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Former vets with GOP ties boost war effort in blogs
By JERRY ZREMSKI, BUFFALO NEWS NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON - A former spokesman for President Bush recently offered to several newspapers supposedly objective freelance stories from Iraq by two combat veterans who lead a pro-war group with deep Republican ties.
Several months after revelations that a Pentagon contractor was paying Iraqi news outlets for favorable war coverage, former White House spokesman Taylor Gross approached at least four major newspapers, including The Buffalo News, with the offer.
Gross' pitch to The News said the two highly decorated veterans could serve as embedded correspondents and "offer balanced and credible viewpoints gained directly from those closest to and most affected by the Iraq War." One of the reporters, former Marine Lt. Wade Zirkle, helped run Republican Jerry Kilgore's 2005 campaign for governor of Virginia.
Zirkle and the other reporter, David Bellavia of Batavia, are top leaders of Vets for Freedom, a new group with a highly polished Web site hosted by a firm that previously worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.
No mainstream paper accepted Gross' offer. Several major papers did, however, publish opinion pieces by Vets for Freedom leaders this spring. And last week, Bellavia and Zirkle returned to Iraq and embedded with military units. Their blog, at www.vetsforfreedom.org, paints a largely positive picture of the war effort.
"Baghdad is absolutely beautiful," Bellavia wrote last Sunday, a day after a series of explosions around the city killed 23 people. "I mean shockingly majestic. This is a city for years we have been told is unsalvageable and I was amazed to see this level of cleanliness."
Bellavia's return to the war zone culminates a pro-war effort that several prominent veterans started early this year. "The idea initially was to begin to connect the American public with those in the fighting," said Owen West, a major in the Marine Reserves who, like Bellavia, is a vice chairman of Vets for Freedom.
West said Bellavia an Army legend whose heroics in the November 2004 Battle of Fallujah got him nominated for the Medal of Honor quickly joined the effort.
Meanwhile, West said Zirkle who was seriously wounded in the first Battle of Fallujah in the spring of 2004 was able to get some "seed money" for the group. Zirkle, in an e-mail from Iraq, said the money did not come from any political organizations or from the federal government. "Initial funding came from family members and friends," he said.
Public records of the group's finances are not yet available. The group has applied for status as a tax-exempt charity, but donations are not yet tax-deductible because the application is pending.
Zirkle said the Herald Group, Gross' public relations firm, volunteered to work for Vets for Freedom.
And on April 28, Gross approached The Buffalo News with a proposal. Zirkle and Bellavia could file reporting, commentary or other exclusive stories to the paper, live from the war zone.
"Zirkle and Bellavia plan to tour some of the most tumultuous and war-torn regions of the country, including Sadr City [in Baghdad], Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul," the proposal said. "Their goal is to interview U.S. combat troops, Iraqi military personnel and local citizens to get their unbiased perspectives on events impacting the region." In an e-mail, Gross said: "Their trip would not be at any significant cost to the paper."
At the time, Gross never mentioned that he worked as a Bush spokesman under Press Secretary Scott McClellan until last year. He and two other Republican operatives, Matt Well and Doug McGinn, formed the Herald Group last September and tout their GOP background on their Web site. Gross' written proposal does note that Zirkle is executive director of Vets for Freedom, which is described as "a nonpartisan organization representing veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
In a telephone interview, Gross said he never discussed the embedding effort with McClellan, who recently left the White House, or with Bush political guru Karl Rove. Gross said he also pitched the embedding proposal to the New York Daily News, the New York Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but none of his offers went anywhere.
Journalism ethics experts said that is no surprise.
"If a news organization had spent any time vetting this, I doubt that anyone would have taken them up on it," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a highly regarded journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
McBride said the embedding effort appears to have "a very strong relationship" with Republican activists.
Source Watch, a Web site run by a liberal group, the Center for Media and Democracy, first reported some of the Republican connections to Vets for Freedom earlier this month.
Source Watch noted that Zirkle served as a regional field director for Kilgore's 2005 campaign, and that Bellavia attended President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.
The liberal group's analysis also cited a relationship between Vets for Freedom and Campaign Solutions, a well-known consulting group that lists several Republican clients on its Web site. Zirkle said he hired Campaign Solutions because he was familiar with its work from the Kilgore campaign.
Told of Gross' effort to place stories in the mainstream media, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, John Stauber, said: "You can't find a link much closer to the administration than this one."
Nevertheless, Gross, West and Zirkle denied the effort was partisan in any way.
"I worked for President Bush, and I'm proud to have done so," Gross said. "But Vets for Freedom is a nonpartisan group. If one wants to classify it as pro-mission, that would be accurate."
West noted that one of his blog entries had kind words for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Iraq War veterans of both parties who are running for Congress this fall.
And in a New York Times opinion piece that ran on Memorial Day, West blamed "chaotic leadership" for the decline in public support for the war.
That op-ed has something in common with pieces Zirkle wrote for the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers: It's resolutely pro-war.
"The morale of the trigger-pulling class of today's fighting force is strong," Zirkle wrote in the Post on April 13. "Unfortunately, we have not had a microphone or media audience willing to report our comments."
And so, Zirkle and Bellavia took matters into their own hands. Since arriving in Iraq a week ago, the two men have gone their separate ways, but both have been largely positive about the war effort. "I am continually awed by the complete attention to detail and the spit/polish of the men and women who represent our nation through this military," Bellavia wrote last Sunday.
On Wednesday, Zirkle explained why roadside bombs are more likely to go off during daylight hours than at night. And then he added: "It has been said that the roadways are the battlefields of the Iraq War. The drivers and crews that deliver the goods through these battlefields are the unsung heroes of the Iraq War. Hats off."
By Thursday, though, both men had noted that blogging from a war zone had become more difficult than they expected.
"This is amazing. I have not spoken to Wade in three days. And I have to return this laptop to its owner in two minutes," Bellavia wrote. "Wade, if you are reading this . . . send money. No seriously, Wade stay safe and keep your head down. I have little Internet access so I will do my best to update when possible."
And on Friday, via e-mail, Zirkle indicated he had indeed better keep his head down. Typing on a computer with missing keys, he replied in an obvious rush to a question about whether Vets for Freedom was a partisan organization. "If this was a partisan organization, I would not be in Ramadi right now getting mortared," he wrote.
News Washington bureau assistant Patrick Reaves contributed to this report.