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Middle East: Military Contractor's Media Mess

by Katrin Dauenhauer and Jim LobeInter Press Service
August 16th, 2003

WASHINGTON - It is no secret that US defense and construction companies - particularly those with close ties to the administration of President George W Bush - are making a lot of money in the post-war rush for contracts in Iraq.

Firms whose directors held membership in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB) or in the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq" (CLI) did not appear to suffer any handicap, either.

Two big winners, of course, were Halliburton, whose last CEO was Vice President Dick Cheney, and engineering giant Bechtel, whose senior vice president, Jack Sheehan, serves on the DPB. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a Bechtel board member and former top executive, also chaired CLI, a supposedly non-governmental body that helped lead the march to war and dissolved itself late last month.

Less well known is San Diego-based Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC), one of the Pentagon's largest, most lucrative and politically connected contractors. Of the six billion dollars it earned in revenue last year, about two thirds came from the US Treasury, mostly from the defense budget.

SAIC is among the most mysterious and feared of the big 10 defense giants - feared because of its ruthlessness in procuring contracts, says the Washington Post; mysterious, in part because, as an employee-owned company, it does not have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and because its press officers are notorious for not providing information. Indeed, for this article, SAIC press officers referred all questions to the Pentagon's general press office.

SAIC, which specializes in advanced technologies that can be applied to the battlefield, particularly in command and control systems, is now deeply involved in the Pentagon's most important operations in Iraq.

That it should be is really no surprise, taking into account its various connections. Among the hawks on the DPB, Rumsfeld's mini-think tank, for example, is retired Admiral William Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also served as SAIC's president and CEO and is currently its vice chairman.

Another member of SAIC's board is retired Army General Wayne Downing, who until last summer served as the chief counter-terrorism expert on the National Security Council (NSC) staff.

Before that, Downing also served as a lobbyist for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi expatriate long championed by the neo-conservatives in the administration and the DPB. Like Shultz, Downing was also on the board of the CLI, which, not coincidentally, worked closely with the INC.

Another prominent SAIC executive and former vice president also has a long-standing connection with Iraq: David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector who was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in June to head the effort to track down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

A former senior science official in the Reagan administration, Kay argued forcefully last fall against relying on UN weapons inspections to "contain" Iraq and for removing Saddam Hussein from power.

These connections may account for some of SAIC's success in landing Iraqi-related contracts.

For example, it has been running the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council (IRDC) since the body was established by the Pentagon in February.

According to press accounts, the 150 mostly-expatriate Iraqis employed in the program, most of whom have been in Baghdad since May, are to serve as the "Iraqi face" of the occupation authority. Senior members of the IRDC, many of who have been closely associated with the INC, hold posts at each of Iraq's 23 ministries with a mandate to rebuild them.

Perhaps not coincidentally, SAIC's corporate vice president for strategic assessment and development, Christopher Ryan Henry, joined the Pentagon as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy at the same time as the IRDC got underway, serving with Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who was in overall charge of preparing for post-war Iraq.

SAIC is also a subcontractor under Vinnell Corporation, another big defense contractor that has long been in charge of training for the Saudi National Guard, hired to reconstitute and train a new Iraqi army.

Not much is known about the progress that is being made in either of those projects, but a third has become, by all accounts, a major disaster.

The Iraqi (sometimes referred to as "Indigenous") Media Network (IMN) project, valued initially at a minimum of US$25 million, was formally launched in mid-April as a successor to a psychological warfare program that beamed radio broadcasts before and during the war into Iraq from a C130 cargo plane called "Commando Solo". But the IMN was considerably more ambitious in scope, since its aim, as an outgrowth of the IRDC operation, was to put together a new information ministry, complete with television, radio and a newspaper, and the content that would make all three attractive to average Iraqis.

To oversee the job, SAIC hired away the director of Voice of America (VOA), Robert Reilly, an outspoken right-wing ideologue who began his public career in the 1980s as a propagandist in the White House for the Nicaraguan contras.

Reilly tangled immediately with his deputy, Mike Furlong, a Pentagon contractor who worked on media issues in Kosovo. Both men were out of the project by the end of June, according to knowledgeable sources.

"SAIC didn't have any suitable qualification to run a media network," according to Rohan Jayasekera, who has kept an eye on media developments in Iraq for London-based Index on Censorship. "The whole thing was so incredibly badly planned by them that no one could make sense of what they were doing," he said.

Jayasekera noted, for example, that SAIC ordered equipment that was incompatible with existing systems in Iraq and that it had made no plans for TV programming. When it asked for help from VOA, which considers itself a professional news organization, it was forced to rely on hastily patched together and dubbed network news programs, much of which would appeal only to a domestic audience.

"Increasingly, the newscasts became irrelevant for Iraqis," one source told The Washington Post in May. "They're not really interested in the Laci Peterson [murder] case."

A page reserved for the project on the website of the US provisional authority in Iraq said Wednesday, "There is no information available at this time."

Three months into the project, Ahmad Rikabi, a highly-regarded Iraqi expatriate brought in to help manage the operation, abruptly quit, apparently frustrated at the lack of planning, resources and investment that SAIC put in the project and the hemorrhaging of his professional staff, some of whom had not been paid for weeks.

"Saddam Hussein is doing better at marketing himself, through al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya Gulf channels," Rikabi told reporters.

One of the project's principal trainers, Don North, who had worked with media in Afghanistan, has also quit, complaining to the New York Times that the Pentagon was not interested in professional journalism.

"Its role was envisioned to be an information conduit," he said, "and not just rubberstamp flacking for the CPA", the initials of the occupation authority run by L Paul Bremer.

The Pentagon itself has kept the project stumbling along on short-term contracts with SAIC, but, according to Jayasekera, is actively looking for an alternative. The fact that that SAIC was hired in the first place, however, "appears to have been a serious mistake".

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