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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

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

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

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

U.S. law forbids the military from carrying out psychological operations or planting propaganda through American media outlets. Yet several officials said that given the globalization of media driven by the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, the Pentagon's efforts were carried out with the knowledge that coverage in the foreign press inevitably "bleeds" into the Western media and influences coverage in U.S. news outlets.

"There is no longer any way to separate foreign media from domestic media. Those neat lines don't exist anymore," said one private contractor who does information operations work for the Pentagon.

Daniel Kuehl, an information operations expert at National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, said that he did not believe that planting stories in Iraqi media was wrong. But he questioned whether the practice would help turn the Iraqi public against the insurgency.

"I don't think that there's anything evil or morally wrong with it," he said. "I just question whether it's effective."

One senior military official who spent this year in Iraq said it was the strong pro-U.S. message in some news stories in Baghdad that first made him suspect that the American military was planting articles.

"Stuff would show up in the Iraqi press, and I would ask, 'Where the hell did that come from?' It was clearly not something that indigenous Iraqi press would have conceived of on their own," the official said.

Iraqi newspaper editors reacted with a mixture of shock and shrugs when told they were targets of a U.S. military psychological operation.

Some of the newspapers, such as Al Mutamar, a Baghdad-based daily run by associates of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, ran the articles as news stories, indistinguishable from other news reports. Before the war, Chalabi was the Iraqi exile favored by senior Pentagon officials to lead post-Hussein Iraq.

Others labeled the stories as "advertising," shaded them in gray boxes or used a special typeface to distinguish them from standard editorial content. But none mentioned any connection to the U.S. military.

One Aug. 6 piece, published prominently on Al Mutamar's second page, ran as a news story with the headline "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism." Documents obtained by The Times indicated that Al Mutamar was paid about $50 to run the story, though the editor of the paper said he ran such articles for free.

Nearly $1,500 was paid to the independent Addustour newspaper to run an Aug. 2 article titled "More Money Goes to Iraq's Development," the records indicated. The newspaper's editor, Bassem Sheikh, said he had "no idea" where the piece came from but added the note "media services" on top of the article to distinguish it from other editorial content.

The U.S. military-written articles come in to Al Mutamar, the newspaper run by Chalabi's associates, via the Internet and are often unsigned, said Luay Baldawi, the paper's editor in chief.

"We publish anything," he said. "The paper's policy is to publish everything, especially if it praises causes we believe in. We are pro-American. Everything that supports America we will publish."

Yet other Al Mutamar employees were much less supportive of their paper's connection with the U.S. military. "This is not right," said Faleh Hassan, an editor. "It reflects the tragic condition of journalists in Iraq. Journalism in Iraq is in very bad shape."

Ultimately, Baldawi acknowledged that he, too, was concerned about the origin of the articles and pledged to be "more careful about stuff we get by e-mail."

After he learned of the source of three paid stories that ran in Al Mada in July, that newspaper's managing editor, Abdul Zahra Zaki, was outraged, immediately summoning a manager of the advertising department to his office.

"I'm very sad," he said. "We have to investigate."

The Iraqis who delivered the articles also reaped modest profits from the arrangements, according to sources and records.

Employees at Al Mada said that a low-key man arrived at the newspaper's offices in downtown Baghdad on July 30 with a large wad of U.S. dollars. He told the editors that he wanted to publish an article titled "Terrorists Attack Sunni Volunteers" in the newspaper.

He paid cash and left no calling card, employees said. He did not want a receipt. The name he gave employees was the same as that of a Lincoln Group worker in the records obtained by The Times. Although editors at Al Mada said he paid $900 to place the article, records show that the man told Lincoln Group that he gave more than $1,200 to the paper.

Al Mada is widely considered the most cerebral and professional of Iraqi newspapers, publishing investigative reports as well as poetry.

Zaki said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have "charged much, much more" to publish them.

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