By JEFF GERTH and SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 – Titled “The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq,” an article written this week for publication in the Iraqi press was scornful of outsiders’ pessimism about the country’s future.
“Western press and frequently those self-styled ‘objective’ observers of Iraq are often critics of how we, the people of Iraq, are proceeding down the path in determining what is best for our nation,” the article began. Quoting the Prophet Muhammad, it pleaded for unity and nonviolence.
But far from being the heartfelt opinion of an Iraqi writer, as its language implied, the article was prepared by the United States military as part of a multimillion-dollar covert campaign to plant paid propaganda in the Iraqi news media and pay friendly Iraqi journalists monthly stipends, military contractors and officials said.
The article was one of several in a storyboard, the military’s term for a list of articles, that was delivered Tuesday to the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations firm paid by the Pentagon, documents from the Pentagon show. The contractor’s job is to translate the articles into Arabic and submit them to Iraqi newspapers or advertising agencies without revealing the Pentagon’s role. Documents show that the intended target of the article on a democratic Iraq was Azzaman, a leading independent newspaper, but it is not known whether it was published there or anywhere else.
Even as the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development pay contractors millions of dollars to help train journalists and promote a professional and independent Iraqi media, the Pentagon is paying millions more to the Lincoln Group for work that appears to violate fundamental principles of Western journalism.
In addition to paying newspapers to print government propaganda, Lincoln has paid about a dozen Iraqi journalists each several hundred dollars a month, a person who had been told of the transactions said. Those journalists were chosen because their past coverage had not been antagonistic to the United States, said the person, who is being granted anonymity because of fears for the safety of those involved. In addition, the military storyboards have in some cases copied verbatim text from copyrighted publications and passed it on to be printed in the Iraqi press without attribution, documents and interviews indicated.
In many cases, the material prepared by the military was given to advertising agencies for placement, and at least some of the material ran with an advertising label. But the American authorship and financing were not revealed.
Military spokesmen in Washington and Baghdad said Wednesday that they had no information on the contract. In an interview from Baghdad on Nov. 18, Lt. Col. Steven A. Boylan, a military spokesman, said the Pentagon’s contract with the Lincoln Group was an attempt to “try to get stories out to publications that normally don’t have access to those kind of stories.” The military’s top commanders, including Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, did not know about the Lincoln Group contract until Wednesday, when it was first described by The Los Angeles Times, said a senior military official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Pentagon officials said General Pace and other top officials were disturbed by the reported details of the propaganda campaign and demanded explanations from senior officers in Iraq, the official said.
When asked about the article Wednesday night on the ABC News program “Nightline,” General Pace said, “I would be concerned about anything that would be detrimental to the proper growth of democracy.”
Others seemed to share the sentiment. “I think it’s absolutely wrong for the government to do this,” said Patrick Butler, vice president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington, which conducts ethics training for journalists from countries without a history of independent news media. “Ethically, it’s indefensible.”
Mr. Butler, who spoke from a conference in Wisconsin with Arab journalists, said the American government paid for many programs that taught foreign journalists not to accept payments from interested parties to write articles and not to print government propaganda disguised as news.
“You show the world you’re not living by the principles you profess to believe in, and you lose all credibility,” he said.
The Government Accountability Office found this year that the Bush administration had violated the law by producing pseudo news reports that were later used on American television stations with no indication that they had been prepared by the government. But no law prohibits the use of such covert propaganda abroad.
The Lincoln contract with the American-led coalition forces in Iraq has rankled some military and civilian officials and contractors. Some of them described the program to The New York Times in recent months and provided examples of the military’s storyboards.
The Lincoln Group, whose principals include some businessmen and former military officials, was hired last year after military officials concluded that the United States was failing to win over Muslim public opinion. In Iraq, the effort is seen by some American military commanders as a crucial step toward defeating the Sunni-led insurgency.
Citing a “fundamental problem of credibility” and foreign opposition to American policies, a Pentagon advisory panel last year called for the government to reinvent and expand its information programs.
“Government alone cannot today communicate effectively and credibly,” said the report by the task force on strategic communication of the Defense Science Board. The group recommended turning more often for help to the private sector, which it said had “a built-in agility, credibility and even deniability.”
The Pentagon’s first public relations contract with Lincoln was awarded in 2004 for about $5 million with the stated purpose of accurately informing the Iraqi people of American goals and gaining their support. But while meant to provide reliable information, the effort was also intended to use deceptive techniques, like payments to sympathetic “temporary spokespersons” who would not necessarily be identified as working for the coalition, according to a contract document and a military official.
In addition, the document called for the development of “alternate or diverting messages which divert media and public attention” to “deal instantly with the bad news of the day.”
Laurie Adler, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln Group, said the terms of the contract did not permit her to discuss it and referred a reporter to the Pentagon. But others defended the practice.
“I’m not surprised this goes on,” said Michael Rubin, who worked in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and 2004. “Informational operations are a part of any military campaign,” he added. “Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents – replete with oil boom cash – do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs.”
Two dozen recent storyboards prepared by the military for Lincoln and reviewed by The New York Times had a variety of good-news themes addressing the economy, security, the insurgency and Iraq’s political future. Some were written to resemble news articles. Others took the form of opinion pieces or public service announcements.
One article about Iraq’s oil industry opened with three paragraphs taken verbatim, and without attribution, from a recent report in Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper. But the military version took out a quotation from an oil ministry spokesman that was critical of American reconstruction efforts. It substituted a more positive message, also attributed to the spokesman, though not as a direct quotation.
The editor of Al Sabah, a major Iraqi newspaper that has been the target of many of the military’s articles, said Wednesday in an interview that he had no idea that the American military was supplying such material and did not know if his newspaper had printed any of it, whether labeled as advertising or not.
The editor, Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, 57, said Al Sabah, which he said received financial support from the Iraqi government but was editorially independent, accepted advertisements from virtually any source if they were not inflammatory. He said any such material would be labeled as advertising but would not necessarily identify the sponsor. Sometimes, he said, the paper got the text from an advertising agency and did not know its origins.
Asked what he thought of the Pentagon program’s effectiveness in influencing Iraqi public opinion, Mr. Jabbar said, “I would spend the money a better way.”
The Lincoln Group, which was incorporated in 2004, has won another government information contract. Last June, the Special Operations Command in Tampa awarded Lincoln and two other companies a multimillion-dollar contract to support psychological operations. The planned products, contract documents show, include three- to five- minute news programs.
Asked whether the information and news products would identify the American sponsorship, a media relations officer with the special operations command replied, in an e-mail message last summer, that “the product may or may not carry ‘made in the U.S.’ signature” but they would be identified as American in origin, “if asked.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Kirk Semple and Edward Wong from Baghdad.