Positive articles about the war in Iraq written by U.S. troops have been appearing in Iraqi newspapers under the guise of independent journalism, part of a coordinated effort by the U.S. military to win over Iraqi civilians, according to military officials.
Officers in Iraq say the program is an essential element of an "information war" against an insurgency adept at spreading its message through local and international media, largely with violent acts. The newspaper articles promote the positive aspects of the United States-led coalition's work and encourage Iraqis to take part in the burgeoning democracy.
"This is a military program to help get factual information about ongoing operations into Iraqi news," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Baghdad. "Because this is part of our ongoing operations and an important part of countering misinformation in the news by insurgents, I can't provide details of what that entails. I want to emphasize that all information used for marketing these stories is completely factual."
The program has been run out of the Multinational Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. John R. Vines in Baghdad, with the help of a Washington-based contractor, Lincoln Group. The company translates the articles and markets them to Iraqi media outlets without indicating the material came from the U.S. military.
The effort was disclosed yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, which reported that some of the articles were placed in Iraqi newspapers after people presenting themselves as independent writers paid the publications to publish them.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said that officials are looking into the matter and that "some things about it, if true, are a bit troubling." Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said on MSNBC's "Hardball" program that his panel would look into the matter "because I'm concerned that our credibility abroad is very important."
Media experts decried the practice of paying to plant articles by the military as undermining the newly emerging free press in Iraq.
"In the very process of preventing misinformation from another side, they are creating misinformation through a process that disguises the source for information that is going out," said John J. Schulz, dean of Boston University's College of Communications and a veteran journalist. "You can't be creating a model for democracy while subverting one of its core principles, a free independent press."
Mark Bench, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee, said the military's approach inappropriately clouds the source of the information. "Of course, the U.S. government is a major source of public relations information, but to be paying people to carry it is really unacceptable," Bench said.
Such information warfare is not new to Iraq. U.S. service members have worked throughout the war to spread messages through all media, and have been reaching out to individual communities through pamphlets and posters that advocate the military coalition and degrade insurgents.
Troops working in "information operations" and other units routinely send out factual, positive articles about the coalition to international news organizations, but soldiers assigned to "psychological operations" have been more aggressive in manipulating information for military gain. One example concerned the death of Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who was killed during interrogations near the Syrian border.
After his death, a news release said Mowhoush had cooperated and died of natural causes, and local communities were notified that he had identified key insurgents in the area, when he had not.
The military turned to using newspaper articles because officers in the field believed that normal press operations needed supplementing to get the message out.
"The realities of the environment here demand something more ambitious than people might understand," said one officer in Iraq who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to discuss the program. "The information environment is almost as important as the combat environment. It's absolutely essential to our success to get the facts out there. We're not going to spread misinformation."
One Pentagon official said yesterday that such a program could violate Defense Department doctrine on psychological operations that bars intentionally misusing the media. "It's a transparency issue," the official said. "One should never have to guess as to who is providing the information."
Lincoln Group was one of a few contractors tapped earlier this year to bring a more creative approach to psychological operations efforts in Iraq, largely aiming at improving foreign public opinion about the United States. Col. James A. Treadwell, director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element at the U.S. Special Operations Command, said in June that the military would like to use "cutting-edge types of media" to get the message out.
Laurie Adler, director of marketing, communications and government relations at Lincoln Group, said that she could not comment on the contract, but said her company's efforts in Iraq are vital.
"We believe that it is necessary to counter the misinformation that is put out by our adversaries," Adler said. "Trying to get out accurate information is an important part of what the U.S. needs to do to show our side of the story."
Lincoln Group, which formerly operated under the name Iraqex, advertised itself as having been "given wide latitude and urged to be creative in the approaches we take." A job listing on its Web site expresses a need for more employees "to mount an aggressive advertising and public relations campaign that will accurately inform the Iraqi people of the coalition's goals and gain their support."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.