Pentagon Planting Pro-U.S. News in Iraqi Papers

Eager to see more good news in Iraqi newspapers about the role of U.S. troops in that country, the Pentagon has been paying a Washington, D.C.-based firm to produce positive stories, translate them into Arabic and have them placed as legitimate news in Baghdad newspapers.

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Long interested in seeing more good news about the war in Iraq in the Iraqi media, the Pentagon has apparently been taking the matter into its own hands. Army officials have been writing some of their own stories about the rebuilding of that nation and then hiring consultants who translate those stories into Arabic and pay Iraqi newspapers to publish them. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren reports.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

A consultant who's worked in Iraq says Pentagon contractors placed news stories in several Iraqi newspapers including Al-Idallah(ph), Al-Sabaah, Al Jadid and Al-Mada. Editors, in turn, collect 50 to $1,500 per story. The consultant agreed to talk to NPR but would not be recorded because he signed an agreement to keep the arrangement secret.

According to the consultant, it works like this. Military troops working at Camp Victory in Baghdad write up news stories that emphasize US and Iraqi military victories, progress on the reconstruction and instances of Iraqis resisting insurgents. The consultants translate the stories. Then they send Iraqis posing as freelance journalists to pay editors to publish them. The Pentagon is barred from planting stories in US media, but critics note that a story that appears on the Internet in Iraq is likely to bleed into US news reports. David Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Vietnam War for The New York Times. He says that this kind of propaganda doesn't really work for the military.

Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Journalist): The only people they fool are themselves, and then they begin to believe it. And then they begin to believe in the Potemkin Village. And so it's stupid. It doesn't work and it's dangerous in the sense that it corrupts those who are trying to corrupt others.

HENDREN: The Defense Department isn't denying that consultants are planting stories in Iraqi papers, but Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman says the operation was news to him and to many others in the US military headquarters. If it's true, he says, some elements of the campaign are troubling. Just yesterday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited the growth of what he called free media in Iraq as evidence that Iraqis are successfully building a new democratic society.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (US Defense Department): The country is--has a free media and they can--it's a relief valve. There's a hundred-plus papers. There's 72 radio stations. There's 44 television stations. And they're debating things and talking and arguing and discussing.

HENDREN: Some of the stories secretly written by the US military take a strong point of view. One story dated November 12th tells of US and Iraqi troops who blocked foreign fighters who were, in the writer's words, `entering Iraq to wage their unjust war.'

The consultant says newspaper editors in Iraq often acknowledge that they're aware that the US government is planting the stories, noting that writers don't usually give money for their pieces, they ask for it. Some military analysts say it's not clear the military is doing anything wrong. Dan Goure is with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia, think tank.

Mr. DAN GOURE (Lexington Institute): It was not lying. The stories were generally correct. It happened to be a point of view. They were not all balanced, but not every story by any newspaper is a balanced statement.

HENDREN: But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the use of such a technique can backfire.

Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism): It will antagonize the Iraqi people and undermine the very policies that we think we're trying to promote in Iraq and probably make it harder for the soldiers on the ground who have to interact with Iraqis. The very things that we claim to believe in, our actions suggest that we don't really believe in those things.

HENDREN: Defense officials say privately that one consulting firm that helped the Pentagon place stories is the Lincoln Group of Washington, DC. A spokeswoman there declined to comment. John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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