A $300 million Pentagon psychological warfare operation includes plans for placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the U.S. government as the source, one of the military officials in charge of the program says.
Run by psychological warfare experts at the U.S. Special Operations Command, the media campaign is being designed to counter terrorist ideology and sway foreign audiences to support American policies. The military wants to fight the information war against al-Qaeda through newspapers, websites, radio, television and “novelty items” such as T-shirts and bumper stickers.
The program will operate throughout the world, including in allied nations and in countries where the United States is not involved in armed conflict.
The description of the program by Mike Furlong, deputy director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, provides the most detailed look to date at the Pentagon's global campaign.
The three companies handling the campaign include the Lincoln Group, the company being investigated by the Pentagon for paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. stories.
Military officials involved with the campaign say they're not planning to place false stories in foreign news outlets clandestinely. But the military won't always reveal its role in distributing pro-American messages, Furlong says.
“While the product may not carry the label, ‘Made in the USA,' we will respond truthfully if asked” by journalists, Furlong told USA TODAY in a videoconference interview.
He declined to give examples of specific “products,” which he said would include articles, advertisements and public-service announcements.
The military's communications work in Iraq has recently drawn controversy with disclosures that Lincoln Group and the U.S. military secretly paid journalists and news outlets to run pro-American stories.
White House officials have expressed concern about the practice, even when the stories are true.
National security adviser Stephen Hadley said President Bush was “very troubled” by activities in Iraq and would stop them if they hurt efforts to build independent news media in Iraq. The military started its own probe.
It's legal for the government to plant propaganda in other countries but not in the USA. The White House referred requests for comment about the contracts to the Pentagon, where officials did not respond.
Special Operations Command awarded three contracts worth up to $100 million each for the media campaign in June. Besides the Lincoln Group, the contractors are Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego and SYColeman of Washington.
SAIC and Lincoln Group spokesmen declined to comment on the contract. Rick Kiernan, a spokesman for SYColeman, says its work for Special Operations Command is “more in the world of advertising.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has emphasized that Washington must promote its message better. “The worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world,” he said last week.
The Iraq example may cause Arabs to doubt any pro-American messages, says Jumana al-Tamimi, an editor for the Gulf News, an English-language newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates.
Placing pro-U.S. content in foreign media “makes people suspicious of the open press,” says Ken Bacon, a Clinton administration Pentagon spokesman who heads the non-profit group Refugees International.
No contractor for the global program has made a final product, Furlong says. Approval will come from Rumsfeld's office and regional commanders. Some of the development work is classified.
“Sometimes it's not good to signal … what your plans are,” he says.