WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday criticized a U.S. military program that pays Iraqi newspapers to plant stories favorable to the American mission, and mistakenly said the Pentagon had shut down the program shortly after its existence was revealed.
In his most specific comments thus far about the information operations program, -- carried out by U.S. troops and a private contractor -- Rumsfeld said the U.S. military should not be paying Iraqi media to publish articles, whose origin was concealed even from the news outlets.
He said he had not been initially aware of the clandestine program, and ordered it shut down after news outlets published details of it.
"When we heard about it, we said, 'Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing,' " Rumsfeld said Friday during a taped interview on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show."
Rumsfeld said the contractor, Lincoln Group, and commanders in Iraq were notified of the Pentagon's concerns and ended the propaganda effort.
"They stopped doing that," he said.
Rumsfeld's remarks were made available by PBS producers before the show aired late Friday night.
One person familiar with Lincoln Group's operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation, said the program in Iraq was still active as of a week ago.
Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during a Dec. 16 news conference -- more than two weeks after the existence of the operation was revealed -- that it had not been shut down.
"We did a preliminary assessment shortly after the [news stories] came out, and we concluded that we were operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures. And so we have not suspended any of the processes up to now," Casey said.
A Pentagon spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
Rumsfeld's remarks reflect a difference in attitude toward the program between officials in Washington and those in Baghdad.
Shortly after the existence of the program was revealed, White House and Pentagon officials expressed concern, while commanders in Baghdad defended it.
Pentagon officials say a full inquiry into the program by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk has been completed, but its results have not been publicly disclosed.
Despite voicing concerns about the program, Rumsfeld condemned the U.S. news media's negative portrayal of it in a separate appearance Friday, saying such criticism has a "chilling effect" that discourages U.S. troops from finding creative ways to win hearts and minds abroad.
"The conclusion is drawn that there is no toleration for innovation," he said in an address before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Since early last year, the secret program has planted hundreds of stories in Iraqi newspapers trumpeting the success of U.S. military offensives, the efforts to rebuild Iraq and the training of the country's nascent security forces.
American troops wrote articles, called storyboards, which were delivered to the Iraqi staff of Lincoln Group. The contractors translated the storyboards into Arabic and paid newspaper editors in Baghdad to run the articles.
Some senior officials at the Pentagon argue that it is hypocritical for the U.S. to promote democratic principles, freedom of speech and political transparency in Iraq while the military is paying to disseminate propaganda in that country's news media.
They also say such activities violate a 2003 Pentagon directive that appears to prohibit U.S. troops from conducting psychological operations, or psy-ops, that target the media.
"Psy-ops is restricted by both [Defense Department] policy and executive order from targeting American audiences, our military personnel and news agencies or outlets," says the directive, dated Oct. 30, 2003, and signed by Rumsfeld.
The Defense secretary has long emphasized the importance of a "war of ideas" that must be waged on the airwaves and in schools and mosques throughout the Muslim world.
Rumsfeld has argued that the U.S. government is poorly situated to explain its policies abroad, and he said Friday that the government needed a coordinated "strategic communications" effort to deliver themes and messages to often hostile audiences.
"The longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework in place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy," Rumsfeld said.
His remarks drew criticism from some Democrats, who blamed the Bush administration's policies, rather than the U.S. government's inability to deliver its message, for anti-American sentiment abroad.
"Nothing has done more to encourage Al Qaeda recruitment and make America less safe than the war in Iraq and the incompetent way it's been managed," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement. "Our greatest failure is our policy."
Rumsfeld also criticized the media's coverage of the U.S. military prisoner abuse scandal and the detention of detainees classified as enemy combatants at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He challenged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for the Guantanamo facility to be closed.
The United Nations issued a scathing report on the prison this week.
Annan "is just flat wrong," Rumsfeld said. "We shouldn't close Guantanamo.
"There's no torture there," he said. "There's no abuse. It's being handled honorably."
Times staff writer Kevin Sack in Atlanta contributed to this report.