U.S. paying Iraqi editors to print favorable news

Some military officials in Iraq, Pentagon deplore secret operation

November 30, 2005|By MARK MAZZETTI AND BORZOU DARAGAHI | MARK MAZZETTI AND BORZOU DARAGAHI,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As part of an extensive information offensive inside Iraq, the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspaper editors to publish stories written by U.S. troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission within Iraq.

Working with a private defense contractor, military officials in Iraq are having articles written by U.S. military "information operations" troops translated into Arabic and then placed in newspapers around Baghdad, according to U.S. military officials and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Many articles are presented as legitimate news accounts in the Iraqi press. The newspapers are paid for publishing the articles, which trumpet the successes of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and promote U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country. Records and interviews indicated that dozens of such articles have been placed in Iraqi newspapers in the past year.

The operation is designed to mask any link to the U.S. military, which has a contract with the Lincoln Group, a small Washington, D.C., firm that is involved in the translation and placement of the stories. The Iraqi staff of the defense contractor or its subcontractors sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.

The military has been disseminating propaganda in the Iraqi media since the beginning of the year, sources said, as U.S. officials vow to promote democratic principles, political transparency and freedom of speech to a confused Iraqi civic culture emerging from decades of dictatorship and corruption.

In addition, the State Department is training Iraqi reporters in basic journalistic skills and Western media ethics, including a workshop titled "The Role of Press in a Democratic Society."

Underscoring the importance U.S. officials place on development of a Western-style media, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointed yesterday to the proliferation of news organizations around Iraq as one of the great successes of the post-Hussein era, saying hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate issues.

The military's information operations campaign has sparked a backlash among senior military officers in Iraq and at the Pentagon. They argue that attempts to subvert the news media could destroy the U.S. military's credibility in other nations and with the U.S. public.

"Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we're breaking all the first principles of democracy when we're doing it," said a senior Pentagon official who opposes parts of the information operations campaign in Iraq.

The U.S. military arrangement with Lincoln Group, one part of a secret campaign in Iraq, is evidence of how far the Pentagon has moved to blur the traditional boundaries between military public affairs - the dissemination of truthful information to the media - and psychological and information operations, which use propaganda and sometimes misleading information to advance the objectives of a military campaign.

According to military officials familiar with the effort, much of the effort is directed by the Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad, part of the multinational corps headquarters commanded by Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are critical of the effort and are not authorized to speak publicly about it.

A spokesman for Vines declined to comment. A Lincoln Group spokesman also declined to comment, saying it is company policy not to comment on details of its military contracts.

As part of a psychological operations campaign that has intensified over the past year, one of the military officials said the task force also has purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and is using the media outlets as fronts for channeling pro-American messages to the Iraqi public.

The official would not disclose which newspaper and radio station are under U.S. control, saying that publicly identifying the organizations would put their employees in danger of insurgent attacks.

U.S. law forbids the military from carrying out psychological operations or planting propaganda with U.S. media outlets, which is why the military's efforts in Iraq are geared toward media in other countries.

Yet, several officials said that given the globalization of media driven by the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, the Pentagon's efforts are carried out with the knowledge that coverage in the foreign press inevitably "bleeds" into the Western media and influences coverage in U.S. news outlets.

"There is no longer any way to separate foreign media from domestic media. Those neat lines don't exist anymore," said a private contractor who does information operations work for the Pentagon.

Mark Mazzetti, reporting from Washington, and Borzou Daragahi, reporting from Baghdad, write for the Los Angeles Times.

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