A former British military intelligence officer and an expert in psychological warfare has emerged as a crucial strategist in the Pentagon's covert operation to pay Iraqi newspapers and journalists for publishing "good news" stories about the coalition's reconstruction efforts.
Andrew Garfield, whose work in the Intelligence Corps from 1979 to 1990 included postings in Northern Ireland, has the title of senior director of insight and influence at the Washington-based Lincoln Group. The company is only two years old and run by a 30-year-old Oxford graduate with no experience of military public relations, yet it received an "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity" contract worth up to $100m (£56m).
It was awarded by the Pentagon's joint psychological operations support element in Tampa, Florida, apparently without the White House's knowledge. An investigation into the project, in which about 1,000 articles were placed in Iraqi newspapers, was launched after revelations in last month's Los Angeles Times. George Bush said he was "very troubled" by the claims.
Mr Garfield told the Guardian he was contractually unable to comment on the company's work for the Pentagon. But in an exchange of emails with the Guardian, he said: "I have long been an advocate of the use of hearts and minds campaigns ... in support of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. In part my advocacy for this vital activity has been informed by my ... experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland ... I am currently offering my experience and expertise, such as it is, to Lincoln Group."
Mr Garfield, in his mid-40s, has been an articulate commentator on the need for the US to develop a more sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq.
A Lincoln spokeswoman said: "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq. Our clients, our employees and the Iraqis who support this effort have maintained a commitment to battle terror with a powerful weapon - the truth."
US military officials in Iraq have admitted offering articles for publication to Iraqi newspapers, saying that "in some cases articles have been accepted and published as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space". Referring to the Lincoln Group it went on: "Third parties have been employed in an effort to mitigate the risk to publishers."
In one example, al-Mutamar newspaper, run by associates of the deputy prime minister, Ahmad Chalabi, ran a paid story entitled, "Iraqis insist on living despite terrorism". The independent Addustour paper carried a piece in August with the headline, "More money goes to Iraq's development". Records obtained by the Times show this was placed with a payment of $1,500.
Critics of the programme are concerned about the one-sided nature of the planted stories and the fact that their US military authors are disguised. Senator John Warner of Virginia, who heads the Senate armed services committee, said he remained "gravely concerned" after receiving a briefing at the Pentagon.
Questions have also been asked about how such a lucrative contract was landed by Lincoln's senior executive, Christian Bailey, who left Oxford University in 1995 with a degree in economics and management. Mr Bailey told the Sunday Times: "We have handled ourselves very appropriately. The confidence and trust of our clients is much more important to us than the temporary press flap."