Pentagon Examines Media Program in Iraq

The Pentagon is investigating the military's secret practice of planting friendly news stories in the Iraqi media. Many military scholars, journalism watchdogs and Pentagon officials agree that the program is unique in the history of propaganda.

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The Pentagon is investigating itself over the military secret practice of planting friendly news stories in the Iraqi media. Many military scholars, journalism watchdogs and Pentagon officials agree that the program is unique in the history of propaganda. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren has the story.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Self-promotion has played a role in military campaigns since Niccolo Machiavelli coached rulers in the 16th century. He wrote: Military propaganda carried out by the ruler's people should exult and glorify him, taking away the people's attention from his real actions. But military observers say this campaign is unprecedented. Professor Gary Solis teaches the law of war at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Professor GARY SOLIS (US Military Academy, West Point): I'm unaware of any previous effort by the US military to plant newspaper stories in newspapers in nations where we were currently engaged in armed conflict.

HENDREN: Intelligence agencies used journalists as agents in World War II. During the Cold War, the United States funded pro-Western magazines, and the US has always used publicly identified propaganda, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. But Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University, says those campaigns were different.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Boston University): The idea was to provide the resources whereby people that shared our values could have the opportunity to voice those values, and yet to do it in a way in which they maintained at least some level of genuine independence from the United States government.

HENDREN: In Iraq, military troops write the stories and hand them over to a Washington, DC, defense contractor called the Lincoln Group. The company hires Iraqi journalists to pay local newspapers and television programs to run their stories. The Lincoln Group issued a statement saying it has, quote, "consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq." Charles Krohn is a former senior Army spokesman. He doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

Mr. CHARLES KROHN (Former Senior Army Spokesman): I don't think there's really any need for secrecy, but I think it's pretty well understood that it's the custom in that country to pay journalists and to pay newspapers. And certainly, I think the record that Saddam has done this and others do it is pretty well established. So I don't think we're doing anything extraordinary in the sense of the local custom. As far as I know, there's no lying going on.

HENDREN: We do know the stories are filled with hyperbole and pro-US rhetoric. One story written by the military and obtained by NPR is dated November 22nd. It says military leaders are succeeding in stopping terrorists. It continues, quote, "They have proven this as quiet slowly begins to again settle on the streets of western Iraq," end quote. But with daily insurgent attacks in a region the US has long struggled to control, few Iraqis would call the region quiet. The stories call insurgents cowards and the writers describe their cause as bizarre and twisted. One story says, quote, "The true enemies of God are al-Qaeda themselves."

Defense analysts and even military public affairs officials seem largely united in criticizing this secret propaganda campaign. Among them is retired Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli. The former head of Navy at Public Affairs is now head of the non-profit Navy League. He says the program was destined to backfire.

Rear Admiral STEPHEN PIETROPAOLI (Retired, Navy Public Affairs): When people find out that what they've been peddled isn't what they thought it was, they tend to take a dim view of every other thing that that government says.

HENDREN: General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, says the investigation will be done in a week. But the once-secret propaganda campaign continues, he says, because preliminary results found that the military was operating within its authority. John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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