The Pentagon's chief investigator is looking into the military's practice of paying journalists to write articles and commentary for a Web site aimed at influencing public opinion in the Balkans, officials said yesterday.
At the request of Lawrence T. Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon's inspector general, Joseph Schmitz, is reviewing that case and also looking more broadly at Pentagon activities that might involve inappropriate payments to journalists.
Di Rita said he has no reason to believe there have been any inappropriate activities but wants a comprehensive review to "help ensure our processes are sufficiently sensitive to this matter." He stressed that the Web projects are done in close coordination with the State Department.
The Balkans Web site, called Southeast European Times, and a second aimed at audiences in North Africa have no immediately obvious connection to the U.S. government but contain a linked disclaimer that says they are "sponsored by the U.S. European Command." That is the organization based in Germany responsible for U.S. military activities in Europe and parts of Africa.
The second site, called Magharebia and aimed at the Maghreb region that encompasses Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, is still in development and has not reached the stage of having paid correspondents, said Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Kaufman, a European Command spokesman.
Both sites carry articles compiled from the Associated Press, Reuters and other news organizations. The Pentagon's role in these Web sites was first reported by CNN on Thursday.
The Balkans Web site also has articles and commentary by about 50 journalists who Kaufman said are paid by European Command through a private contractor, Anteon Corp., an information technology company based in Fairfax.
The Web sites are examples of what the military calls "information operations," or programs designed to influence public opinion by countering what the Pentagon considers to be misinformation or lies that circulate in the international news media. The Pentagon's use of the Web sites has raised questions about blurring lines between news and what some would call government propaganda.
The Balkans site grew out of the U.S. air war against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, Kaufman said. It sought to counter what U.S. officials considered a Serb propaganda machine that made effective use of the Internet.
Kaufman said information warfare experts at European Command do not edit the articles written by contributing journalists for Southeast European Times, but they review the articles after they are processed by Anteon editors, and they sometimes change the headlines. About 50 paid correspondents contribute to Southeast European Times, including one American journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Kaufman said.
In a letter requesting a review by the Pentagon inspector general, Di Rita alluded to revelations about commentator Armstrong Williams, who was hired by the Education Department through a public relations firm, to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Two other cases of columnists being paid to promote administration policies have come to light, and Bush said Jan. 26 the practice must stop.
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