The Pentagon's "Media Engagement Team" has set up shop in
the region. Its members, consisting of military personnel and contractors approach
various publications and ask for an appointment, whereby owners and editors
are urged to publish "positive" stories concerning the US military's
activities in the area.
On some occasions, the team receives a polite hearing. On others, it is shown
the door. I find this Orwellian behaviour offensive on many different levels.
I'll explain why.
The Media Engagement Team says proudly that their area of operations takes
in 27 countries. What's the betting Britain isn't one of them? Imagine their
turning up at the Guardian, for instance, which is less than flattering about
the Pentagon's role in Iraq.
Would it have the effrontery to ask the Guardian's editor to "correct"
some of his publication's stories? We know the answer. That would elicit a major
scandal. So, why on earth, does the Pentagon feel it has the right to taint
the integrity of regional publications?
Moreover, while the Pentagon is doing its best to disseminate "good news"
stories throughout the Middle East, its reputation at home leaves a lot to be
On November 12, the New York Times published an exposé of the Pentagon's
Media Centre at Fort Bragg. "The 1,200-strong psychological operations
unit based at Fort Bragg turns out what its officers call "truthful messages"
to support the US government's objectives, though its commander acknowledges
that those stories are one-sided and their American sponsorship is hidden."
The article reminds us that as far back as 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 organisations.'" The story was denied at the time and the
office swiftly closed down.
The Los Angeles Times reported on November 30 that "the US military is
secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops
in an effort to burnish the image of the US mission in Iraq.
The articles, written by US military 'information operations' troops, are translated
into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers with the help of a defence contractor.
Paid to Append
"The stories trumpet the work of US and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents,
and tout US-led efforts to rebuild the country." In some cases, Iraqi journalists
had been paid to append their bylines to articles penned by Pentagon scribes.
When US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was asked about Bush's view
on this tampering, he said his boss was "very troubled" and promised
to put a stop to it should it conflict with efforts to build an independent
Iraqi news media.
Two weeks later, on December 13, NBC News disclosed the contents of a secret
400-page Defence Department document that proved that the Pentagon had been
covertly monitoring peaceful antiwar groups, including a small group of Quaker
activists. "I think Americans should be concerned that the military, in
fact, has reached too far," said Bill Arkin, an NBC News military analyst.
Then, on January 6, veteran White House press corps journalist Helen Thomas
writes this in the Seattle Intelligencer. "The Pentagon has found another
way to deal with the Iraqi resistance. Don't shoot them. Pay them."
Thomas then goes on to report that the Pentagon "is paying Sunni religious
scholars to influence their followers in Iraq" via "the Lincoln Group,
the Washington PR firm used by the Pentagon to disperse cash to the Iraqi press
in return for publishing 'news' and columns written by US military personnel."
Note that the above accounts did not appear on obscure left-wing, antiwar websites
but rather in US mainstream media outlets. In this case, we must surely wonder
what the Pentagon's thought police are doing wasting their time in the 27 countries
that are unfortunate enough to fall within their ambit, when they would surely
be better served knocking on the doors of the New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, NBC and the Seattle Intelligencer to ask them to put a sock in it.
One must further wonder how members of the Pentagon's Media Engagement Team
manage to keep a straight face when persuading regional editors that Iraq is
shortly to become a bastion of democracy in the region, the envy of all.
On one day last week, 130 lost their lives at the hands of the Resistance's
bombs, including several US soldiers.
Iraqis still do not enjoy pre-invasion essential services and have to queue
up for petrol, while the government has admitted that reconstruction has been
put on hold due to the security situation. Indeed, the US president has said
he will not ask Congress for further reconstruction monies.
According to a recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll, 55 per cent of Americans
believe the US should never have gone to war with Iraq in the first place.
Another, conducted by the Military Times, indicates that support for the US
president's leadership as commander-in-chief and support for the Iraq war among
the military dropped by 9 percent last year. Only 54 per cent of the publication's
readers now view the performance of their commander-in-chief as positive.
The Pentagon, which cannot meet its enlistment quotas, has much to do to change
public perceptions, enhance its credibility and regain respect, but I would
respectfully suggest that its own yard needs clearing before it embarks on winning
hearts and minds in foreign climes.
In the meantime, the UAE media would be well advised to speak with one voice
when contacted by the Pentagon's Media Engagement Team. "On your tank!"
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle
East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.