The Pentagon did not violate a federal prohibition on propaganda by using retired military officers to tout the Bush administration's war policies in the media, congressional investigators said Tuesday.
At the same time, the report by the Government Accountability Office said the use of military analysts by the administration prompted legitimate questions from members of Congress and the news media about whether defense contractors with commercial ties to the retired officers received favorable treatment in procurement decisions.
The GAO's opinion did not examine whether any companies received a competitive advantage or whether any Defense Department acquisitions may have been tainted.
The finding is the latest installment in a dispute that began in April 2008 when The New York Times reported that Pentagon officials met and spoke frequently with dozens of retired officers to discuss the wars and other national security topics. Many of the retired officers then repeated administration talking points during appearances on television news programs.
The Pentagon program has since been terminated.
Military officials "are pleased that (the GAO) found DOD public affairs to be in full compliance with the law," Defense Department spokesman David Oten said.
In January, the Defense Department's inspector general found insufficient evidence to conclude that the so-called "Public Affairs Outreach Program" was improper. But that report was withdrawn in May because of inaccuracies in the data used by the inspector general.
Congress directed the GAO last year to issue a legal opinion on whether the Defense Department broke a federal rule that bars it from using taxpayer dollars for publicity or propaganda purposes not approved by lawmakers.
"There is no doubt that DOD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the administration's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the (retired military officers) with conference calls, meetings, travel and access to senior DOD officials," the GAO said.
But the GAO uncovered no proof that the Pentagon attempted to conceal the effort. Nor was there any evidence the retired officers were paid for positive commentary or analysis, it said.
Should the department consider a similar program in the future, it should consider whether it needs better procedures "to protect the integrity of, and public confidence in, its public affairs efforts and to ensure the transparency of its public relations activities," the GAO said.