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Military Admits Planting News in Iraq
Military Admits Planting News in Iraq
New York Times
By ERIC SCHMITT
Published: December 3, 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 - The military acknowledged Friday in a briefing for a ranking Senate Republican that news articles written by American troops had been placed as paid advertisements in the Iraqi news media and not always properly identified.
Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters after receiving a 25-minute briefing from officials at the Pentagon that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a program that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists.
Mr. Warner said there had been no indications yet that the paid propaganda had been false. But he said that disclosures that an American company, under contract to the Pentagon, was making secret payments to plant articles with positive messages about the United States military mission could undermine the Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardize Iraq's developing democratic institutions. "I remain gravely concerned about the situation," he said.
He said he had been told that the articles or advertisements were intended to counter disinformation in the Iraqi news media that was hurting the American military's efforts to stabilize the country.
Under the program, the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations firm working in Iraq, was hired to translate articles written by American troops into Arabic and then, in many cases, give them to advertising agencies for placement in the Iraqi news media.
Some of the articles failed to carry a required disclaimer that they were paid for, Mr. Warner said.
Defense officials said it was unclear what the disclaimer was supposed to say, whether it had been left off by the Lincoln Group or by Iraqi publishers and whether the omission was deliberate.
Mr. Warner said the articles had been produced by the information operations staff under Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who oversees day-to-day operations in Iraq. The senator said a senior officer had reviewed all the materials that were provided to the Lincoln Group for placement, and that military lawyers checked all materials produced by the military or Lincoln.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said contractors like the Lincoln Group had been used to market the articles to reduce the risk to Iraqi publishers, who might be attacked if they were seen as being closely linked to the military. "If any part of our process does not have our full confidence, we will examine that activity and take appropriate action," he said in a statement. "If any contractor is failing to perform as we have intended, we will take appropriate action."
On Friday, the Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.
But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group activities were the latest example of questionable public relations policies by the administration. In an earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them Armstrong Williams, who received $240,000, undisclosed at the time, for promoting No Child Left Behind, the administration's education initiative. In January, President Bush publicly abandoned this practice.
"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said in a release on Friday. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."
Also on Friday, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general, Thomas F. Gimble, to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation. "The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Mr. Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."
Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said General Vines and his staff in Iraq insisted that their activities with Lincoln had been "in accordance with all policies and guidelines." Mr. Di Rita said in a telephone interview that for now, the Lincoln Group would continue its efforts while military officials reviewed the overall program.
Mr. Di Rita said that military officials were also trying to determine what, if any, payments Lincoln made to Iraqi journalists. On its Web site, the Lincoln Group has noted its "thriving network of offices" in Iraq and its working relationships with "over 300 Iraqi journalists."
Mr. Di Rita acknowledged that parts of the Lincoln contract were classified, specifically procedures dealing with Iraqi personnel. Revealing the identities of Iraqis working for Lincoln or details of their work with the Americans could threaten their safety, he said.