Pentagon Will Be Questioned On News Propaganda in Iraq
By Eric Schmitt
and David S. Cloud
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned top Pentagon officials to a closed-door session on Capitol Hill on Friday to explain a reported secret military campaign in Iraq to plant paid propaganda in the Iraqi news media. The White House also expressed deep concerns about the program.
Senior Pentagon officials said Thursday that they had not yet received any explanation of the program from top generals in Iraq, including Gen. John P. Abizaid, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the three most senior commanders for Iraqi operations.
After reports about the program circulated this week, Casey initially protested that it should not be discussed publicly because it was classified. One senior Pentagon official said, however, that Casey was told that response was inadequate. The official asked for anonymity to avoid possible reprisals for disclosing the general’s reaction.
At a briefing with reporters, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, responded to a barrage of questions about the program, which military contractors and officials said also pays friendly Iraqi journalists with monthly stipends.
“We’re very concerned about the reports,” the White House spokesman said. “We have asked the Department of Defense for more information.”
Under the program, the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations firm working in Iraq, was hired to translate articles written by American troops into Arabic and then, in many cases, give them to advertising agencies for placement in the Iraqi news media. At a time when the State Department is paying contractors millions of dollars to promote professional and independent media, the military campaign appeared to defy the basic tenets of Western journalism.
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., who heads the Armed Services Committee, said he had directed Pentagon aides to describe and justify the program on Friday in a closed briefing for senators and staff aides.
“I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy,” Warner said in a statement. “A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media.”
Asked about the issue on Thursday, the top military spokesman in Baghdad appeared to defend the practice without referring specifically to the Lincoln Group’s activities. The spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, said that Iraq’s most-wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, was also using the news media to advance his terrorist goals. But Lynch said the similarities ended there because the American military was disseminating truthful information.
“He is conducting these kidnappings, these beheadings, these explosions, so that he gets international coverage to look like he has more capability than he truly has,” Lynch said. “He is lying to the Iraqi people.”