Senate probes planted news

Iraqi papers ran stories written by U.S. troops


WASHINGTON -- The White House said yesterday that it has demanded information from the Pentagon about a secret U.S. military offensive to plant stories in the Iraqi media, and senators are planning to meet privately today to hear details about the information operations campaign in Iraq.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House was "very concerned" about reports that a defense contractor in Iraq, working with U.S. troops, was paying newspapers in Baghdad to run positive stories written by U.S. soldiers.

"We are seeking more information from the Pentagon," McClellan told reporters.

Pentagon officials said they were scrambling to get information from commanders in Baghdad about the arrangement between the U.S. military and Lincoln Group, a Washington-based contractor that specializes in "strategic communications" in combat zones.

Senior Pentagon officials, including Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they had no knowledge about the secret campaign before the Los Angeles Times reported it in Wednesday's editions.

"There's pressure to get the answers, but it's frustrating because here we are two days into this and we still haven't heard anything back from [Iraq]," said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since early this year, the Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad has used Lincoln Group to plant stories in the Iraqi media that trumpet the successes of U.S. and Iraqi troops against insurgents, U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Iraq and rising anti-insurgent sentiment among the Iraqi people, according to senior military officials and documents obtained by the Times.

Information operations troops write news articles, called "storyboards," and deliver them to the Iraqi staff of Lincoln Group. After that, Lincoln Group staffers translate the storyboards into Arabic and pay newspaper editors in Baghdad to run the stories.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad offered no new details about the operation yesterday. Asked about it during a news briefing, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq responded by quoting a letter from Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, to Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"He says, `Remember, half the battlefield is the battlefield of the media.' And what Zarqawi is doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community," said Army Maj. Gen Rick Lynch. "We don't lie. We don't need to lie. We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public, but everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction."

Members of Congress have demanded more details about the information offensive in Iraq, and today Pentagon officials will brief members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up as a democracy," committee Chairman Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement yesterday.

Mark Mazzetti writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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