The U.S. military command in Baghdad acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has paid Iraqi newspapers to carry positive news about U.S. efforts in Iraq, but officials characterized the payments as part of a legitimate campaign to counter insurgents' misinformation.
In a statement, the command said the program included efforts, "customary in Iraq," to purchase advertising and place clearly labeled opinion pieces in Iraqi newspapers. But the statement suggested that the "information operations" program may have veered into a gray area where government contractors paid to have articles placed in Iraqi newspapers without explaining that the material came from the U.S. military and that Iraqi journalists were paid to write positive accounts.
"Serious allegations have been raised that suggest the process may be functioning in a manner different than is intended or appropriate," the statement said. Commanders are "reviewing these allegations and will investigate any improprieties," it said.
The statement from Baghdad was the first official effort to explain the media initiative after three days of news reports describing efforts by the U.S. military to plant stories in Iraqi media under the guise of independent journalism.
The episode has sparked an intense debate at the Pentagon and beyond, as military officials in Washington said privately that they are troubled by the situation and media experts said the program violated standard journalistic practices.
The controversy has also fanned a debate that has been underway for months in military circles about the role that information operations should be playing in nontraditional conflicts such as the Iraq situation. The term covers a wide range of activities -- some open, some not -- intent on undermining an enemy by fooling, confusing or refuting him.
"The broader debate is whether it's acceptable for the IO community to be doing this," said a general who has served in Iraq and has some experience in information operations.
After a briefing from Pentagon officials yesterday, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he remains "gravely concerned about the situation." He said the Pentagon is looking into cases in which there may have been "an omission" of labels in newspapers indicating where the material came from or that it was an advertisement.
In describing the program, military officials said third parties -- including the Washington-based Lincoln Group -- were sometimes hired to distribute the articles to newspapers to protect publishers that might have been targeted by insurgents if they were known to accept material from the military.
Officials said one unanswered question they have is whether the Lincoln Group intentionally misled newspapers by presenting the articles as freelance journalism, obscuring the fact that the material came from U.S. armed forces.
Lincoln Group officials would not discuss specifics of the contract. Laurie Adler, a spokeswoman for the company, said yesterday that Lincoln Group has been promoting truthful reporting across Iraq.
"We counter the lies, intimidation, and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security," Adler said in a written statement. "We are encouraged by their sacrifice and proud to help them tell their side of the story."
Officials familiar with the Lincoln Group's contract said it allows the firm to pay to have articles placed in the Iraqi press. The contract reportedly says nothing about disguising the origin of the articles, but some military officers defended the practice as a necessary security measure, to protect the Iraqi journalists used to deliver the accounts and the Iraqi news organizations that print them.
If it were known that the journalists and the news organizations were carrying information provided by the U.S. military, these officers said, insurgents would surely target them. Indeed, at least two of the Iraqi newspapers cited in initial news reports as having printed the articles in question have since received threats from insurgents, according to military officials.
Proponents of such tactics argue that different standards should be applied to what is permissible in a combat zone such as Iraq than, say, in the United States or other stable democracies. Although the idea of the military using covert methods to get favorable information into print appears unethical at home, the argument goes, there are mitigating circumstances justifying such tactics in Iraq.
Warner met with several officers and civilian leaders at the Pentagon yesterday for a briefing on the program, a meeting that yielded few details. Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill that the program was authorized through the U.S. Central Command and that the Lincoln Group was allowed to provide payments for the placement of articles with the understanding that any such material would be labeled as an advertisement originating from coalition forces.
The material, produced by information operators and not by public affairs officials, was reviewed by a flag officer and commanders before distribution, and it received legal clearance in Iraq, Warner said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the Defense Department's inspector general asking for an investigation into the program and the Lincoln Group contract. Kennedy called it "a devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers."
Top Pentagon authorities appear to have been caught off guard by the disclosure of the Lincoln Group's activities, and the three days it has taken for the Defense Department to produce yesterday's statement seemed to reflect considerable uncertainty about how to respond. Several senior Pentagon officials expressed their own frustration over waiting for an explanation from the military command in Baghdad.