In a briefing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, the military acknowledged that news articles written by American troops had been placed as paid advertisements in the Iraqi news media and not always properly identified.
Warner told reporters after receiving a briefing from officials at the Pentagon that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a program that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists.
Mr. Warner said there had been no indications yet that the paid propaganda had been false. But he said that disclosures that an American company, under contract to the Pentagon, was making secret payments to plant articles with positive messages about the United States military mission could undermine the Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardize Iraq's developing democratic institutions. "I remain gravely concerned about the situation," he said.
He said he had been told that the articles or advertisements were intended to
counter disinformation in the Iraqi news media that was hurting the American
military's efforts to stabilize the country.
The story of the Pentagon 's latest PR efforts was revealed last week by the Los Angeles Times. It said that many of the articles were presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.
The Times reported that while the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year, the newspaper wrote.
The articles are received from the military and translated into Arabic and then placed with Iraqi media, both print and broadcast, by the Lincoln Group, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm which is under contract to the Pentagon. Lincoln 's website boasts of its extensive network of relationships with Iraqi journalists.
The Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Administration and Congressional officials have often emphasized the importance the U.S. places on development of a Western-style free media. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cited the proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.
The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.
The administration isn't alone in pointing to the "free" media as evidence of things going well in Iraq. In a November 10 speech, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona touted Iraq's "truly free press".
But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group 's activities were the latest example of questionable public relations practices by the administration. In an earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received $240,000 for promoting "No Child Left Behind ", the administration's education initiative.
"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried
multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the
Democratic leader, said. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation.
"The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."
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