Bundles of newspapers await readers at a Baghdad newsstand. Iraqi readers expressed surprise some articles were written in the United States.(Joao Silva for The New York Times)
The media center in Fayetteville, N.C., would be the envy of any global
In state of the art studios, producers prepare the daily mix of music
and news for the group's radio stations or spots for friendly television outlets.
Writers putting out newspapers and magazines in Baghdad and Kabul converse via
teleconferences. Mobile trailers with high-tech gear are parked outside, ready
for the next crisis.
The center is not part of a news organization, but a military operation,
and those writers and producers are soldiers. The 1,200-strong psychological
operations unit based at Fort Bragg turns out what its officers call "truthful
messages" to support the United States government's objectives, though
its commander acknowledges that those stories are one-sided and their American
sponsorship is hidden.
"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," said
Col. Jack N. Summe, then the commander of the Fourth Psychological Operations
Group, during a tour in June. Even in the Pentagon, "some public affairs
professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he said, as "lying,
The recent disclosures that a Pentagon contractor in Iraq paid newspapers to
print "good news" articles written by American soldiers prompted an
outcry in Washington, where members of Congress said the practice undermined
American credibility and top military and White House officials disavowed any
knowledge of it. President Bush was described by Stephen J. Hadley, his national
security adviser, as "very troubled" about the matter. The Pentagon
But the work of the contractor, the Lincoln Group, was not a rogue operation.
Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Bush administration
has been conducting an information war that is extensive, costly and often hidden,
according to documents and interviews with contractors, government officials
and military personnel.
The campaign was begun by the White House, which set up a secret panel soon
after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information operations by the Pentagon,
other government agencies and private contractors.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of most of the activities, the military
operates radio stations and newspapers, but does not disclose their American
ties. Those outlets produce news material that is at times attributed to the
"International Information Center," an untraceable organization.
Lincoln says it planted more than 1,000 articles in the Iraqi and Arab press
and placed editorials on an Iraqi Web site, Pentagon documents show. For an
expanded stealth persuasion effort into neighboring countries, Lincoln presented
plans, since rejected, for an underground newspaper, television news shows and
an anti-terrorist comedy based on "The Three Stooges."
Like the Lincoln Group, Army psychological operations units sometimes pay to
deliver their message, offering television stations money to run unattributed
segments or contracting with writers of newspaper opinion pieces, military officials
"We don't want somebody to look at the product and see the U.S. government
and tune out," said Col. James Treadwell, who ran psychological operations
support at the Special Operations Command in Tampa.
A group of Aghans listened to iPod-like devices, made by Zvox. They were paid for by the United States and contain civic messages consistent with American interests.(Zvox International)
The United States Agency for International Development also masks its role
at times. AID finances about 30 radio stations in Afghanistan, but keeps that
from listeners. The agency has distributed tens of thousands of iPod-like audio
devices in Iraq and Afghanistan that play prepackaged civic messages, but it
does so through a contractor that promises "there is no U.S. footprint."
As the Bush administration tries to build democracies overseas and support
a free press, getting out its message is critical. But that is enormously difficult,
given widespread hostility in the Muslim world over the war in Iraq, deep suspicion
of American ambitions and the influence of antagonistic voices. The American
message makers who are wary of identifying their role can cite findings by the
Pentagon, pollsters and others underscoring the United States' fundamental problems
of credibility abroad.
Defenders of influence campaigns argue that they are appropriate. "Psychological
operations are an essential part of warfare, more so in the electronic age than
ever," said Lt. Col. Charles A. Krohn, a retired Army spokesman and journalism
professor. "If you're going to invade a country and eject its government
and occupy its territory, you ought to tell people who live there why you've
done it. That requires a well-thought-out communications program."
But covert information battles may backfire, others warn, or prove ineffective.
The news that the American military was buying influence was met mostly with
shrugs in Baghdad, where readers tend to be skeptical about the media. An Iraqi
daily newspaper, Azzaman, complained in an editorial that the propaganda campaign
was an American effort "to humiliate the independent national press."
Many Iraqis say that no amount of money spent on trying to mold public opinion
is likely to have much impact, given the harsh conditions under the American
While the United States does not ban the distribution of government propaganda
overseas, as it does domestically, the Government Accountability Office said
in a recent report that lack of attribution could undermine the credibility
of news videos. In finding that video news releases by the Bush administration
that appeared on American television were improper, the G.A.O. said that such
articles "are no longer purely factual" because "the essential
fact of attribution is missing."
In an article titled "War of the Words," Defense Secretary Donald
H. Rumsfeld wrote about the importance of disclosure in America's communications
in The Wall Street Journal in July. "The American system of openness works,"
he wrote. The United States must find "new and better ways to communicate
America's mission abroad," including "a healthy culture of communication
and transparency between government and public."
Afghan readers have a selection of newspapers from Peace that are produced by the American military and are affiliated with a radio station.(Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Trying to Make a Case
After the Sept. 11 attacks forced many Americans to recognize the nation's precarious
standing in the Arab world, the Bush administration decided to act to improve
the country's image and promote its values.
"We've got to do a better job of making our case," President Bush
told reporters after the attacks.
Much of the government's information machinery, including the United States
Information Agency and some C.I.A. programs, was dismantled after the cold war.
In that struggle with the Soviet Union, the information warriors benefited from
the perception that the United States was backing victims of tyrannical rule.
Many Muslims today view Washington as too close to what they characterize as
authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.
The White House turned to John Rendon, who runs a Washington communications
company, to help influence foreign audiences. Before the war in Afghanistan,
he helped set up centers in Washington, London and Pakistan so the American
government could respond rapidly in the foreign media to Taliban claims. "We
were clueless," said Mary Matalin, then the communications aide to Vice
Mr. Rendon's business, the Rendon Group, had a history of government work in
trouble spots, In the 1990's, the C.I.A. hired him to secretly help the nascent
Iraqi National Congress wage a public relations campaign against Saddam
While advising the White House, Mr. Rendon also signed on with the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, under a $27.6 million contract, to conduct focus groups around the
world and media analysis of outlets like Al Jazeera, the satellite network based
About the same time, the White House recruited Jeffrey B. Jones, a former Army
colonel who ran the Fort Bragg psychological operations group, to coordinate
the new information war. He led a secret committee, the existence of which has
not been previously reported, that dealt with everything from public diplomacy,
which includes education, aid and exchange programs, to covert information operations.
The group even examined the president's words. Concerned about alienating Muslims
overseas, panel members said, they tried unsuccessfully to stop Mr. Bush from
ending speeches with the refrain "God bless America."
The panel, later named the Counter Terrorism Information Strategy Policy Coordinating
Committee, included members from the State Department, the Pentagon and the
intelligence agencies. Mr. Rendon advised a subgroup on counterpropaganda issues.
Mr. Jones's endeavor stalled within months, though, because of furor over a
Pentagon initiative. In February 2002, unnamed officials told The New York Times
that a new Pentagon operation called the Office of Strategic Influence planned
"to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign news organizations."
Though the report was denied and a subsequent Pentagon review found no evidence
of plans to use disinformation, Mr. Rumsfeld shut down the office within days.
The incident weakened Mr. Jones's effort to develop a sweeping strategy to
win over the Muslim world. The White House grew skittish, some agencies dropped
out, and panel members soon were distracted by the war in Iraq, said Mr. Jones,
who left his post this year. The White House did not respond to a request to
discuss the committee's work.
What had begun as an ambitious effort to bolster America's image largely devolved
into a secret propaganda war to counter the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon, which had money to spend and leaders committed to the cause, took
the lead. In late 2002 Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters he gave the press a "corpse"
by closing the Office of Strategic Influence, but he intended to "keep
doing every single thing that needs to be done."
The Pentagon increased spending on its psychological and influence operations
and for the first time outsourced work to contractors. One beneficiary has been
the Rendon Group, which won additional multimillion-dollar Pentagon contracts
for media analysis and a media operations center in Baghdad, including "damage
control planning." The new Lincoln Group was another winner.
It is something of a mystery how Lincoln came to land more than $25 million
in Pentagon contracts in a war zone.
The two men who ran the small business had no background in public relations
or the media, according to associates and a résumé. Before coming
to Washington and setting up Lincoln in 2004, Christian Bailey, born in Britain
and now 30, had worked briefly in California and New York. Paige Craig, now
31, was a former Marine intelligence officer.
When the company was incorporated last year, using the name Iraqex, its stated
purpose was to provide support services for business development, trade and
investment in Iraq. The company's earliest ventures there included providing
security to the military and renovating buildings. Iraqex also started a short-lived
online business publication.
In mid-2004, the company formed a partnership with the Rendon Group and later
won a $5 million Pentagon contract for an advertising and public relations campaign
to "accurately inform the Iraqi people of the Coalition's goals and gain
their support." Soon, the company changed its name to Lincoln Group. It
is not clear how the partnership was formed; Rendon dropped out weeks after
the contract was awarded.
Within a few months, Lincoln shifted to information operations and psychological
operations, two former employees said. The company was awarded three new Pentagon
contracts, worth tens of millions of dollars, they added. A Lincoln spokeswoman
referred a reporter's inquiry about the contracts to Pentagon officials.
The company's work was part of an effort to counter disinformation in the Iraqi
press. With nearly $100 million in United States aid, the Iraqi media has sharply
expanded since the fall of Mr. Hussein. There are about 200 Iraqi-owned newspapers
and 15 to 17 Iraqi-owned television stations. Many, though, are affiliated with
political parties, and are fiercely partisan, with fixed pro- or anti-American
stances, and some publish rumors, half-truths and outright lies.
From quarters at Camp Victory, the American base, the Lincoln Group works to
get out the military's message.
Lincoln's employees work virtually side by side with soldiers. Army officers
supervise Lincoln's work and demand to see details of article placements and
costs, said one of the former employees, speaking on condition of anonymity
because Lincoln's Pentagon contract prohibits workers from discussing their
"Almost nothing we did did not have the command's approval," he said.
The employees would take news dispatches, called storyboards, written by the
troops, translate them into Arabic and distribute them to newspapers. Lincoln
hired former Arab journalists and paid advertising agencies to place the material.
Typically, Lincoln paid newspapers from $40 to $2,000 to run the articles as
news articles or advertisements, documents provided to The New York Times by
a former employee show. More than 1,000 articles appeared in 12 to 15 Iraqi
and Arab newspapers, according to Pentagon documents. The publications did not
disclose that the articles were generated by the military.
A company worker also often visited the Baghdad convention center, where the
Iraqi press corps hung out, to recruit journalists who would write and place
opinion pieces, paying them $400 to $500 as a monthly stipend, the employees
Like the dispatches produced at Fort Bragg, those storyboards were one-sided
and upbeat. Each had a target audience, "Iraq General" or "Shi'ia,"
for example; an underlying theme like "Anti-intimidation" or "Success
and Legitimacy of the ISF;" and a target newspaper.
Articles written by the soldiers at Camp Victory often assumed the voice of
Iraqis. "We, all Iraqis, are the government. It is our country," noted
one article. Another said, "The time has come for the ordinary Iraqi, you,
me, our neighbors, family and friends to come together."
While some were plodding accounts filled with military jargon and bureaucratese,
others favored the language of tabloids: "blood-thirsty apostates,"
"crawled on their bellies like dogs in the mud," "dim-witted
fanatics," and "terror kingpin."
A former Lincoln employee said the ploy of making the articles appear to be
written by Iraqis by removing any American fingerprints was not very effective.
"Many Iraqis know it's from Americans," he said.
The military has sought to expand its media influence efforts beyond Iraq to
neighboring states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, Pentagon documents
say. Lincoln submitted a plan that was subsequently rejected, a Pentagon spokesman
said. The company proposed placing editorials in magazines, newspapers and Web
sites. In Iraq, the company posted editorials on a Web site, but military commanders
stopped the operation for fear that the site's global accessibility might violate
the federal ban on distributing propaganda to American audiences, according
to Pentagon documents and a former Lincoln employee.
In its rejected plan, the company looked to American popular culture for ways
to influence new audiences. Lincoln proposed variations of the satirical paper
"The Onion," and an underground paper to be called "The Voice,"
documents show. And it planned comedies modeled after "Cheers" and
the Three Stooges, with the trio as bumbling wannabe terrorists.
The Afghan Front
The Pentagon's media effort in Afghanistan began soon after the ouster of the
Taliban. In what had been a barren media environment, 350 magazines and newspapers
and 68 television and radio stations now operate. Most are independent; the
rest are run by the government. The United States has provided money to support
the media, as well as training for journalists and government spokesmen.
But much of the American role remains hidden from local readers and audiences.
The Pentagon, for example, took over the Taliban's radio station, renamed it
Peace radio and began powerful shortwave broadcasts in local dialects, defense
officials said. Its programs include music as well as 9 daily news scripts and
16 daily public service messages, according to Col. James Yonts, a United States
military spokesman in Afghanistan. Its news accounts, which sometimes are attributed
to the International Information Center, often put a positive spin on events
or serve government needs.
The United States Army publishes a sister paper in Afghanistan, also called
Peace. An examination of issues from last spring found no bad news.
"We have no requirements to adhere to journalistic principles of objectivity,"
Colonel Summe, the Army psychological operations specialist, said. "We
tell the U.S. side of the story to approved targeted audiences" using truthful
information. Neither the radio station nor the paper discloses its ties to the
Similarly, AID does not locally disclose that dozens of Afghanistan radio stations
get its support, through grants to a London-based nonprofit group, Internews.
(AID discloses its support in public documents in Washington, most of which
can be found globally on the Internet.)
The AID representative in Afghanistan, in an e-mail message relayed by Peggy
O'Ban, an agency spokeswoman, explained the nondisclosure: "We want to
maintain the perception (if not the reality) that these radio stations are in
fact fully independent."
Recipients are required to adhere to standards. If a news organization produced
"a daily drumbeat of criticism of the American military, it would become
an issue," said James Kunder, an AID assistant administrator. He added
that in combat zones, the issue of disclosure was a balancing act between security
and assuring credibility.
The American role is also not revealed by another recipient of AID grants,
Voice for Humanity, a nonprofit organization in Lexington, Ky. It supplied tens
of thousands of audio devices in Iraq and Afghanistan with messages intended
to encourage people to vote. Rick Ifland, the group's director, said the messages
were part of the "positive developments in democracy, freedom and human
rights in the Middle East."
It is not clear how effective the messages were or what recipients did with
the iPod-like devices, pink for women and silver for men, which could not be
altered to play music or other recordings.
To show off the new media in Afghanistan, AID officials invited Ms. Matalin,
the former Cheney aide and conservative commentator, and the talk show host
Rush Limbaugh to visit in February. Mr. Limbaugh told his listeners that students
at a journalism school asked him "some of the best questions about journalism
and about America that I've ever been asked."
One of the first queries, Mr. Limbaugh said, was "How do you balance justice
and truth and objectivity?"
His reply: report the truth, don't hide any opinions or "interest in the
outcome of events." Tell "people who you are," he said, and "they'll
respect your credibility."
Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak
contributed reporting from Afghanistan for this article.