleagues in time of war so he doesn't inadvertently release inside information.

"Everything that comes out is obviously based on my long experience within the military," said Trainor.

"Even before they've sniffed a cable that goes into the camera, we tell them that we're not asking for anything classified or restricted," NBC's Nachmanoff said. "We also tell them we don't want to give the impression to our viewers that we're putting men and women in harm's way."

Finding people to discuss bioterrorism and related issues has been a bit more difficult.

"We all have our Rolodexes," Shine said. "We all have a Kosovo file. And earlier this summer, during the Condit situation, we had that file. I didn't have an anthrax card this time around."

With the hearty appetite of the 24-hour news networks and the need for experts, who in some cases are rapidly boning up on different topics, incorrect information is bound to make it on the air, insiders said.

"That's a matter of degree," Trainor said. "Some make errors of fact, others errors of interpretation. But those are lost in the background clutter. If something comes up clearly with a threat to upcoming military operations even at that I think the danger is not quite as high as one would expect."

Original Publication Date: 10/22/01

-- Martin Thompson (, October 22, 2001

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