WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon official said Friday that "transgressions" may have occurred in a secret military program that pays Iraqi newspapers to publish information favorable to the U.S. mission, and American military commanders in Baghdad said that any "improprieties" by defense contractors would be investigated.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was told by Pentagon officials that articles and advertisements placed in Iraqi news outlets by a defense contractor are supposed to be identified as U.S. government products, but that in some cases omissions may have occurred.
Although the public statements seemed to question the activities of Washington-based contractor Lincoln Group, officials did not say exactly where the possible transgressions or improprieties might have occurred. Documents obtained by The Times and interviews indicate that in practice, the "information operations" campaign carried out by the military and Lincoln Group has masked connections to the U.S. government.
"These are attempts at influence without any identification of source. The whole point is to make it appear like Iraqis are forming these opinions on their own," said one senior military official who was deployed in Iraq this year and has knowledge of the information operations campaign. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is critical of the program and is not authorized to speak publicly about it.
The developments came as Pentagon officials and Congress reacted to revelations about the program, which was launched at the beginning of the year.
Under the arrangement between Lincoln Group and the U.S. military's Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad, dozens of storyboards created by U.S. military personnel have been edited and translated into Arabic-language articles by employees of Lincoln Group. After that, the contractor uses a network of Iraqis to pay newspapers to publish the articles.
Some of the articles have been published as news reports and some as op-ed pieces or advertisements.
Of more than a dozen published items reviewed by The Times, none revealed a connection to the military.
In July, one storyboard written by military personnel titled "Children Murdered at the Hands of Terrorists" was recast by Lincoln Group as an opinion column written by an Iraqi citizen. It was published July 19 in Baghdad's Al Sabah newspaper, documents show.
"Have we all given up?" the op-ed piece reads. "What kind of man am I if I tolerate the massacre of our children? What kind of human am I if I condone the slaughter of innocents? What kind of Muslim am I if I stand in silence as immoral cowards kill our children in the name of God and the prophet Muhammad?"
Documents show that Al Sabah was paid more than $1,500 to publish the piece.
Warner said he would continue to press the Pentagon for more details about the operation. He said military officials had told him the news products delivered to Iraqi media organizations were meant to be clearly designated "as originating with coalition forces."
"I remain gravely concerned about this situation," Warner said after the meeting with officials. "This apparently has got some elements in it that bear closer scrutiny and maybe stopping it altogether."
Warner said he would discuss the issue with other members of his committee this month.
Lawrence DiRita, special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, acknowledged that U.S. troops or Lincoln Group employees might have acted improperly. "I'm willing to believe that there were some transgressions along the way, and that's what we're trying to figure out," said DiRita, who was one of those who briefed Warner.
Another Pentagon spokesman said Friday that it was not clear whether the program had violated either federal law or Pentagon policy.
In a statement released from Baghdad on Friday night, the military defended the program but said it would investigate any improprieties in the way news articles are developed and distributed to Iraqi media, and take action "if any contractor is failing to perform as we have intended."
DiRita said that officials in Washington were still trying to gather information from commanders in Baghdad about the military's relationship with Lincoln Group and that Warner was briefed on everything the Pentagon knew.
DiRita said no one at the briefing knew specifically how the Lincoln Group contract was being executed in Iraq. "There wasn't anyone who was sufficiently knowledgeable to deconstruct this particular contract," DiRita said.
Lincoln Group officials have not responded to questions about the company's activities in Iraq. In a statement issued Friday, the company said it worked with Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting.
"We counter the lies, intimidation and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security," it said. "We are encouraged by their sacrifice and proud to help them tell their side of the story."