The hidden information war

As one officer puts it, `We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda'

December 11, 2005|By JEFF GERTH | JEFF GERTH,THE NEW YORK TIMES

The media center in Fayetteville, N.C., would be the envy of any global communications company.

In studios, producers prepare the daily mix of music and news for the group's radio stations or reports for friendly television outlets. Writers putting out newspapers and magazines in Baghdad and Kabul converse in teleconferences. Mobile trailers with high-tech gear are parked outside.

The center is not a news organization, but a military operation, and the writers and producers are soldiers. The 1,200-strong psychological operations unit based at Fort Bragg turns out what its officers call "truthful messages" to support the U.S. government's objectives, though its commander readily acknowledges that those stories are one-sided and their American sponsorship is hidden.

"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," said Col. Jack N. Summe, then the commander of the 4th Psychological Operations Group, during a tour in June. Even in the Pentagon, "some public affairs professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he said, as "lying, dirty tricksters."

The recent disclosures that a Pentagon contractor in Iraq paid newspapers to print "good news" articles written by U.S. soldiers prompted an outcry in Washington, where members of Congress said the practice undermined American credibility and top military and White House officials disavowed any knowledge of it.

President Bush was described by Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, as "very troubled" about the matter. The Pentagon is investigating.

But the work of the contractor, the Lincoln Group, was not a rogue operation. Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Bush administration has been conducting an information war that is extensive, costly and often hidden, according to documents and interviews with contractors, government officials and military personnel.

The campaign was begun by the White House, which set up a secret panel soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information operations by the Pentagon, other government agencies and private contractors.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military operates radio stations and newspapers but does not disclose their American ties.

Lincoln says it has planted more than 1,000 articles in the Iraqi and Arab press and placed editorials on an Iraqi Web site, Pentagon documents show.

Like the Lincoln Group, Army psychological operations units sometimes pay to deliver their message, offering television stations money to run unattributed segments or contracting with writers of newspaper opinion pieces, military officials said.

"We don't want somebody to look at the product and see the U.S. government and tune out," said Col. James Treadwell, who ran psychological operations support at the Special Operations Command in Tampa.

Defenders of influence campaigns argue that they are appropriate and can have impact. Lt. Col. Charles A. Krohn, a retired Army spokesman and journalism professor, said, "If you're going to invade a country and eject its government and occupy its territory, you ought to tell people who live there why you've done it. That requires a well-thought-out communications program."

But covert information battles may backfire, others warn, or prove ineffective. An Iraqi daily newspaper, Azzaman, complained in an editorial that the paid propaganda campaign was an American government effort "to humiliate the independent national press." And the upbeat stories distributed by the Lincoln Group about improved security, for example, were unlikely to convince Iraqis enduring hardships.

Jeff Gerth writes for The New York Times.

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