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By Michael Schrage
Sunday, January 15, 2006

Precision-guided munitions and night vision are terrific military technologies, and no one would deny them to our soldiers in Iraq. But as much as it needs innovative equipment, any army that's serious about winning a war needs innovative media. As one of the most successful warriors in Middle East history wrote: "The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander."

This pillar of wisdom from the great British military strategist T. E. Lawrence -- better known as Lawrence of Arabia -- remains as compelling today as it was when he penned it in 1920, after helping engineer a victorious Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Yet revelations that U.S. forces in Iraq have surreptitiously purchased and placed stories in the local media to promote the quality-of-life improvements they have made possible and to highlight the country's democratic progress have provoked journalistic outrage here at home. Newspaper editorials have condemned the classified "information operations" program. A White House spokesman has said that President Bush is "deeply concerned." Most journalists I know have reacted with cynical disgust. "This time, someone really does have to be fired," wrote Christopher Hitchens, who otherwise supports the war effort, in Slate.

Enough, already. The truth is, you can't wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign without an "information warfare" component. An occupying force can't effectively "stand up" local police and military forces without positively influencing the media that their friends and family see and hear, according to Lt. Col. John A. Nagl's highly regarded counterinsurgency manual, "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife," which he revised after serving in the Sunni Triangle. Securing positive coverage for our troops in Iraq can be as important to their safety as "up-armoring" vehicles and providing state-of-the-art body armor. The failure to wage the media war is a failure to command.

Unfortunately, our forces have been relearning Lawrence's fundamental lesson the hard way. American commanders quietly admit that they were slow to grasp its significance in the insurgency's early days. "The information environment is very much a contributing factor to how the U.S. forces and multinational forces are accepted in this emerging democracy," asserted Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the Coalition Press Information Center, in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "It is a direct threat to the troops if we don't participate in this information environment. That's why there's been a lot of emotion behind this [initiative]."

The now-controversial "information ops" were launched as a defensive measure. The U.S. military was seeking to counter the insurgents' successful efforts to both spread untrue stories about coalition activities and to physically attack pro-American Iraqi media, said Johnson. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists , more than 40 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Last September, a reporter and an editor for the pro-democracy Iraqi newspaper As-Saffir were gunned down within days of each other. Death threats against journalists remain common. Coalition forces weren't losing a war of "ideas," they were losing an uncontested guerrilla conflict over media access.

As local media friendlies were being assaulted, U.S. military lawyers and commanders considered shutting down or blowing up hostile media outlets, but deemed these tactics to be either illegal or counterproductive. But a "free" Iraqi press dominated by one-sided thuggery and threat is neither free nor fair. "We were not about to surrender the information environment to the enemy," said Johnson. "This program is a counterweight to the intimidation and threats Iraqi journalists face."

So the military opted for an information campaign to tell its stories while quietly supporting its media friends. The Coalition Press Information Center and other public affairs officers continued more conventional forms of media outreach, but a military information operations group, aided by a private contractor, pursued a clandestine approach to placing stories.

The Lincoln Group , the Washington-based contractor, insists its covert campaign had nothing to do with disinformation or deception. "Our greatest weapon against terror is the truth," said Christian Bailey, one of the company's founders. "We have cultivated a unique nationwide network -- Iraqi artists, businessmen, journalists, scholars, activists and local leaders -- to tell the story of Iraq. They have no need to lie."

The "pay for placement" program provides some measure of compensation for those Iraqis brave enough or -- yes -- greedy enough to assume the risk of running stories that make Americans and our coalition partners look good. Concealing the ultimate paymaster was a tactical decision. As one Iraqi editor reportedly commented, had he known the stories were being paid for by the U.S. government, he would have "charged much, much more" to publish them.

Critics may argue that secretly paying an editor in a war zone to run accurate if self-serving stories flies in the face of journalistic ethics. But that view speaks more to American views of journalism than to the realities of counterinsurgency. Holding Iraq's nascent media to American ethical standards makes little sense. In a counterinsurgency war zone, the locals understandably pay close attention to the risks and rewards of raising one's media profile. Not all friendships, alliances and sympathies come free.

Moreover, such principled purity defies the precedents of historical American wartime and occupation experience. After World War II, both Gen. Douglas MacArthur's occupied Japan and Gen. Lucius Clay's occupied Germany imposed levels of press oversight and control that make Iraq's information environment look as unregulated as the blogosphere.

Shortly after V-E Day, for example, the U.S. Army's "Psychological Warfare Division" became the "Information Control Division" under Major Gen. Robert McClure . McClure effectively oversaw the denazification and reorganization of West Germany's entire media infrastructure.


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