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[infowar.de] NYT: Military's Information War Is Vast and Often Secretive
December 11, 2005
Military's Information War Is Vast and Often Secretive
By JEFF GERTH
The media center in Fayetteville, N.C., would be the envy of any global
In state of the art studios, producers prepare the daily mix of music and
news for the group's radio stations or spots for friendly television
outlets. Writers putting out newspapers and magazines in Baghdad and Kabul
converse via teleconferences. Mobile trailers with high-tech gear are
parked outside, ready for the next crisis.
The center is not part of a news organization, but a military operation,
and those writers and producers are soldiers. The 1,200-strong
psychological operations unit based at Fort Bragg turns out what its
officers call "truthful messages" to support the United States
government's objectives, though its commander acknowledges that those
stories are one-sided and their American sponsorship is hidden.
"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," said Col. Jack
N. Summe, then the commander of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group,
during a tour in June. Even in the Pentagon, "some public affairs
professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he said, as "lying,
The recent disclosures that a Pentagon contractor in Iraq paid newspapers
to print "good news" articles written by American soldiers prompted an
outcry in Washington, where members of Congress said the practice
undermined American credibility and top military and White House officials
disavowed any knowledge of it. President Bush was described by Stephen J.
Hadley, his national security adviser, as "very troubled" about the
matter. The Pentagon is investigating.
But the work of the contractor, the Lincoln Group, was not a rogue
operation. Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world,
the Bush administration has been conducting an information war that is
extensive, costly and often hidden, according to documents and interviews
with contractors, government officials and military personnel.
The campaign was begun by the White House, which set up a secret panel
soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information operations by
the Pentagon, other government agencies and private contractors.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of most of the activities, the military
operates radio stations and newspapers, but does not disclose their
American ties. Those outlets produce news material that is at times
attributed to the "International Information Center," an untraceable
Lincoln says it planted more than 1,000 articles in the Iraqi and Arab
press and placed editorials on an Iraqi Web site, Pentagon documents show.
For an expanded stealth persuasion effort into neighboring countries,
Lincoln presented plans, since rejected, for an underground newspaper,
television news shows and an anti-terrorist comedy based on "The Three
Like the Lincoln Group, Army psychological operations units sometimes pay
to deliver their message, offering television stations money to run
unattributed segments or contracting with writers of newspaper opinion
pieces, military officials said.
"We don't want somebody to look at the product and see the U.S. government
and tune out," said Col. James Treadwell, who ran psychological operations
support at the Special Operations Command in Tampa.
The United States Agency for International Development also masks its role
at times. AID finances about 30 radio stations in Afghanistan, but keeps
that from listeners. The agency has distributed tens of thousands of
iPod-like audio devices in Iraq and Afghanistan that play prepackaged
civic messages, but it does so through a contractor that promises "there
is no U.S. footprint."
As the Bush administration tries to build democracies overseas and support
a free press, getting out its message is critical. But that is enormously
difficult, given widespread hostility in the Muslim world over the war in
Iraq, deep suspicion of American ambitions and the influence of
antagonistic voices. The American message makers who are wary of
identifying their role can cite findings by the Pentagon, pollsters and
others underscoring the United States' fundamental problems of credibility
Defenders of influence campaigns argue that they are appropriate and can
have impact. "Psychological operations are an essential part of warfare,
more so in the electronic age than ever," said Lt. Col. Charles A. Krohn,
a retired Army spokesman and journalism professor. "If you're going to
invade a country and eject its government and occupy its territory, you
ought to tell people who live there why you've done it. That requires a
well-thought-out communications program."
But covert information battles may backfire, others warn, or prove
ineffective. An Iraqi daily newspaper, Azzaman, complained in an editorial
that the paid propaganda campaign was an American government effort "to
humiliate the independent national press." And the upbeat stories
distributed by the Lincoln Group about improved security, for example,
were unlikely to convince Iraqis enduring hardships.
While the United States does not ban the distribution of government
propaganda overseas, as it does domestically, the Government
Accountability Office said in a recent report that lack of attribution
could undermine the credibility of news videos. In finding that video news
releases by the Bush administration that appeared on American television
were improper, the G.A.O. said that such articles "are no longer purely
factual" because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."
In an article titled "War of the Words," Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld wrote about the importance of disclosure in America's
communications in The Wall Street Journal in July.
"The American system of openness works," he wrote. The United States must
find "new and better ways to communicate America's mission abroad,"
including "a healthy culture of communication and transparency between
government and public."
Trying to Make a Case
After the Sept. 11 attacks forced many Americans to recognize the nation's
precarious standing in the Arab world, the Bush administration decided to
act to improve the country's image and promote its values.
"We've got to do a better job of making our case," President Bush told
reporters after the attacks.
Much of the government's information machinery, including the United
States Information Agency and some C.I.A. programs, was dismantled after
the cold war. In that struggle with the Soviet Union, the information
warriors benefited from the perception that the United States was backing
victims of tyrannical rule. Many Muslims today view Washington as too
close to what they characterize as authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia,
Egypt and elsewhere.
The White House turned to John Rendon, who runs a Washington
communications company, to help influence foreign audiences. Before the
war in Afghanistan, he helped set up centers in Washington, London and
Pakistan so the American government could respond rapidly in the foreign
media to Taliban claims. "We were clueless," said Mary Matalin, then the
communications aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Rendon's business, the Rendon Group, had a history of government work
in trouble spots, In the 1990's, the C.I.A. hired him to secretly help the
nascent Iraqi National Congress wage a public relations campaign against
While advising the White House, Mr. Rendon also signed on with the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, under a $27.6 million contract, to conduct focus groups
around the world and media analysis of outlets like Al Jazeera, the
satellite network based in Qatar.
About the same time, the White House recruited Jeffrey B. Jones, a former
Army colonel who ran the Fort Bragg psychological operations group, to
coordinate the new information war. He led a secret committee, the
existence of which has not been previously reported, that dealt with
everything from public diplomacy, which includes education, aid and
exchange programs, to covert information operations.
The group even examined the president's language. Concerned about
alienating Muslims overseas, panel members said, they tried unsuccessfully
to stop Mr. Bush from ending speeches with the refrain "God bless
The panel, later named the Counter Terrorism Information Strategy Policy
Coordinating Committee, included members from the State Department, the
Pentagon and the intelligence agencies. Mr. Rendon advised a subgroup on
Mr. Jones's endeavor stalled within months, though, because of furor over
a Pentagon initiative. In February 2002, unnamed officials told The New
York Times that a new Pentagon operation called the Office of Strategic
Influence planned "to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to
foreign news organizations." Though the report was denied and a subsequent
Pentagon review found no evidence of plans to use disinformation, Mr.
Rumsfeld shut down the office within days.
The incident weakened Mr. Jones's effort to develop a sweeping strategy to
win over the Muslim world. The White House grew skittish, some agencies
dropped out, and panel members soon were distracted by the war in Iraq,
said Mr. Jones, who left his post this year. The White House did not
respond to a request to discuss the committee's work.
What had begun as an ambitious effort to bolster America's image largely
devolved into a secret propaganda war to counter the insurgencies in Iraq
and Afghanistan. The Pentagon, which had money to spend and leaders
committed to the cause, took the lead. In late 2002 Mr. Rumsfeld told
reporters he gave the press a "corpse" by closing the Office of Strategic
Influence, but he intended to "keep doing every single thing that needs to
The Pentagon increased spending on its psychological and influence
operations and for the first time outsourced work to contractors. One
beneficiary has been the Rendon Group, which won additional
multimillion-dollar Pentagon contracts for media analysis and a media
operations center in Baghdad, including "damage control planning." The new
Lincoln Group was another winner.
It is something of a mystery how the company came to land more than $25
million in Pentagon contracts in a war zone.
The two men who ran the small business had no background in public
relations or the media, according to associates and a résumé. Before
coming to Washington and setting up Lincoln in 2004, Christian Bailey,
born in Britain and now 30, had worked briefly in California and New York.
Paige Craig, now 31, was a former Marine intelligence officer.
When the company was incorporated last year, using the name Iraqex, its
stated purpose was to provide support services for business development,
trade and investment in Iraq. The company's earliest ventures there
included providing security to the military and renovating buildings.
Iraqex also started a short-lived online business publication.
In mid-2004, the company formed a partnership with the Rendon Group and
later won a $5 million Pentagon contract for an advertising and public
relations campaign to "accurately inform the Iraqi people of the
Coalition's goals and gain their support." Soon, the company changed its
name to Lincoln Group. It is not clear how the partnership with Rendon was
formed; Rendon dropped out weeks after the contract was awarded.
Within a few months, Lincoln shifted to information operations and
psychological operations, two former employees said. The company was
awarded three new Pentagon contracts, worth tens of millions of dollars,
they added. A Lincoln spokeswoman referred a reporter's inquiry about its
military contracts to Pentagon officials.
The company's work was part of an effort to counter disinformation in the
Iraqi press. With nearly $100 million in United States aid, the Iraqi
media has sharply expanded since the fall of Mr. Hussein. About 200
Iraq-owned newspapers and 15 to 17 Iraq-owned television stations operate
in the country. Many, though, are affiliated with political parties, and
are fiercely partisan, with fixed pro- or anti-American stances, and some
publish rumors, half-truths and outright lies.
From quarters at Camp Victory, the American base, the Lincoln Group works
to get out the military's message.
Lincoln's employees work virtually side by side with soldiers. Army
officers supervise Lincoln's work and demand to see details of article
placements and costs, said one of the former employees, speaking on
condition of anonymity because Lincoln's Pentagon contract prohibits
workers from discussing their activities.
"Almost nothing we did did not have the command's approval," he said.
The employees would take news dispatches, called storyboards, written by
the troops, translate them into Arabic and distribute them to newspapers.
Lincoln hired former Arab journalists and paid advertising agencies to
place the material.
Typically, Lincoln paid newspapers from $40 to $2,000 to run the articles
as news articles or advertisements, documents provided to The New York
Times by a former employee show. More than 1,000 articles appeared in 12
to 15 Iraqi and Arab newspapers, according to Pentagon documents. The
publications did not disclose that the articles were generated by the
A company worker also often visited the Baghdad convention center, where
the Iraqi press corps hung out, to recruit journalists who would write and
place opinion pieces, paying them $400 to $500 as a monthly stipend, the
Like the dispatches produced at Fort Bragg, those storyboards were
one-sided and upbeat. Each had a target audience, "Iraq General" or
"Shi'ia," for example; an underlying theme like "Anti-intimidation" or
"Success and Legitimacy of the ISF," or Iraqi Security Forces; and a
Articles written by the soldiers at Camp Victory often assumed the voice
of Iraqis. "We, all Iraqis, are the government. It is our country," noted
one article. Another said, "The time has come for the ordinary Iraqi, you,
me, our neighbors, family and friends to come together."
While some were plodding accounts filled with military jargon and
bureaucratese, others favored the language of tabloids: "blood-thirsty
apostates," "crawled on their bellies like dogs in the mud," "dim-witted
fanatics," and "terror kingpin."
A former Lincoln employee said the ploy of making the articles appear to
be written by Iraqis by removing any American fingerprints was not very
effective. "Many Iraqis know it's from Americans," he said.
The military has sought to expand its media influence efforts beyond Iraq
to neighboring states, like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, Pentagon
documents say. Lincoln submitted a plan that was subsequently rejected, a
Pentagon spokesman said. The company proposed placing editorials in
magazines, newspapers and Web sites. In Iraq, the company posted
editorials on a Web site, but military commanders stopped the operation
for fear that the site's global accessibility might violate the federal
ban on distributing propaganda to American audiences, according to
Pentagon documents and a former Lincoln employee.
In its rejected plan, the company offered some creative concepts adapted
>from American culture, including comedies modeled after "Cheers" and the
Three Stooges. Documents show Lincoln also proposed a version of The
Onion, the satirical newspaper.
The Pentagon's media effort in Afghanistan began soon after the ouster of
the Taliban. In what had been a barren media environment, 350 magazines
and newspapers and 68 television and radio stations now operate. Most are
independent; the rest are run by the government. The United States has
provided money to support the media, as well as training for journalists
and government spokesmen.
But much of the American role remains hidden from local readers and
The Pentagon, for example, took over the Taliban's radio station, renamed
it Peace radio and began powerful shortwave broadcasts in local dialects,
defense officials said. Its programs include music as well as 9 daily news
scripts and 16 daily public service messages, according to Col. James
Yonts, a United States military spokesman in Afghanistan. Its news
accounts, which sometimes are attributed to the International Information
Center, often put a positive spin on events or serve government needs.
The United States Army publishes a sister paper in Afghanistan, also
called Peace. An examination of issues from last spring found no bad news.
"We have no requirements to adhere to journalistic principles of
objectivity," Colonel Summe, the Army psychological operations specialist,
said. "We tell the U.S. side of the story to approved targeted audiences"
using truthful information. Neither the radio station nor the paper
discloses its ties to the American military.
Similarly, AID does not locally disclose that dozens of Afghanistan radio
stations get its support, through grants to a London-based nonprofit
group, Internews. (AID discloses its support in public documents in
Washington, most of which can be found globally on the Internet.)
The AID representative in Afghanistan, in an e-mail message relayed by
Peggy O'Ban, an agency spokeswoman, explained the nondisclosure: "We want
to maintain the perception (if not the reality) that these radio stations
are in fact fully independent."
Recipients are required to adhere to standards. If a news organization
produced "a daily drumbeat of criticism of the American military, it would
become an issue," said James Kunder, an AID assistant administrator, He
added that in combat zones, the issue of disclosure was a balancing act
between security and assuring credibility.
The American role is also not revealed by another recipient of AID grants,
Voice for Humanity, a nonprofit organization in Lexington, Ky. It supplied
tens of thousands of audio devices in Iraq and Afghanistan with messages
intended to encourage people to vote. Rick Ifland, the group's director,
said the messages were locally produced, culturally appropriate and part
of the "positive developments in democracy, freedom and human rights in
the Middle East."
It is not clear how effective the messages were or what recipients did
with iPod-like devices, pink for women and silver for men, that could not
be altered to play music or other recordings. Mr. Ifland said they were
designed that way so "only a consistent, secure official message can be
To show off the new media in Afghanistan, AID officials invited Ms.
Matalin, the former Cheney aide and conservative commentator, and the talk
show host Rush Limbaugh to visit in February. They visited a journalism
school. Mr. Limbaugh told his listeners, the students asked him "some of
the best questions about journalism and about America that I've ever been
One of the first queries, Mr. Limbaugh said, was "How do you balance
justice and truth and objectivity?"
His reply: report the truth, don't hide any opinions or "interest in the
outcome of events." Tell "people who you are," he said, and "they'll
respect your credibility."
Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting from
Afghanistan for this article.