U.S. military Web sites found to be legal

But program meant to gain support for activities in Europe and Africa could be discontinued anyway


WASHINGTON -- U.S. military Web sites that pay journalists to write articles and commentary supporting military activities in Europe and Africa do not violate U.S. law or Pentagon policies, a review by the Pentagon's chief investigator has concluded. But a senior Defense Department official said this week that the Web sites could still be shut down to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The Pentagon inspector general's inquiry concludes that two Web sites targeting audiences in the Balkans and in the Maghreb region of northern Africa are consistent with U.S. laws prohibiting covert propaganda, are properly identified as U.S. government products, and are maintained in close coordination with U.S. embassies abroad, according to a previously undisclosed summary of the report's findings.

Yet a top Pentagon official, chief spokesman Lawrence DiRita, said he was concerned that a practice of hiring reporters to advance a U.S. government agenda could draw criticism and that an ever-larger military role in shaping public opinion overseas might have negative consequences.

The Pentagon's efforts to win hearts and minds abroad have come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed last month that the military had hired a private contractor called Lincoln Group as part of a separate operation to pay Iraqi newspapers to print positive stories written by U.S. troops. An investigation into that information offensive is continuing, and Pentagon officials expect the inquiry, led by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, to be completed soon.

DiRita ordered a separate review of the Web sites and other military information operations in February, when news accounts reported the Pentagon's connection to the Web sites and after disclosures that U.S. agencies such as the Department of Education had paid journalists to promote White House policies.

DiRita said he has not been briefed on the results of the inspector general's review and said he has asked the National Security Council to consider whether other U.S. agencies should take over the Web sites, or whether the sites should be shuttered.

"If somebody comes back to me and says there's nothing wrong with the Department of Defense paying journalists, I'll say, `Even if there's nothing wrong, does it make sense?'" DiRita said.

The two Web sites are run by U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, and maintained by Anteon Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based contractor. The European Command is one of five regional U.S. military headquarters around the world and is given authority for U.S. operations in Europe and most of Africa.

The Balkans Web site, originally called Balkan Exchange and renamed Southeast European Times, was a result of a secret directive signed by President Bill Clinton in 1999. The order launched an information offensive to counter Serbian propaganda during the Kosovo war.

The European Command created the Africa Web site in October 2004. It attempts to advance U.S. interests in a region long sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. The Maghreb region encompasses Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco, countries that are in the European Command's area of responsibility.

Mark Mazzetti writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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