In the spring of 2007 a tiny military contractor with a slender track record went shopping for a precious Beltway commodity.
Access like this does not come cheap, but it was an opportunity potentially worth billions in sales, and Defense Solutions soon found its man. The company signed Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general and military analyst for NBC News, to a consulting contract starting June 15, 2007.
Four days later the general swung into action. He sent a personal note and 15-page briefing packet to David H. Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, strongly recommending Defense Solutions and its offer to supply Iraq with 5,000 armored vehicles from Eastern Europe. “No other proposal is quicker, less costly, or more certain to succeed,” he said.
Thus, within days of hiring General McCaffrey, the Defense Solutions sales pitch was in the hands of the American commander with the greatest influence over Iraq’s expanding military.
“That’s what I pay him for,” Timothy D. Ringgold, chief executive of Defense Solutions, said in an interview.
General McCaffrey did not mention his new contract with Defense Solutions in his letter to General Petraeus. Nor did he disclose it when he went on CNBC that same week and praised the commander Defense Solutions was now counting on for help — “He’s got the heart of a lion” — or when he told Congress the next month that it should immediately supply Iraq with large numbers of armored vehicles and other equipment.
He had made similar arguments before he was hired by Defense Solutions, but this time he went further. In his testimony to Congress, General McCaffrey criticized a Pentagon plan to supply Iraq with several hundred armored vehicles made in the United States by a competitor of Defense Solutions. He called the plan “not in the right ballpark” and urged Congress to instead equip Iraq with 5,000 armored vehicles.
“We’ve got Iraqi army battalions driving around in Toyota trucks,” he said, echoing an argument made to General Petraeus in the Defense Solutions briefing packet.
Through seven years of war an exclusive club has quietly flourished at the intersection of network news and wartime commerce. Its members, mostly retired generals, have had a foot in both camps as influential network military analysts and defense industry rainmakers. It is a deeply opaque world, a place of privileged access to senior government officials, where war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests and network executives are sometimes oblivious to possible conflicts of interest.
Few illustrate the submerged complexities of this world better than Barry McCaffrey.
General McCaffrey, 66, has long been a force in Washington’s power elite. A consummate networker, he cultivated politicians and journalists of all stripes as drug czar in the Clinton cabinet, and his ties run deep to a new generation of generals, some of whom he taught at West Point or commanded in the Persian Gulf war, when he rose to fame leading the “left hook” assault on Iraqi forces.
But it was 9/11 that thrust General McCaffrey to the forefront of the national security debate. In the years since he has made nearly 1,000 appearances on NBC and its cable sisters, delivering crisp sound bites in a blunt, hyperbolic style. He commands up to $25,000 for speeches, his commentary regularly turns up in The Wall Street Journal, and he has been quoted or cited in thousands of news articles, including dozens in The New York Times.
His influence is such that President Bush and Congressional leaders from both parties have invited him for war consultations. His access is such that, despite a contentious relationship with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon has arranged numerous trips to Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotspots solely for his benefit.
At the same time, General McCaffrey has immersed himself in businesses that have grown with the fight against terrorism.