When President Barack Obama decided to drop bombs in Iraq this month, television news turned to a group of familiar faces to decipher the plan for viewers.
CNN told its audience that retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona's experience advising Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War shows "he knows what he's talking about." Fox News turned to retired four-star Army Gen. Jack Keane. "Very well versed on all of these challenges."
On MSNBC it was retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, commander of "the 24th Infantry Division during the first Gulf War."
Francona, Keane and McCaffrey are three of TV's "warheads," a prestigious group of military analysts who are handsomely paid to offer authoritative straight-talk on the chaos unfolding in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza.
But who are they, really? And how were they chosen to analyze military situations on the other side of the world?
PunditFact went in search of answers. What we found was a lot of dead ends.
Sound of silence
PunditFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute, contacted about 20 military analysts recently interviewed on one of the major news networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Most didn't respond to our calls or emails. Of those that did, the majority didn't want to talk.
Why would people who work alongside journalists not want to talk to one?
Many are still upset over a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation in 2008 that alleged conflicts of interest among many of the analysts who emerged during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New York Times uncovered a special Pentagon program to coach analysts with private, top-level briefings and paid tours of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Iraq. The investigation also revealed many of the analysts had undisclosed business connections to defense companies that could benefit from the wars they were invited to analyze.
The allegations spurred investigations by the Defense Department inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, none of which found the Pentagon violated the law. That did not change most warheads' minds about talking with reporters.
"I'm not talking to reporters now," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a longtime Fox analyst, in a brief phone conversation with PunditFact. Why not? He talked to the New York Times and "landed myself on the front page in a story full of crap."
The New York Times singled out McInerney as sitting on the boards of defense contractors and soliciting talking points from the Pentagon.
"Once is enough for me re: talking to reporters!!! There's always another agenda," Fox analyst and retired Navy Capt. Chuck Nash said in an email to the fraternity of warheads (which we were copied on).
Asking about the story now is like asking "how much were we affected by Vietnam," retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard told us. Allard wrote about his experiences as an NBC military analyst in the 2006 book Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War.
Network no comment
None of the most frequently featured analysts in recent weeks — McCaffrey of NBC, Francona and retired Army Gen. Mark Hertling of Orlando of CNN, Keane of Fox, and retired Marine Col. Steve Ganyard of ABC — would talk to us about their work.
But the networks that pay them are even more secretive. None would explain the process by which they vet and select military analysts.
Only one, CBS, confirmed exactly who is employed by the network, though CBS described them as "national security analysts" instead of military analysts: Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism adviser of President George W. Bush, and former acting CIA director Michael Morell as "national security analysts."
Allard said the networks also were stung by the Times story, accused of not doing enough due diligence in screening analysts' business interests.
'Problem is agendas'
So what do we know?
Retired officers billed as network analysts or contributors have exclusive contracts that bar them from appearing on rival channels. They are paid by the segment, and paid well, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, a 12-year Fox News analyst who retired from the Marines in 1985 after a tour in Vietnam and specializing in intelligence.
Cowan says Fox prevents him from saying how well, but it's enough to make him consider driving a couple of hours to a studio from his rural North Carolina home. "During the height of the (Iraq) war, I got paid a lot," Cowan said.
Networks value analysts who can adjust to a news topic as it breaks, so Cowan stays ready and comfortable by "endlessly" following the news all day and traveling on his own to places such as Jordan, Turkey, India and Egypt.
Still, they also want a talking head who can keep viewers glued.
"It's about business, and if somebody can look good on TV and present themselves well and have somewhat of a convincing pitch to a relatively naive audience, that's all the networks care about," Cowan said. "Just because you're a general does not mean you are qualified to go on television and talk."
To help you know the current crop of warheads, we've attached bios of the most frequent guests to this story.
Paid pundits are valuable in breaking down complex military operations because most have been there, said Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a Fox "strategic analyst" and former military intelligence officer who briefed senior staff on breaking events.
Peters told us he doesn't have any special access to the Pentagon for information and that he relies on colleagues — in uniform and out — to provide him context and information about ongoing military operations.
He said he returned our call because he so strongly believes that military pundits be free from influence of the administration (no private defense briefings, no junkets) and financial ties to companies. In other words, "you've got to be more Catholic than the pope."
"I really don't think the problem with military analysts is expertise. They've got the expertise," Peters said. "The problem is agendas. And it's much less of a problem than it was."