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Transcript: Sen. John Warner's Press Conference on Iraqi Media

Courtesy FDCH/e-Media
Friday, December 2, 2005 5:07 PM

SPEAKER: U.S. SENATOR JOHN WARNER (R-VA)

[*]

WARNER: Good afternoon.

I'm primarily here at your request and share with you what facts I do have on this really serious problem.

I had strong comments on this the other day when I came out and said that I was gravely concerned, and I remain gravely concerned about this situation. And I promptly contacted Secretary Rumsfeld's office, and he has been 100 percent cooperative in trying to inform me as to what he knows at this point and the steps that he and his colleagues in the department are now taking.

So we arranged that we would meet today. Originally I had contemplated having it here, but in later reflection this morning I decided -- I was on the way from my home, went right by the Pentagon, and I went over and they briefed me in the office there of Di Rita and the secretary who's in charge of legislative affairs.

But I want to step back and talk just a minute about what I said yesterday, because I stand by those statements of my concern about any actions that could undermine the credibility of our great nation and indeed the profession of journalism.

Now, they're confronted with a serious problem over there in Iraq -- I've now finished my sixth visit just two months ago -- and that is disinformation. An enormous amount of information is being fed the Iraqi press, both written and television, that is just plain factually wrong.

So it was the desire of General Casey -- he's the top officer in this pyramid -- I'll get to the structure in a moment -- to get the truth out. And so far as I can determine, that has been their mission, to get the facts in a truthful way out.

Now, they contracted with the Lincoln Group, and we'll address that here momentarily.

So that's my background on it. And I have an A.P. story where the reporter came up to me just as I was going down the Pentagon steps from the meeting and reports that I said things like this happen and it's a war.

And my point of that statement was to talk about the measure of disinformation, and I stand by the statement. I said here the disinformation is going out in that country is really affecting the effectiveness of what we're achieving and what our troops are fighting and dying for and being wounded. And as a consequence, we have no recourse but to try and get the truth and the facts out.

Now, the building, as of an hour ago when I was there, is still trying to obtain the facts. They do not have all the facts at this time. But I was assured that General Casey, hopefully within the 24- or 48-hour period, would be putting out another body of fact to give further clarification of what did go contrary, should we say, to the traditions of journalism and what didn't.

So I don't detect any effort on the part of Defense, at least the team that briefed me, about eight in number, of trying to cover up anything. They are working diligently to get the facts out.

Now, there's a part of this program that has a classification to it, and they'll have to work through that classification -- again, to protect the interests of our troops.

Now I'm going to pull out of my pocket just some rough notes that I made and sort of dart around on one or two subjects here, and then I'll go to the questions.

WARNER: With regard to the Lincoln Group, they said that Lincoln has a contract with the MNCI. That's the organization that's working on this problem. All products developed by or distributed by the Lincoln Group on behalf on the MNCI are reviewed by a flag officer and by the command very carefully before distribution.

They also told me that all material passed to the Iraqi media through the Lincoln Group is represented as originating with coalition forces. Lincoln group is authorized to provide payment for placement of this material in Iraqi newspapers.

You pick up our papers here in America, you'll see a number of articles carried in there. And there's usually that byline: "paid for and requested by this organization." And that's generally what they've been trying to do.

Now it's been discovered in some areas there's an omission of that reference that it's been paid for. And they're looking into that.

Lincoln Group is authorized to provide payment for placement of this material in Iraqi newspaper, similar to the way in which any advertiser, marketer or public relations firm would place advertisements.

Further on down, the MNCI affairs are aware of the production of this editorial-type content referred to in the press, those allegations.

The PAO, that's the Public Affairs Office, are not involved in the distribution of any of the material. Further, all products developed by the IO staff, the Lincoln Group, or other contractors are reviewed by staff attorneys at MNCI to ensure compliance with the law and regulation.

Now, going to the organization itself: You have General Abizaid, then you have General Casey, then General Vines.

Now he has got the group that has this organization under his command.

WARNER: And that's the ground that is putting out this material.

So with that, I'll try and answer your questions at this point the best I can. I'll tell you what I know and what I don't know.

QUESTION: Senator, can you describe this group a little bit more that works under General Vines? Who commands it? What kind of review (inaudible) goes through prior to (inaudible)?

WARNER: Well, all I know is that it's an organization right under Vines, and that's about the extent of my knowledge on it. I had another sheet of paper which may be missing. Does anybody see a string of notes like this?

That's about as much as I know.

QUESTION: Senator, can we confirm that money has been given to people to write and put stories in the Iraqi media? Is that, in fact, what has been going on?

WARNER: They tried to explain to me there's really two categories -- that material that's to paid advertisement; and those articles are basically put together by the command under General Vines, and that command tries to deal on behalf of all the coalition forces, all the nations that are a part of it, and distribute the truth of fact to the Iraqi people.

Now those are the paid advertisements.

The question of payments or not -- we can't verify this question of payments to the journalists. More facts are needed until that conclusion can be reached.

QUESTION: Senator, do you see any evidence of illegality based upon what you...

WARNER: I'm not able to judge that, nor are the briefers that are with me today. We simply do not have all of the facts.

QUESTION: Does this practice need to be stopped? And would you ask the administration to stop?

WARNER: No. It seems to me that I wouldn't want to render judgment to stop something until I have all the facts in hand -- and I simply don't have them.

I anticipate in the coming week I'll have additional facts. And to the extent I can be of any value in briefing you on that, I will do so.

I know that the Lincoln Group is going to put out a release today. Perhaps that will contain some more information of value.

QUESTION: But if you find out money is being given to people to plant stories...

WARNER: I'm not going to take any hypotheticals. I'm telling you right now they shared with me fully today the facts that they have.

WARNER: And we cannot make a conclusion to confirm or deny that this took place.

QUESTION: Senator Warner, you said that the PAOs are not involved with the distribution. Are they involved in actually creating the products, though?

WARNER: To my understanding, no. The product is created by this organization.

QUESTION: Senator, is there any office in the Pentagon or any unit in the Pentagon that is working on this project too (inaudible) Baghdad, in terms of coordinating the contract, anything like what we have in (inaudible)?

WARNER: I can only answer that it is my impression that basically this entire operation is under CENTCOM, down through Casey and General Vines, and that they may have, you know, some officer or officers or others in the Pentagon that coordinate, but basically the operations are all in-country.

QUESTION: Did the secretary know about this operation or people in the Pentagon know about this operation? It sounds like they've been kept in the dark about it.

WARNER: I did not speak directly with the secretary. I was told, upon my inquiry, that he personally has involved himself -- he's talked to Abizaid and Casey. So I can't tell you about the secretary's level of knowledge.

But I think you can surmise from the meeting this morning that, A, they don't have all the facts. And, to me, that means they simply did not know the full extent of these operations.

QUESTION: Senator, you mentioned earlier that you have serious concerns about his. After your meeting today, what remaining concerns do you have? What is it (OFF-MIKE)

WARNER: Well, I strongly believe that we've got to do our best to combat this disinformation. And until I get all the facts, I'm not going to say further on how we go about it.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. commander -- as has been reported (ph) -- own a newspaper and is running a newspaper and also a radio station?

WARNER: I did not get into that detail.

I know Congress and I personally over the last 18 months have urged the Department of Defense and the Department of State to get the story out as to what we're doing and the measure of success that we've had thus far.

WARNER: We've made a lot of progress in Iraq, and we're continuing to make it. And I'm just hopeful that, once this story was out, if there was some wrongs, they'll be addressed.

But I hope it will not curtail our ability to get the truth and fact to the Iraqi people primarily.

QUESTION: Senator, do you think the lines were blurred in the dissemination of information between what was factual and Pentagon propaganda?

WARNER: Well, I can't answer that question. I don't have enough facts to make a sound judgment on that.

QUESTION: Senator, can you tell us who you were briefed by? Were there any...

WARNER: Well...

QUESTION: ... senior officers...

WARNER: ... it was the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. Mr. Di Rita was there. The secretary's civilian chief of staff was there. And then about seven or eight other officers.

QUESTION: And did you get the impression that they were opposed to the fact that there's paying of Iraqi newspapers to run information without a disclaimer?

WARNER: Again, we don't have sufficient fact in hand to answer that.

QUESTION: But were they opposed to the practice?

WARNER: Di Rita spoke up on several occasions, as did others, saying that we must do our work of combating this disinformation in a manner that's consistent with our finest traditions of journalism, and to maintain the credibility of the United States.

So we've already experienced in this country some troublesome incidents where our government agencies other than the Department of Defense have rewarded certain journalists, I guess, with cash in some instances for putting favorable pieces in -- and I think that's all been to a stop. It's not something this administration wishes to foster, in my judgment.

QUESTION: But, Senator, were they at all praise-worthy of any money exchanging hands in exchange for this information getting out there, for combating disinformation? I mean, did they...

WARNER: I'm not getting your question. Once again.

QUESTION: Do they dispel you of any belief that DOD supports in any way giving money to these journalists?

WARNER: Well, firstly, we don't know for a fact how and when and to what extent money was given to journalists. So I just can't answer that question.

QUESTION: But they didn't say to you, "No matter what happened, we don't support giving money to these journalists. We don't support..."

WARNER: They do not support any practices which is not in keeping with the longstanding traditions of our journalistic profession in this country.

WARNER: So I guess the answer to your question is, I'm sure, while it wasn't addressed specifically, they would strongly object to any practices that were inconsistent, particularly involving payoffs.

QUESTION: What's your greatest concern right now, Senator? What's the most important unanswered question that you have?

WARNER: Well, seriously, there's so many questions that are unanswered. And in fairness to them, they shared with me fully their facts. So much more has got to be brought forth and assessed by myself, as just one member of Congress, and others, until we can reach any conclusions as to what the serious problem is and so forth.

But I am concerned that it's important that the Iraqi people get the truth in fact. By coincidence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs greeted me as I was leaving the building and the two of us talked momentarily together, and he's quoted in this A.P. article. He said: That's our mission, to get the facts, the truthful facts to the Iraqi people and to the rest of the world.

QUESTION: Senator, have you talked with Senator Levin on this matter? And how will you engage the committee?

WARNER: I have not had the opportunity to talk to Senator Levin. And as far as the committee, the committee will not be back here until the 12th or 13th of December, and by that time I hope I'll be in a position where I can assemble the committee and brief them to the extent that there's still some unanswered questions on this issue.

QUESTION: Senator, clearly this is a situation where not only was Congress kept out of the loop on this, but it appears that the Pentagon, too, was kept out of the loop. Does this raise the concern that there may be...

WARNER: Now, wait a minute. I'm not making the assumption that everybody's been kept out of the loop. I can only speak for one senator.

Now, I did discover that the Lincoln Group did come to Capitol Hill and had some briefings with the staff on my committee about five or six weeks ago, just as to the general nature of what their work would be. No specifics. Nothing related to the controversy at hand now. So I'm not sure you can say we've all been in the dark. And I have been trying to get the department, and I think the department has done a good job to try and get their story out, truthfully and factually.

Now, this apparently has got some elements in it that bear closer scrutiny and maybe stopping it altogether.

WARNER: But basically the program on getting the truth and the facts out must go on.

QUESTION: Senator, this operation notwithstanding, what is your view? If, as you say, you believe that there is a dissemination of misinformation going on in Iraq, what is your best assessment of how that should be countered by the United States or by the Iraqis?

WARNER: I'm going to be candid with you: I'm not a journalist. And I don't presume to know how best to get it out. I just say it's an essential mission for our country, whether it's the Department of State, Department of Defense, or combination thereof and other departments and agencies to get the truth out and the factual situation.

They gave me an example. For instance, this group very actively covers all of the, for example, the reopening of a school or the reopening of a hospital. And they go out and collect the facts and they put together a document, a statement of fact, and either put it in as a paid advertisement or I suppose through the Lincoln Group try and get it out through other means.

So it's a whole range of issues, not just military issues, that they are responsible for.

QUESTION: Senator, if the work of the Lincoln Group is to get out this information, get out the facts, why was the operation classified? Or is there a...

WARNER: Because of some of the material that they have to deal with.

QUESTION: What kind of material?

WARNER: We did not get into those specifics. I will eventually get into it and try and ascertain the reason for classification, but much of the work is classified.

And I have to sort of skip around between what was briefed classified and unclassified.

QUESTION: Senator, it's a little hard for journalists to understand why getting out truthful facts is a classified mission that you can' tell us about.

WARNER: And that's the ultimate question you've got to answer. And at this moment I can't give you any facts to help you on that.

QUESTION: Can you give us a general idea of what parts of this are classified? Is it the script? The means of dissemination?

WARNER: I don't want to get into that area because I have only but a bare initial understanding of why classification is needed.

QUESTION: Do you worry that the classified part is the part where they're actually paying off the journalists?

WARNER: I can't answer that question. I'm not here to confirm that the payoffs were right or wrong or took place. We simply don't have all the facts.

QUESTION: Senator, from your information about the Lincoln Group, do you know what kind of work it does on (OFF-MIKE). Do you have an opinion of whether that's legitimate?

WARNER: I don't have that answer.

QUESTION: Senator, pardon me for asking this. I don't mean to sound -- I hate to say it, but...

WARNER: Why be modest? You and I have been doing business for 40 years. Now what is your question?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Senator, if you found out that -- let me put it another way. If somebody is putting money into somebody's pocket to write a story, planting it, a lot of people think that's wrong, that that's just no the way to do it.

Do you agree with that?

WARNER: I agree. I agree.

QUESTION: Senator, have you had an opportunity to review the articles that are at question?

WARNER: No, I have not. I simply really learned of this problem through the hard work of you journalists and reading the articles. And immediately I saw on the face of the allegations -- and I repeat: allegations -- a need for us in the Congress to know more about what is taking place.

And I've just taken the initial steps on that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

WARNER: Well that's sort of the tradition of the committee. We're not trying to hide anything. But in our instance, we feel it can be a very free exchange between those senators -- there's just a few -- that have concerns about his qualifications and to give him a complete opportunity.

And it's not to try and conceal or cover up or anything, but just to have a strong dialogue between the senators that have concerns.

I don't. I think he's a very able and well-qualified individual.

It's interesting. In my conversations with him, the particular article which is the subject of so much concern has been out there for some time.

WARNER: And I asked him point blank, I said, "Well, have your fellow journalists or some of the leading organizations directed criticism at you regarding this article?" He said no.

QUESTION: Would you consider opening it?

WARNER: Beg pardon?

QUESTION: Would you consider opening that session, given the fact that he's going to be working with us if he is confirmed?

WARNER: It may well be that we'll try and share as much as we can of what took place in there. I don't know quite how we go about it. But I just felt it's a longstanding tradition when we have nominations of this type, there are questions, members often prefer to ask those questions in closed session.

QUESTION: Was closed session requested by the Pentagon, though?

WARNER: No.

QUESTION: Senator, there were 10 Marines killed today...

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: Oh, yes.

QUESTION: ... roadside bomb attack outside Fallujah.

WARNER: Yes.

QUESTION: Obviously, the president has made comments in recent days about how he sees the situation improving slowly in Iraq. What does this say to you, this type of attack on Marines there...

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: Well, first, it's a very serious attack, and it appears that this group of Marines had collected -- which is always a dangerous thing -- in sort of one location, and the location has been one that they felt was perfectly safe. I presume it was in an area which had been screened and cleared by operations.

Now, the magnitude of the ordnance is awesome. Probably four very large shells were linked together and exploded. And there were 10 killed. There's some 11 or so wounded. I think a number of the wounded have returned to duty. But it's a very serious situation.

I've been working with the department on the subject of IEDs. We do a lot of briefing in our committee. We have General Votel of the IED group over with regular meetings.

I've also recommended -- and I'm not suggesting that it's entirely my idea because the secretary himself is considering taking that Votel organization and raising the level of rank and the size of it, because there's no question before the Pentagon today, or the American public, of greater seriousness than the lethality of this particular type of weaponry.

You saw where I brought together 10 commanding officers, all lieutenant colonels of battalions, they were brought in to brief our committee, and they did a marvelous job, on their own individual personal experiences as it relates to IEDs. And our committee profited considerably from their insight into this situation.

WARNER: I've also consulted with the private sector. There are a number of people in the private sector that have good ideas that I'm hopeful that an enlarged organization, if the secretary so desires, in the Pentagon, will have the staff to evaluate the ideas in the private sector.

QUESTION: Your comments suggest the insurgents have been able to monitor where Marines collected up again, intelligence on that, and used that...

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: It's presumptuous of me to try and judge what happened over there. I just have the fragments of what's in basically the open press on this issue.

QUESTION: Can we get a quick update on where the defense authorization bill is right now...

WARNER: Thank you. We'll be working throughout the weekend, my staff, on the conference. I'm in regular contact with Duncan Hunter's staff and Duncan himself. I'll be talking with him today.

At the present time, Chairman Hunter and I both have a reasonable confidence that we'll be able to produce a conference report for the Senate and the House in time for action by both parties on that report in that week in December when both parties are here.

Thank you very much.

END

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