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[] AT 03.12.05 (Iraq Press Scandal)

Middle East
Dec 3, 2005

It's propaganda (shock, horror)!
By David Isenberg

The news of a US military operation that pays Iraqi newspapers to run stories written by "information operations" troops about how wonderfully things are going in the war should not come as a shock.

Even before the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon planned to create its own in-house propaganda and disinformation operation, to be called the Office of Strategic Influence. The program was supposedly killed after critics pointed out how easily the phony news it created could drift back into the domestic media.

Nevertheless, the occupation of Iraq has put the Pentagon in the

"strategic influence" business in a big way, with its own TV news operation (the Pentagon Channel), a then-coalition-controlled Iraqi TV and radio network (now nominally in the hands of the Iraqi government, but still powered by Pentagon dollars and run by a US vendor) and millions of dollars to hire public relations firms and consultants to spin the coalition's propaganda to the Iraqi people.

In fact, paying off the Iraqi media to run good news mirrors what the Bush administration has been doing at home.

For example, in the past year it was revealed that the Bush administration paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars to a prominent conservative commentator, Armstrong Williams, to promote a new education law that had been strongly supported by President George W Bush. The Education Department paid a public relations firm for a video that promoted the law and appeared as a news story, without making clear the reporter was hired as part of the deal.

Similarly, some-time reporter and $200-an-hour gay escort, James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, violated a ban on "fake" news stories by reprinting White House news releases verbatim.

The gist of the latest story is that beginning this year as part of an information offensive in Iraq, the US military began secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the US mission in Iraq.

Responding to the growing furor over the disclosure, the Senate Armed Services Committee has summoned Defense Department officials for a briefing on the issue. "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," said the committee's chairman, John Warner.

The White House, too, says it is very concerned and is seeking more information.

The articles, written by the US military troops, are translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers as unbiased news accounts with the help of the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations firm located on legendary consultant central, K St, paid by the Pentagon. Lincoln's contract is with the Pentagon's special ops propaganda machine - JPOSE (Joint Psychological Operations Support Element).

In addition to paying newspapers to print government propaganda, Lincoln has paid about a dozen Iraqi journalists each several hundred dollars a month. Those journalists were chosen because their past coverage had not been antagonistic to the United States,

US officials in Washington said the payments were made through the Baghdad Press Club; an organization they said was created more than a year ago by US Army officers. Members of the Press Club are paid as much as $200 a month, depending on how many positive pieces they produce.

A spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, Major General Rick Lynch, responded that "a propaganda war is under way in Iraq" as militants were also using the media. "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. We don't lie. We don't need to lie," Lynch added.

Ironically, according to the reports, the Lincoln Group has also been paying Ahmad Chalabi's newspaper, al-Mutamar, to reprint pro-American propaganda. Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies were lavished on Iraqi exile Chalabi and his surrogates in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Chalabi is now a deputy prime minister. Chalabi was influential in helping boost the Bush administration's "case" that Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program.

What is worth noting is the lack of substance in the stories. One of them was titled "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism". That ranks up there with the sun sets in the West and the tide rolls in and out. It also explains why the paper was only paid $50 for it.

Also, in some cases the military articles placed in the Iraqi press had copied verbatim text from copyrighted publications and passed it on to be printed without attribution.

These stories, however, are part of a continuing and longstanding effort to shape public opinion; more accurately described as psychological operations (psyops) in Iraq.

An article in the American Prospect blog notes that in February a couple of local staffers of President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney headed to Iraq to work with Iraqex, the company that in March rebranded itself as The Lincoln Group to match that of its corporate parent, the Lincoln Alliance Corporation, a DC-based "business intelligence" firm.

Also, famed New York ad man, Jerry Della Femina, is on The Lincoln Group's advisory board.

But in late 2003 or early 2004 the Lincoln Alliance Corp became Iraqex. In October 2004, it won a $6 million contract from the Multi-National Corps-Iraq (formerly known as Combined Joint Task Force-7, which had operational control of all troops in Iraq) to design and execute an "aggressive advertising and public relations campaign that will accurately inform the Iraqi people of the coalition's goals and gain their support", according to the contract's August 2004 request for proposal.

Lincoln Group executive vice president Christian Bailey, a British venture capitalist, was involved with Lead21, a Republican business organization registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 committee, which is a tax-exempt organization that engages in political activities

After graduating from Oxford University in England in the 1990s, Bailey moved to the San Francisco area about 1998, and in 1999, founded Express Action, an e-commerce company he apparently later sold. In 2002, Bailey was identified as the founder and chairman of a New York-based hedge fund called Lincoln Asset Management. On March 1, 2003, it was reported that Lincoln Asset Management had an initial $100 million in commitments to underwrite a leveraged buyout fund to acquire defense and intelligence companies.

The Lincoln Group is not the only firm engaged in psyops. In June, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had awarded three contracts, potentially worth up to $300 million over five years, to companies it hoped would inject more creativity into its psychological operations efforts to improve foreign public opinion about the US, particularly the military.

SYColeman Inc of Arlington, Lincoln Group and Science Applications International Corp were to help develop ideas and prototypes for radio and television spots, documentaries, or even text messages, pop-up ads on the Internet, podcasting, billboards and novelty items.

It is worth emphasizing that because of the security situation, US correspondents in Iraq are rarely able to leave the Green Zone in Baghdad or other US military bases to engage in on-the-ground reporting, and thus must rely, in part, on reports by Iraqis in the Iraqi press to assess the situation on the ground.

But the news that some of this media are simply US military propaganda undermines even this source of information.

Reportedly, the US military's top commanders, including General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not know about the Lincoln Group contract until it was first described by The Los Angeles Times. Pentagon officials said Pace and other top officials were disturbed and demanded explanations from senior officers in Iraq.

The bottom line is the Iraqi press is neither free, nor even Iraqi.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

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