If the Senate Intelligence Committee has its way, cable news industry is headed for a big shakeup: The end of the ex-Pentagon talking head. On Wednesday, the Senate panel approved the broadest legislation yet aimed at curbing the disclosure of classified information including a little-noticed measure banning TV contracts for former national security officials. As The Washington Post's Greg Miller reports, the bill "would curb an increasingly common arrangement in which top national security officials take jobs as commentators on cable-television shows," a restriction that could temporarily halt the "often lucrative post-government" gig. By now, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing "retired general X" or "former lieutenant Y" appear on cable news providing details on foiled Al Qaeda plots or background information on the War in Afghanistan. So would the public be missing out if they vanished from our TV screens?
There are a couple ways to look at this. The supporters of the bill see these former officials as great conduits for leaks. There's a reason you bring on former generals to talk about a developing national security story: they've had access to the clandestine machinery of government and oftentimes know what they're talking about because recently retired national security figures tend to stay in touch with their former colleagues who are still active in national security. Here's an example of how this works: in May the press reported on a CIA sting in Yemen before the mission was terminated, spurring calls to investigate the leak. Then Reuters' Mark Hosenball reported that the leak was likely due to a conference call White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan had with former national security officials including Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant. Shortly after the call, Clarke went on ABC World News Tonight and suggested the CIA had an operative inside Yemen, which sparked a media frenzy and soon led to fleshed out reports about the sensitive operation. Similar to the objections to the leak crackdown from journalists who report on national security, opponents of the bill would argue that it's another limit on the media's ability to inform the public.
But having all these paid former national security officials on TV doesn't always keep the public informed as much as you might think. In a 2008 blockbuster report in The New York Times, David Barstow wrote about the insidious effects these paid consultants can have in the public debate about foreign policy. Despite being presented as authoritative — and unaffiliated — observers of the debate about the shape of security policy after 9/11, many of the retired generals were actually supporting the Bush administration war effort for cash in some cases paid by military contractors. "Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance," the paper reported. While similar stories haven't appeared to this degree during the Obama years, it's far from a squeaky clean form of punditry. So it wouldn't be all bad to cut these guys' mics off.