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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Covert Media Offensive in Iraq Sparks a Furor

The White House looks into the U.S. military's practice of planting stories in the local press.

December 02, 2005|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House demanded Thursday that the Pentagon hand over information about a secret U.S. military operation to plant news stories in the Iraqi news media, and senators plan to meet behind closed doors with military commanders to learn about the information offensive underway in Iraq.

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

"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 U.S. military's arrangement with Lincoln Group, a Washington-based firm that specializes in "strategic communications" in combat zones.

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

Troops with the information task force write articles, called "storyboards," which are then delivered 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, the documents and sources indicated.

Documents revealed that the articles also often were accompanied by Associated Press and Reuters photos that information operations troops downloaded from websites, a practice that could violate copyright rules. The photos that run with the stories do not necessarily depict the events described.

Jack Stokes, a spokesman for Associated Press, said the news service was investigating whether any U.S. official involved in the operation might have improperly used its photos.

Senior Pentagon officials, including Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they had no knowledge about the secret campaign before news articles this week.

"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, a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad offered no new details about the operation Thursday.

When asked about it during a media briefing, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq seemed to defend the practice, quoting a letter from Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, to Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.

"He says, 'Remember, half the battlefield is the battlefield of the media,' " said Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch. "And what Zarqawi is doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community.

"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 Pentagon officials will brief members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed-door session today.

"I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday evening.

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