Military's Information War Is
Vast and Often Secretive
by Jeff Gerth
New York Times, December 11, 2005
The media center in Fayetteville, N.C.,
would be the envy of any global communications company.
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, dirty tricksters."
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 is investigating.
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
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 said.
"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.
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 military
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."
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
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
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 President Dick Cheney.
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 Hussein.
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 in Qatar.
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
It is something of a mystery how Lincoln
came to land more than $25 million in Pentagon contracts in a
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
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
"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 said.
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
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 American military.
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
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."