U.S. to Fund Pro-American Publicity in Iraqi Media
Friday, October 3, 2008; Page A01
The Defense Department will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.
The new contracts -- awarded last week to four companies -- will expand and consolidate what the U.S. military calls "information/psychological operations" in Iraq far into the future, even as violence appears to be abating and U.S. troops have begun drawing down.
The military's role in the war of ideas has been fundamentally transformed in recent years, the result of both the Pentagon's outsized resources and a counterinsurgency doctrine in which information control is considered key to success. Uniformed communications specialists and contractors are now an integral part of U.S. military operations from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond.
Iraq, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on such contracts, has been the proving ground for the transformation. "The tools they're using, the means, the robustness of this activity has just skyrocketed since 2003. In the past, a lot of this stuff was just some guy's dreams," said a senior U.S. military official, one of several who discussed the sensitive defense program on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon still sometimes feels it is playing catch-up in a propaganda market dominated by al-Qaeda, whose media operations include sophisticated Web sites and professionally produced videos and audios featuring Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. "We're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave," Secretary Robert M. Gates often remarks.
But Defense Department officials think their own products have become increasingly imaginative and competitive. Military and contractor-produced media campaigns, spotlighting killings by insurgents, "helped in developing attitudes" that led Iraqis to reject al-Qaeda in Iraq over the past two years, an official said. Now that the insurgency is in disarray, he said, the same tools "could potentially be helpful" in diminishing the influence of neighboring Iran.
U.S.-produced public service broadcasts and billboards have touted improvements in government services, promoted political reconciliation, praised the Iraqi military and encouraged Iraqi citizens to report criminal activity. When national euphoria broke out last year after an Iraqi singer won a talent contest in Lebanon, the U.S. military considered producing an Iraqi version of "American Idol" to help build nonsectarian nationalism. The idea was shelved as too expensive, an official said, but "we're trying to think out of the box on" reconciliation.
One official described how part of the program works: "There's a video piece produced by a contractor . . . showing a family being attacked by a group of bad guys, and their daughter being taken off. The message is: You've got to stand up against the enemy." The professionally produced vignette, he said, "is offered for airing on various [television] stations in Iraq. . . . They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything."
"If you asked most Iraqis," he said, "they would say, 'It came from the government, our own government.' "
The Pentagon's solicitation for bids on the contracts noted that media items produced "may or may not be non-attributable to coalition forces." "If they thought we were doing it, it would not be as effective," another official said of the Iraqis. "In the Middle East, they are so afraid they're going to be Westernized . . . that you have to be careful when you're trying to provide information to the population."
The Army's counterinsurgency manual, which Gen. David H. Petraeus co-wrote in 2006, describes information operations in detail, citing them among the "critical" military activities "that do not involve killing insurgents." Petraeus, who became the top U.S. commander in Iraq early last year, led a "surge" in combat troops and information warfare.
Some of the new doctrine emerged from Petraeus's own early experience in Iraq. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Nineveh province in 2003, he ensured that war-ravaged radio and television stations were brought rapidly back on line. At his urging, the first TV programs included "Nineveh Talent Search" and a radio call-in show hosted by his Arabic interpreter, Sadi Othman, a Palestinian American.