By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Oh, no, not at all -- the Lincoln Group does not do propaganda. Sure, the firm's been tarred by some in Congress, the media and the defense establishment for paying Iraqi newspapers to publish hundreds of "news" stories secretly written by U.S. troops.
But Paige Craig, the West Point dropout and former Marine intelligence specialist who is the Lincoln Group's president, says the practice is not propaganda. The word carries such baggage, such suggestions of mind control. So in an industry in which euphemism thrives, a more elegant word is deployed.
"We call it 'influence,' " says Craig, whose business has 12 U.S. government contracts totaling more than $130 million.
The Lincoln Group even has a "senior director for insight and influence." His name is Andrew Garfield. Over lunch near the group's Pennsylvania Avenue offices, he also tries to steer the lexicon at play around the table and to clarify what he calls the "tradecraft" of "influence."
Take "psyops," for instance. That's short for "psychological operations." Like the word "propaganda," it, too, conjures mystery, deception.
But that's not what the Lincoln Group does, says Garfield. The company has been contracted by a psyops division of the U.S. military, but Garfield insists that Lincoln's work cannot be considered psyops. That word, Garfield protests, refers to a military operation. And Garfield is very familiar with military psyops, as he is a former British military and intelligence official who regularly teaches a course at the U.S. Army base at Fort Bragg -- a course on . . . psyops.
Bombs are blasting in Baghdad. War fills the air there and fills the airwaves here. But a more quiet war -- the information war -- is waged by stealth, in the words and images deployed by pundits, partisans, policymakers, propagandists, psychological operators and influence specialists, both civilian and military.
Call it influence. Or call it propaganda, info-ops, psyops or strat comm (that's short for "strategic communications"). It's all information, and information can be a weapon as lethal, at times, as bullets and bombs.
But wait! Not only are we in an information war, we are also in a war over the info war -- over techniques such as Lincoln's and the extent to which the U.S. government should or does disseminate propaganda, even pay to publish favorable "news" stories.
Outrage was so great when word leaked last December of Lincoln Group's Iraq activities -- one writer described it as bribery -- that the Pentagon launched an investigation. Army Gen. George W. Casey announced earlier this month that the probe had found the Lincoln Group's work violated no law or policy. But the final report, while completed, is under internal review. No additional details have been released.
Lincoln's work in Iraq continues.
And so we meet the influencers: Craig, 31, one of the brains behind the business, a California guy who grew up fascinated by foreign cultures and drawn by geopolitics; Garfield, 45, the former intelligence analyst turned romantic who married an American physical therapist who helped him through an illness; and Scott Feldmayer, 29, the former Army brat in Europe turned Army captain in Iraq turned influence manager at Lincoln.
Over a recent lunch, they agreed to discuss what they do, albeit only in broad brush. They are stingy with details, they said, because their contracts prohibit them from revealing too much.
Lincoln Group works in Iraq, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan, employing about 200 people, says Craig, who attended but did not graduate from West Point before he joined the Marines. He founded Lincoln along with Christian Bailey, a British entrepreneur. Bailey was not available for lunch, as he was off in the world somewhere, influencing.The P-Word
Words can change what people think. Add some emotional punch and piercing imagery, and words can change how people behave. Repeat these words and images over and over, and they can define a culture.
That's the info war -- far more intense than mere "spin" -- and it's been raging in the United States since the words "war on terror" were uttered in public and the national zeitgeist became one of fear. With the body politic and the vox populi deeply polarized before and after the war started, "we look at everything in terms of propaganda," says Nancy Snow, a former State Department official and author of "Information War."
Think of all the big-ticket war issues that still are contested: WMD, aluminum tubes, uranium, the spurious Saddam-9/11 connection, the Iraqis whom U.S. officials said would greet U.S. troops as liberators, the good news that allegedly is being ignored by all those journalists who keep writing about the bombs still exploding, the bodies still falling.
In the most recent burst of concern about disinformation and the war, enter the Lincoln Group and accusations that its packaging of an American point of view is just propaganda.
It's that P-word again. So let's parse it. It means "any systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc., to further one's own cause or to damage an opposing one." That's the basic Webster definition, which sounds so straightforward.
In the real world, though, the word is "a contested term, ideologically based," says Snow, a senior research fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and an assistant professor in communications at the California State University at Fullerton.
It's a slippery word indeed. At the core, it's about manipulation, planting an idea in your head or a sentiment in your heart on the sly.
"Part of the beauty of real successful propaganda is it works without you knowing that it works," says Anthony Pratkanis, co-author of "Age of Propaganda" and a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The word "propaganda" conjures some pretty ugly stuff, like the old Bolshevik and Soviet agitprop, the sinister wordsmithery of Nazi Joseph Goebbels, the "destroy the village to save it" doublespeak of U.S. military leaders during the Vietnam War.
To be lumped with those folks is, well, understandably upsetting.
"When you use that term about our business, you discredit our business," says Garfield, the influence director.
For Craig, the Lincoln Group president, "propaganda" conjures "posters from World War II where every American is thinking that Germans are just stabbing babies or the Japanese are a bunch of crazy lunatics."
Says Garfield: "One of the things our critics do in the deployment of the term propaganda is they then seek to stifle any debate."
Now he breaks into a full-bore lecture: "It's as if telling the Iraqi people about the positive aspects, about the emergence of democracy in their country, the significant efforts being done by the coalition to protect them, to achieve the security that everybody acknowledges is necessary for people to embrace a new government and a new armed forces -- as if all of that is bad. The moment you label it with the term propaganda, you immediately end any debate. It's absolutely necessary to counter the negative use of information by our adversaries."Sending Signals
So how does the Lincoln Group attempt to capture Iraqi hearts and minds? "We use whatever mediums one could employ to influence an audience," says Garfield.
They've planted those fake news articles trumpeting pro-U.S. stories. They've conceived and distributed anti-terror comic strips and leaflets. They ran a campaign that distributed water bottles bearing a phone number that Iraqis could call to report terror activity to U.S. authorities. They do research, media analysis, polling and focus groups. They seek to completely understand a culture, so they can better influence it.
Speaking hypothetically, the Lincoln officials said entertainment, music, soap operas, comedy, documentaries, educational programs and advertising also can be employed to influence.
Would a visitor be able to identify Lincoln Group's work in Iraq?
"You shouldn't stumble across our work," says Garfield. "What I mean is: You shouldn't know it was our work."
Lincoln's work complements military psyops. In Iraq and Afghanistan, psyops teams have air-dropped leaflets telling people not to resist U.S. troops. They've hollered through loudspeakers urging the enemy to surrender. They have transmitted radio broadcasts from an airplane called Commando Solo and distributed radios on which such broadcasts can be heard.
Military commanders have at times used false information to fool the enemy, such as the October 2004 announcement that the battle of Fallujah had started when, in fact, it did not begin until three weeks later. Information has been used to buoy the spirits of the American public, such as the initial heroic fiction offered on the capture and rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
The Lynch story was among the stories cited in a 2003 analysis titled "Truth From These Podia," by Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former instructor at the National War College. Gardiner studied the Iraq-war-related statements of U.S. and British officials and found "over 50 stories manufactured or at least engineered that distorted the picture" for American and British newspaper readers.
These media-related tactics aren't limited to wartime. Remember those columnists paid to write in support of Bush administration education and marriage initiatives? And the dissemination of fake TV news stories to promote the administration's prescription drug plan? "The Daily Show" dubbed these techniques "infoganda."
But none of this is new -- especially not in war. The effort to sway, influence, deceive and propagandize is as old as combat.Back in the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great ordered his troops to craft huge breastplates of armor that they left behind to trick the enemy into thinking Alexander had giants in his army.
During World War I, the U.S. government's Office of Public Information dispatched thousands of "four-minute men" in cities and towns across the country to make boisterous and emotional pro-war appeals.
During World War II, there was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Facts and Figures, later renamed the Office of War Information. It touted war bonds and rationing. It immortalized "Rosie the Riveter" to propel women to leave their homes and go to work. It leaned on Hollywood to make patriotic films. It warned Americans to watch their tongues. A famous wartime poster said: "Loose Lips Might Sink Ships" -- now a timeworn and abbreviated cliche.Rumsfeld's 'Roadmap'
But Americans just don't understand. The culture hasn't come to grips with information as a part of warfare. That's Garfield, lecturing again.
"I think we've got to back up a little bit and look at warfare," he says, telling how the conventional notion of war has changed, with insurgencies and asymmetric conflict growing more prevalent, meaning that bullets and bombs alone won't win. Information -- its strategic use -- can tip the scales. And yet this fact does not yet resonate in American culture.
"People are more comfortable with killing than they are with influencing," he says. "The majority can be convinced that the use of military force is acceptable, but everybody becomes very uncomfortable when you talk about the use of information," like "promoting your cause, promoting your ideals" and "discrediting the tactics and the arguments and the strategy of the enemy."
Not surprisingly, considering who the Lincoln Group's big client is, Garfield sounds very much in sync with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld's got an "Information Operations Roadmap," which he approved in 2003 and which was declassified earlier this year. It's supposed to "advance the goal of information operations as a core military competency."
The Roadmap follows an earlier information effort, the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, which was dismantled in 2002 after news reports, since denied, that the Pentagon intended to plant false news items in the foreign press. A version of that effort was then outsourced to the Lincoln Group, though Craig and Garfield say they traffic only in truth.
In an op-ed piece last month in the Los Angeles Times, Rumsfeld bemoaned the uproar over the Lincoln Group and described its work as a "non-traditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people in the face of an aggressive campaign of disinformation. Yet this has been portrayed as inappropriate: for example, the allegations of 'buying news.' "
In a way, this is the price to be paid for not going covert all the way. Had the program been conducted completely undercover, it would have been better, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"You can compliment the Pentagon for at least trying," he says of the military's outsourcing to Lincoln. "I think the agency [CIA] should have been engaged in this a long time ago."
"I suppose the historical parallel would be the agency's efforts during the Cold War to fund magazines, newspapers and journalists who believed that the West should triumph over communism," he says. "Much of what you do ought to be covert, and, certainly, if you contract it out, it isn't."The Truth of the Matter
Craig and Garfield make much of their assertion that they traffic in the truth. It's as if they think truth and propaganda are mutually exclusive. But consider this:
"For a long time, propagandists have recognized that lying must be avoided," wrote Jacques Ellul in his classic 1965 work, "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes." For the masses to believe it, "propaganda must be based on some truth that can be said in a few words and is able to linger in the collective consciousness."
But truth can be elastic, even inconvenient. For instance, Garfield says Lincoln really had no choice but to hide the authorship of those upbeat "news" stories.
Had they been identified as products of the U.S. government, someone could have gotten killed. And just how receptive would Iraqi readers have been to a U.S. government product anyway?
"You wouldn't look at them objectively," says Garfield, projecting what an Iraqi reader might think. "You wouldn't give them a fair hearing."
He says: "How do you get a fair hearing when (a) the audience is preconditioned to respond negatively to anything you say, and (b) just as importantly, there's a whole bunch of people out there who will do whatever they can to prevent that fair hearing? If you just stand up and say, 'I stand for truth and freedom and you should listen to me because of it,' forget it. You're dead. Do you not engage in an argument with those people because it doesn't say, 'Paid for by the United States'?"
So, yes, there was that deception.
"But the aim is not deceit," he says.
It's just a means to an end in wartime.