CNN military analyst Shepperd on trip to Gitmo: "Did we drink the government kool-aid? -- of course"

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & KIRSTIN ELLISON

In the wake of the New York Times exposé on the hidden ties between media military analysts and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense (DOD) released numerous documents related to the program. One is a June 23, 2006, email containing a report written by CNN military analyst Donald Shepperd about his DOD-sponsored trip to Guantánamo Bay on June 21, 2006. In the report, Shepperd wrote: "Did we drink the government kool-aid? -- of course -- that was the purpose of the trip, to hear the U.S. government side of the story, the other side is provided daily in the media, some informed, most by those who have never been to Gitmo."

Following the publication of the April 20 New York Times front-page article on the hidden ties between media military analysts and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense (DOD) released to the public numerous documents regarding the analyst program. One of the documents released is a June 23, 2006, email from DOD official Dallas Lawrence to several DOD officials that contains a report written by retired Air Force Gen. Donald Shepperd, a CNN military analyst, about a DOD-sponsored trip he took to the U.S. military facility at Guantánamo Bay on June 21, 2006. Shepperd wrote, "I wish all of America, in fact all of the concerned world, would go [to Guantánamo Bay] because they could draw their own conclusions and stop asking me." Later in his report, Shepperd asked himself and answered a series of questions about the trip. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted, Shepperd wrote: "Did we drink the government kool-aid? -- of course -- that was the purpose of the trip, to hear the U.S. government side of the story, the other side is provided daily in the media, some informed, most by those who have never been to Gitmo." Shepperd later stated in his report, "If someone tells you Gitmo is a gulag -- that is nonsense -- they haven't been there." In sending Shepperd's report on, Lawrence wrote that "Don's reports are practically required reading by the entire CNN leadership. If nothing else this [report] will at least take away their ability to claim credibly that they 'did not know' what was really going on down there. Their own paid analyst has clearly reported in." Shepperd has appeared on CNN more than 700 times since the beginning of 2002, most recently on March 26, 2008.

As Greenwald noted, Shepperd is the president of The Shepperd Group. According to its website, "Don Shepperd of The Shepperd Group ... provides expert guidance and consulting services to defense contractors." According to his company biography page, Shepperd "performs independent consulting on defense, strategic planning, executive leadership, information technology and visioning and preparation of executive teams for the 21st century."

In the report contained in Lawrence's email, Shepperd stated, "It was my second trip to Guantanamo, the last being a year ago." Indeed, Shepperd wrote about his first trip in a July 2, 2005, "Behind the Scenes" article published on CNN.com. In the article, Shepperd wrote, "Did we drink the government 'Kool-Aid?' I don't know.":

It was a quick trip, down and back; seven hours in a military jet, plus all day at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center -- 10 media military analysts, defense writers and think-tankers receiving briefings, visiting assigned personnel and watching interrogations.

The trip was put together in response to recent press reports of prisoner abuse at Gitmo. The Defense Department considers the criticism grossly unfair and mostly written by people who have never visited the "new" Camp Delta, which three years ago replaced Camp X-Ray.

[...]

Guards were a mixture of military police from all services. They're young kids, serious about their jobs and proud of what they were doing. Early allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo and elsewhere were investigated, some substantiated and the guilty punished.

We saw no evidence of mistreatment, nor would one expect to on a planned visit. We didn't talk to detainees, rules prevent it, but the Red Cross does. They have unfettered access.

Did we drink the government "Kool-Aid?" I don't know. But when in doubt, I try to rely on common sense and my experience of almost 40 years in the military.

What I saw made sense: good, sincere, dedicated people doing what I would do in a tough situation. I am comforted. Keep it open. Keep a close watch on it. Guantanamo isn't a "Club Med," but it certainly isn't a "gulag."

However, around the same time, Shepperd wrote in a July 2005 National Guard article headlined "Gitmo, In and Out": "Did we drink the government 'Kool-Aid'? Of course, and that was the point of the trip, put together in response to press reports of prisoner abuse at Gitmo." Later in the article he asked, "Did we drink too much 'Kool-Aid?' ":

Did we drink the government "Kool-Aid"? Of course, and that was the point of the trip, put together in response to press reports of prisoner abuse at Gitmo.

The Defense Department considers the criticism grossly unfair, fallacious and mostly written by people who have never visited the "new" Camp Delta, which three years ago replaced Camp X-ray, the facility often still seen in network TV footage.

[...]

Did we drink too much "Kool-Aid?" I don't know. But when in doubt, I try to rely on common sense and my experience of almost 40 years in the military. What I saw made sense: good, sincere, dedicated people doing what I would do in a tough situation. I am comforted.

Guantanamo isn't a Club Med. It also isn't a gulag.

During and immediately after Shepperd's June 2005 visit to Guantánamo, he appeared on CNN to talk about his experiences there. On the June 24 edition of CNN's Live From ..., he had the following exchange over the phone from Guantánamo with anchor Betty Nguyen (taken from the Nexis news database):

NGUYEN: We have just established a line to Guantanamo Bay, to our military analyst General Don Shepperd. He arrived there as part of a trip put together by the Pentagon in wake of that human rights report that criticized conditions at the U.S. prison for war detainees. General Shepperd on the phone with us right now.

General Shepperd, what do you see so far while being there?

SHEPPERD: Well, I tell you what, Betty, I'm seeing a lot of rain right now. I thought Cuba was dry and we're in (INAUDIBLE) rain storm. But I tell you, every American should have a chance to see what our group saw today. The impressions that you're getting from the media and from the various pronouncements being made by people who have not been here, in my opinion, are totally false.

What we're seeing is a modern prison system of dedicated people, interrogators and analysts that know what they are doing. And people being very, very well-treated. We've had a chance to tour the facility, to talk to the guards, to talk to the interrogators and analysts. We've had a chance to eat what the prisoners eat. We've seen people being interrogated. And it's nothing like the impression that we're getting from the media. People need to see this, Betty.

[...]

NGUYEN: Now, this leads me to my next question. Of course, this was a trip organized by the Pentagon. So do you feel like you're getting full access to everything there? Are you seeing a true picture of how it is?

SHEPPERD: Yes, that's always a good question. But I tell you that they are proud to have people down here, including the press, to see what we are seeing. Obviously, they're going to put their best foot forward, And obviously, no matter where you are, there will be from time to time abuses or people misusing or disobeying the regulations, no matter where you are in the process.

But I tell you, I have been in prisons and I have been in jails in the United States, and this is by far the most professionally-run and dedicated force I've ever seen in any correctional institution anywhere.

According to CNN's transcript of the appearance, neither Shepperd nor Nguyen referred to his work with The Shepperd Group.

On the June 27, 2005, edition of CNN's American Morning, Shepperd discussed his trip with co-host Soledad O'Brien (from Nexis):

SHEPPERD: I came away agreeing with what the congressional delegation just said. What we saw in Guantanamo bears no resemblance to what we are reading in the print press out there. Most of the people writing about this, I believe, have never been there.

What I saw is we have -- we have impressions of an old facility, Camp X-ray, that was closed three years ago. What we have now is a modern, well-constructed prison, guarded by very, very dedicated people, doing an extremely tough job in the midst of very, very dangerous people, Soledad.

[...]

O'BRIEN: All right. But General Shepperd, you say you had free run of the place and that you got to watch them at work, you know, pretty much unfettered for a day. Isn't it fair to say, well, if there's abuse going on, it sure isn't going to happen while the U.S. congressional delegation is coming through, and certainly not while former military people who are now analysts on TV are hanging out in town?

I mean, it seems to me that obviously you wouldn't see those things. I think that's fair to say, isn't it?

SHEPPERD: Yes, absolutely. I mean, obviously, they're on their best behavior, put their best forward food, what have you. And obviously, in any prison situation you have to continually guard against abuses.

There have been abuses at Guantanamo in the past. I think that they have been fixed. And they're constantly on the alert for them.

But again, what we saw was a bunch of really dedicated people that are really, really mad and feel attacked by the things coming out in the print press about this. They say, "I don't know where these people are getting the information. They haven't been here, and I haven't seen it going on." So...

O'BRIEN: But some of it's not only coming out of the print press of journalists, let's say, who haven't had a chance to visit. I mean, we're talking about Amnesty International. They're the ones that, as you well know, called Guantanamo a modern day gulag.

The ICRC said the tactics there were tantamount to torture. The ICRC comes by frequently to check on the prisoners. I mean, they're there all the time. The same with Amnesty International, they have people who are there.

These are not journalists who are, you know, typing on their computers in another state and never have left the country.

SHEPPERD: No. The International Red Cross has access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at times and place of their choosing. They always recommend improvements.

According to CNN's transcript of the appearance, neither Shepperd nor O'Brien referred to his work with The Shepperd Group.

From Lawrence's June 23, 2006, email passing on Shepperd's report:

I thought you all might like to see this report filed by cnn senior military analyst Don Sheppard [sic] who was part of the analyst trip we took down to GITMO this week. Don's reports are practically required reading by the entire CNN leadership. If nothing else, this will at least take away their ability to claim credibly that they "did not know" what was really going on down there. Their own paid analyst has clearly reported in.

From Shepperd's report:

Did we drink the government kool-aid? -- of course -- that was the purpose of the trip, to hear the U.S. government side of the story, the other side is provided daily in the media, some informed, most by those who have never been to Gitmo. A visitor is at the mercy of local officials, but one also has lots of time to argue, inquire, question, disagree, exchange ideas, provide alternate views, suggestions. It is a healthy environment for an intellectual exchange. One has free access to talk to any of the staff.

From Shepperd's article in the July 2005 edition of National Guard, headlined "Gitmo, In and Out":

It was a quick trip, down and back; seven hours in a military jet, plus all day viewing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center. Ten media military analysts, defense writers and think tankers received briefings, visited assigned personnel and viewed interrogations.

Did we drink the government "Kool-Aid"? Of course, and that was the point of the trip, put together in response to press reports of prisoner abuse at Gitmo.

The Defense Department considers the criticism grossly unfair, fallacious and mostly written by people who have never visited the "new" Camp Delta, which three years ago replaced Camp X-ray, the facility often still seen in network TV footage.

Realizing a one-day visit does not an expert make, and that the government was obviously putting its best foot forward with former military visitors more likely receptive than a more appropriately skeptical press, we launched with gusto into our visit.

[...]

The pall of Abu Ghraib hangs over our heads. The damage done by a handful of poorly trained and unsupervised jerks isn't being repeated at Guantanamo. Keep it open. Keep a close watch on it. And keep those dangerous guys off the battlefield until this war is over.

Did we drink too much "Kool-Aid?" I don't know. But when in doubt, I try to rely on common sense and my experience of almost 40 years in the military. What I saw made sense: good, sincere, dedicated people doing what I would do in a tough situation. I am comforted.

Guantanamo isn't a Club Med. It also isn't a gulag.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.