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THE CHALLENGES IN IRAQ

Planted PR Stories Not News to Military

U.S. officials in Iraq knew that a contractor was paying local papers. Discretion was the key.

December 18, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Kevin Sack | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. military officials in Iraq were fully aware that a Pentagon contractor regularly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories about the war, and made it clear that none of the stories should be traced to the United States, according to several current and former employees of Lincoln Group, the Washington-based contractor.

In contrast to assertions by military officials in Baghdad and Washington, interviews and Lincoln Group documents show that the information campaign waged over the last year was designed to cloak any connection to the U.S. military.

"In clandestine parlance, Lincoln Group was a 'cutout' -- a third party -- that would provide the military with plausible deniability," said a former Lincoln Group employee who worked on the operation. "To attribute products to [the military] would defeat the entire purpose. Hence, no product by Lincoln Group ever said 'Made in the U.S.A.' "

A number of workers who carried out Lincoln Group's offensive, including a $20-million two-month contract to influence public opinion in Iraq's restive Al Anbar province, describe a campaign that was unnecessarily costly, poorly run and largely ineffective at improving America's image in Iraq. The current and former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality restrictions.

"In my own estimation, this stuff has absolutely no effect, and it's a total waste of money," said another former employee, echoing the sentiments of several colleagues. "Every Iraqi can read right through it."

Disclosures that the military used a private firm to plant stories written by U.S. troops in Iraqi newspapers have drawn widespread criticism.

The Pentagon has ordered an investigation, led by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Friday that he expected a report from Van Buskirk "in a week or so." Casey said that a preliminary assessment made shortly after the military's information operations campaign was revealed in a Times article last month concluded that the Army was "operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures."

Military officials initially distanced themselves from Lincoln Group's activities, suggesting the company may have violated its contract when it masked the origin of stories placed in the Iraqi press.

On Dec. 2, Pentagon officials told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) that all of the published materials were supposed to be identified as originating with the U.S. military but that identification was occasionally omitted by accident.

But Lincoln Group documents obtained by The Times, along with interviews with military officials and the current and former Lincoln Group employees, show that those who worked on the campaign believed the media products would be far more credible if their origins were disguised.

Pentagon officials say Warner was given the most accurate information the Pentagon had at the time.

"Certainly, nobody was trying to deceive Sen. Warner," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, who declined to comment further on the military's role in the information campaign.

With the insurgency in Iraq still strong more than two years after the American-led invasion, U.S. generals have come to believe that the battle for hearts and minds is as vital as the fight against insurgents. But of the handful of firms that have received tens of millions of Pentagon dollars to "level the information playing field," Lincoln Group would seem to be a curious case.

The company had had little public relations or communications experience when it won its first psychological operations contract last year. Yet it has become one of the biggest beneficiaries of the information war, and now has 20 Pentagon contracts, a company spokesman said.

With considerable swagger, Lincoln Group markets itself as a firm that can navigate the world's most hostile terrain. A statement on the company website says: "While others may view these locations as 'inhospitable,' we prefer to call them 'challenging.' " Documents obtained by The Times show that Lincoln Group is developing plans to expand its operations into Afghanistan under new Pentagon contracts.

Even in the face of a military investigation, congressional scrutiny and unwelcome media attention, Lincoln Group Executive Vice President Paige Craig wrote his staff in a recent e-mail that the company remained "on the offensive."

The Dec. 5 e-mail asserted that the company was "engaged in a morally just fight whose aim is to provide freedom to a fledgling nation."

Craig wrote: "The information war requires us to counter lies, media manipulation, perceptions, rumor and misquotes. It requires us to support the media in Iraq; it requires us to counter the propaganda of terrorism; it requires us to educate fathers not to enlist their sons to be suicide bombers."

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