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U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press

THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Troops write articles presented as news reports. Some officers object to the practice.

November 30, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

The articles, written by U.S. military "information operations" troops, are translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers with the help of a defense contractor, according to U.S. military officials and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.

Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year.

The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.

The military's effort to disseminate propaganda in the Iraqi media is taking place even as U.S. officials are pledging to promote democratic principles, political transparency and freedom of speech in a country emerging from decades of dictatorship and corruption.

It comes as the State Department is training Iraqi reporters in basic journalism skills and Western media ethics, including one workshop titled "The Role of Press in a Democratic Society." Standards vary widely at Iraqi newspapers, many of which are shoestring operations.

Underscoring the importance U.S. officials place on development of a Western-style media, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday cited the proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein. The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.

The military's information operations campaign has sparked a backlash among some senior military officers in Iraq and at the Pentagon who argue that attempts to subvert the news media could destroy the U.S. military's credibility in other nations and with the American public.

"Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we're breaking all the first principles of democracy when we're doing it," said a senior Pentagon official who opposes the practice of planting stories in the Iraqi media.

The arrangement with Lincoln Group is evidence of how far the Pentagon has moved to blur the traditional boundaries between military public affairs -- the dissemination of factual information to the media -- and psychological and information operations, which use propaganda and sometimes misleading information to advance the objectives of a military campaign.

The Bush administration has come under criticism for distributing video and news stories in the United States without identifying the federal government as their source and for paying American journalists to promote administration policies, practices the Government Accountability Office has labeled "covert propaganda."

Military officials familiar with the effort in Iraq said much of it was being directed by the "Information Operations Task Force" in Baghdad, part of the multinational corps headquarters commanded by Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were critical of the effort and were not authorized to speak publicly about it.

A spokesman for Vines declined to comment for this article. A Lincoln Group spokesman also declined to comment.

One of the military officials said that, as part of a psychological operations campaign that has intensified over the last year, the task force also had purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and was using them to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public. Neither is identified as a military mouthpiece.

The official would not disclose which newspaper and radio station are under U.S. control, saying that naming them would put their employees at risk of insurgent attacks.

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