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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

Officials in Washington have long been frustrated by the U.S. government's efforts to explain its policies to a global audience.

While Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network deftly used Arabic media to create a worldwide movement, U.S. agencies fought turf battles over whether the CIA, Pentagon or State Department should take the lead in fighting an information war against Islamic extremists.

A 2004 report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, concluded that a "crisis" in strategic communications was undermining U.S. efforts.

As the battles raged in Washington, the Pentagon quietly awarded huge contracts to such companies as Lincoln Group to carry out information warfare around the globe.

The appeal of outside firms, experts say, is that the companies promise to carry out a nimbler, more sophisticated communication strategy than the U.S. can conduct on its own.

Lincoln Group was founded in 2003 after its two young leaders, Paige Craig and Christian Bailey, were introduced in New York City by a mutual friend, a company spokesman said. Within a year, the company became one of many to recognize the immense profit potential in Iraq.

Current and former employees and friends of Craig and Bailey -- both of whom hold the title of executive vice president -- said the men make for a corporate odd couple.

Craig, 31, dropped out of West Point, enlisted in the Marines, and later graduated from the University of Maryland. Bailey, 30, is an Oxford-educated Briton whom friends described as bright, likable and active in social circles. Craig and Bailey declined to be interviewed for this article.

In the year after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the company -- then called Lincoln Alliance Corp. -- undertook a series of disparate ventures. In April 2004, the company worked with the U.S. Marines to distribute water bottles in Najaf and Karbala with custom labels saying that the water was a gift from the Americans. The company also operated a brick factory in northern Iraq and salvaged scrap metal in Basra.

The company's breakthrough came in late 2004, when it submitted a bid on a military public affairs contract offering millions of dollars for an "aggressive advertising and public relations campaign that will accurately inform the Iraqi people" about U.S. goals.

The announcement called for a "full-service advertising and public relations firm," yet the nearly $18-million three-year contract eventually went to Lincoln Group -- a company with just a handful of American employees and little previous communications experience.

The U.S. military in Baghdad "was throwing money at people," said one former Lincoln Group employee. "This is a war where we're getting killed on the information battlefield so [the military] is desperate for anything that will help."

Bailey and Craig went on what many saw as a hiring spree to find people willing to work in Iraq. By early this year, Lincoln Group had a team working inside the opulent Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory near Baghdad.

Lincoln Group employees worked closely with soldiers from the Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad to turn "storyboards" written by soldiers into Arabic news stories and advertisements. A high-ranking Army officer closely monitored the operation, and Lincoln Group documents show that military officials gave the company clear guidelines about which stories to place in Iraqi newspapers.

In November, for instance, a military officer presented the company with a "publication priority" list for the storyboards released that day, including stories such as "Iraqis Must Unify Against Terrorism," "[Iraqi Security Forces] Step Up Security for Eid al-Fitr" and "Iraqi Soldiers Capture More Enemy Fighters."

Iraqi runners employed by Lincoln were used to transport the stories to newspapers and to pay editors amounts ranging from $50 to $2,000 for publication, a practice that editors and reporters in Baghdad say is not uncommon for the Iraqi press.

Information Operations "was very aware that newspapers were paid to publish articles," a former Lincoln Group employee said. "So any claim by them that they were unaware of the methods is false."

Lincoln Group employees kept detailed records of how much they paid to get the stories published. Current and former employees said they were told by military officers that the stories were not to be identified as U.S. government products.

On one occasion, a storyboard was accidentally published in English in a Baghdad newspaper. Military officials in Baghdad dressed down Lincoln Group employees because the error suggested that the material was American in origin. The employees promised it would not happen again.

Lincoln Group records also show that its Iraqi employees often warned their American bosses that the manner in which the news stories were distributed to the Iraqi press was leading some Iraqi editors to suspect U.S. government involvement.

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