The last time the Pentagon floated the idea of launching a major media campaign to promote its views in the Middle East, the project was killed after criticism that it was a "disinformation campaign."
And the last time the Pentagon hired San Diego's Science Applications International Corp. to handle a media project involving Iraq, SAIC drew widespread criticism for its handling of Iraq's first TV and radio network after Saddam Hussein. As soon as its one-year contract was up, the Pentagon awarded the work to another company.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon's Special Operations Command last week launched a five-year, $300 million media campaign to promote its message overseas – notably in "higher-threat areas such as Iraq and Lebanon" – to be coordinated by the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element.
And SAIC was one of the companies picked to lead the campaign. It will work with an arm of L-3 Communications and a small Washington, D.C., public relations firm focusing on Iraq.
Under the contract, the three companies will "conduct media campaigns to garner support for U.S. government policies and objectives in foreign countries among foreign audiences." The campaign will include radio broadcasts, video programs, news articles, printed material and even novelty items such as T-shirts, balls and bumper stickers.
SAIC; the Lincoln Group, a small public relations agency in Washington, D.C., focusing on Iraq; and SY Coleman, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications, each will receive at least $250,000 per year, with a maximum of $100 million each by the time the project ends in 2010.
A similar media project, known as the Office of Strategic Influence, ended in 2002 after major newspapers reported that it was contemplating "information warfare" in friendly as well as unfriendly countries, including the planting of false information.
"Any comparison or linkage between OSI and (the current project) is inaccurate," said Special Operations spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Steve Mavica. "All messages disseminated (under the current project) will be based in truth. Experience has proven that products based in lies and falsehood cause problems in the end, while products based in fact and truth provide the greatest benefits."
But military-propaganda experts say the Pentagon will have an uphill battle promoting its message in the Middle East.
"Propaganda is seen as a necessary and very important part of winning the war on terrorism. But in today's marketplace of ideas, it's getting increasingly difficult to use propaganda against a so-called enemy," said Nancy Snow, a propaganda expert at California State University Fullerton.
Snow said the chief hurdle is that governments "can't control the message or the media in a global environment these days. People are skeptical of what they hear or read, especially since there are so many sources of information."
For SAIC, the contract comes three years after the company was given an $83 million contract to form an Iraqi television network after the fall of Hussein's regime.
The network – the only TV network allowed under the provisional government of L. Paul Bremer – was widely criticized at the time as offering unvarnished propaganda in favor of Bremer's policies. Some of the network's top journalists quit after their stories were censored. And many Iraqis refused to watch the station, turning to satellite broadcasts from outside the country such as Al-Jazeera to get their news.
The Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General also criticized the handling of the network. The inspector general questioned why Bremer's administration hand-picked SAIC, which had no experience in news operations, in a process that did not allow for more experienced companies to bid for the project.
The network's lack of experienced reporters was especially noticeable when it failed to air reports on the capture of Saddam Hussein for nearly 24 hours after it was reported in other media.
Under criticism, SAIC declined to rebid on the contract, which was rewritten to stress that the network should provide "accurate, fair and balanced news and public affairs to the Iraqi people." In January 2004, the contract went to Harris Corp., a Florida military contractor specializing in communications systems.
But Mavica said SAIC was "evaluated as acceptable" for the current project, adding that "this contract is also different in that we are not expecting the companies to run a TV network."
SAIC spokesman Jared Adams said the company's work would primarily be in media analysis, reviewing how well the military was getting its message across. SAIC has been handling media analysis for the military for years, Adams said.
But Adams added that the company was not ruling out being involved in producing media products under the contract.
"We're a lot more than a systems integrator," Adams said. "We have the capability to do creative work."
Adams noted that the company's Strategic Business Unit – which handles most of its creative output – had produced such products as the Army Systems Weapons Handbook.
The Lincoln Group has handled media campaigns in Iraq before.
Shortly after its founding, the company – which boasts that it "enjoys select relationships in Congress, the Administration . . . and the U.S. Department of State" – won an $18 million, three-year contract to handle all public relations efforts for Bremer's coalition government, which was disbanded last June to make way for an elected government.
Spokeswoman Andrea Toth declined to answer questions about the company's work. But the company's Web site says it created a cartoon show, using "dramatic recreations of terrorist attacks and a simple, personal narrative to bring home the threat to society." It also developed "a truthful and compelling visual story" to promote the security forces.
Jerry Bates, head of SY Coleman, said his company typically handles support services for the Army, especially for the space and missile defense command.
"But we also do a lot of strategic communications," he said. Among other things, SY Coleman is created and manages the army.mil Internet site.
Herbert Friedman, a former psychological operations officer for the Army who is now a guest lecturer at the University of Long Island, said the communications project could provide a valuable service in Iraq if it persuades people to turn against the insurgency.
"Propaganda has little effect on a suicide bomber who has been taught for years and years that they're going to heaven if they kill their enemies," he said. "But your job as a legitimate government is to work on the people and convince them to help the terrorists get caught. Every leaflet (the Army prints) in Iraq now has a phone number or Web address on it, telling people to turn in the terrorists. And the Iraqis are slowly starting to call in."
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