IRAQ: U.S. Urged to Stop Paying Iraqi Reporters

A Defense Department investigation of Pentagon-financed propaganda efforts in Iraq warns that paying Iraqi journalists to produce positive stories could damage American credibility and calls for an end to military payments to a group of Iraqi journalists in Baghdad, according to a summary of the investigation.

The review, by Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, was ordered after the disclosure last November that the military had paid the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based Pentagon contractor, to plant articles written by American soldiers in Iraqi publications, without disclosing the source of the articles. The contractor's work also included paying Iraqi journalists for favorable treatment.

Though the document does not mention the Lincoln Group, Admiral Van Buskirk concluded that the military should scrutinize contractors involved in the propaganda effort more closely "to ensure proper oversight is in place." He also faulted the military for failing to examine whether paying for placement for articles would "undermine the concept of a free press," in Iraq, according to the summary.

It was not clear on Tuesday whether the report would have any immediate effect on the military's actions in Iraq. In interviews this week, several Pentagon officials said the Lincoln Group and other contractors were still involved in placing propaganda messages in Iraqi publications and on television. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a senior military spokesman in Iraq, said Tuesday that he could not comment on the report. William Dixon, a spokesman for the Lincoln Group, also declined to comment on Tuesday.

Pentagon officials have said that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering ordering a further policy review to clarify existing policy and rules on military communications and information operations.

Over all, the report concludes that American commanders in Iraq did not violate military regulations when they undertook a multipronged propaganda campaign beginning in 2004 aimed at increasing support for the fledgling Iraqi government, the three-page summary says. That conclusion has been previously reported, but the portions of the report that raise questions about the effort or that are critical have not been previously disclosed.

The most critical portion of the report concerns the military's creation in 2004 of an entity called the Baghdad Press Club, in which Iraqi journalists were paid if they covered and produced stories about American reconstruction efforts, such as openings of schools and sewage plants.

The military's "direct oversight of an apparently independent news organization and remuneration for articles that are published will undoubtedly raise questions focused on 'truth and credibility,' that will be difficult to deflect, regardless of the intensions and purpose of the remuneration," the report says.

Disclosures last November that the Lincoln Group had received tens of millions of dollars from the Pentagon to place news articles and produce television advertisements prompted an outcry in Washington, where members of Congress said the practice undermined American credibility, and military and White House officials disavowed knowledge of it. President Bush was described by Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, as "very troubled" about the matter.

But since then, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, appointed Admiral Van Buskirk to look into the practice. He has also made clear in public statements that he favored aggressive use of Iraq's media to influence public opinion there, and that he would continue unless told by more senior officials to stop. Paying for publication of positive stories is a delicate issue among some Pentagon officials, especially the military's public affairs officers, who worry that their efforts to supply the public with facts will be tainted by the military's practice of paying to place stories.

But defenders of the practice say that in a environment like Iraq, that is the only way to get information out to Iraqis who would dismiss statements from American military sources.

Several senior Pentagon officials complained that General Casey's staff in Iraq delayed public disclosure of the findings for months. While Admiral Van Buskirk found the practice of hiding the American military's responsibility for the articles "appropriate," he also recommended new guidelines for propaganda operations that would "determine when attribution may be appropriate."

Officers involved in the propaganda effort were often confused about the boundaries between public affairs work, which is supposed to be strictly factual, and what the military calls "information operations," which can employ practices like deception and the paying of journalists to defeat an enemy, the review found.

The report is not the only recent one to criticize the military's propaganda operation in Iraq. An unreleased study for the Pentagon completed in February by the RAND Corporation, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif., says such operations have been conducted "in fits and starts without a sustained, coherent process."

The study adds, "The key to the suppression of the insurgency and a successful transition to Iraqi governance is changing the mindset of ordinary Iraqis to include 'paid-for-hire' insurgents and potential foreign recruits through a much more aggressive" information operations campaign.

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