The military has come forward to explain its actions in the so-called propaganda scandal that erupted earlier this week, the AP reports in a late-breaking news item on ABC. Army spokesman LTC Barry Johnson told Congressional leaders and later the media that the program described in separate articles in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times had not intended for the articles in question to be offered clandestinely under anyone else’s by-line. Instead, the contractor, Lincoln Group, had been tasked to pay for advertising and editorial space — apparently the practice in the nascent Iraqi press — and offer the articles openly as written by American military personnel to get their stories out to ordinary Iraqis:
Military officials for the first time Friday detailed and broadly defended a Pentagon program that pays to plant stories in the Iraqi media, an effort the top U.S. military commander said was part of an effort to “get the truth out” there.
But facing critics in the United States including lawmakers from both parties the military raised the possibility for the first time of making changes in the program.
“If any part of our process does not have our full confidence, we will examine that activity and take appropriate action,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq. “If any contractor is failing to perform as we have intended, we will take appropriate action.”
Col. Johnson still isn’t sure that Lincoln did anything else other than that. That should get investigated immediately to determine what exactly Lincoln did, but the program itself certainly sounds reasonable. After all, the enemy has used propaganda for its own purposes, and the American media has done a piss-poor job of representing the military’s point of view to the world, let alone the Iraqi people. As long as the source of the writing gets proper and true attribution and the payment gets disclosed properly in the custom of the Iraqi market, then it shows some good, creative thinking on the part of the military. If Lincoln did anything else, then they should get fired.
So why use Lincoln at all? Why not just have the Pentagon market the stories to the Iraqi newspapers, paying them directly for the advertising space? Apparently, the planners worried that direct payments would cause retaliatory attacks on the publishers if word got out how the articles got space in the paper. However, that explanation lacks some credibility, as properly attributed articles would expose the relationship between the paper and American military personnel as soon as the articles were read. It sounds more like Lincoln, which has an unrelated $100 million contract with Special Operations Command — the same outfit that ran Able Danger — got a sweetheart deal for some extra third-party work.
The explanation seems to take some steam out of the scandal, though. Ted Kennedy still wants a DoD investigation, which appears to agree with the stance taken by the White House and Congress as well. Kennedy says that the program appears to hide the involvement of the American government, and that much does seem to be true. The notion that the Pentagon ran a massive propaganda effort appears to have fallen flat, though.
UPDATE: The Washington Post has more, with a headline that seems a bit misleading (“Military Says It Paid Iraq Papers for News”). The military says it primarily paid for placement of advertising and opinion pieces in accordance with common Iraqi practice for their press. The Post explains the existence of Lincoln as a go-between a bit better, but also reports that Lincoln did have some articles ran under false bylines, apparently against the guidelines of the program:
Officials familiar with the Lincoln Group’s contract said it allows the firm to pay to have articles placed in the Iraqi press. The contract reportedly says nothing about disguising the origin of the articles, but some military officers defended the practice as a necessary security measure, to protect the Iraqi journalists used to deliver the accounts and the Iraqi news organizations that print them.
If it were known that the journalists and the news organizations were carrying information provided by the U.S. military, these officers said, insurgents would surely target them. Indeed, at least two of the Iraqi newspapers cited in initial news reports as having printed the articles in question have since received threats from insurgents, according to military officials.
Proponents of such tactics argue that different standards should be applied to what is permissible in a combat zone such as Iraq than, say, in the United States or other stable democracies. Although the idea of the military using covert methods to get favorable information into print appears unethical at home, the argument goes, there are mitigating circumstances justifying such tactics in Iraq.
This still comes back to building credibility with the Iraqi people. The free press in Iraq is a vitally important part of building the democratic structures necessary to make Iraq into a strong and free ally in the Middle East — an example of how Arabs can lead themselves, without the traditional strong-man rule of dictator or emir. While exploiting newspapers to surreptitiously get out our point of view might seem like a smart tactical move to counter al-Qaeda propaganda, it’s probably a huge mistake strategically in the long run. We’re already teaching the Iraqis that their press is nothing more than paid mouthpieces for hidden Powers That Be, feeding into the common Arab predilection for grand conspiracies.
We have the resources and the werewithal to get our message out openly to the Iraqi people. We could buy air time on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, or simply open our own Arabic news service and buy transponder time on their satellite system. The US could operate Radio Free Iraq from inside the country and add broadcast television service. We could use that money to publish our own newspapers, or use it the way the program intended and just make sure that our essays are clearly identified. Private groups like Spirit Of America have been doing this since the fall of Saddam in April 2003; it shouldn’t be a mystery to the Pentagon.
This incident hardly qualifies as the scandal of the month, but it does need correcting. America stands for ideals, and one of those ideals is honesty in government — and right now, we’re a vital component of the Iraqi governing structure while the Iraqi security forces rebuild. We want to win this war by transferring the ideals of democracy into the hearts of the Iraqi people and make them believe that they can put them into practice and defend them against their enemies. Undermining them as a short-term tactic might be understandable, but it’s unadvisable in the long run. I’d rather focus on the 99% of the Iraqis who aren’t insurgents and tell them the truth, than lie to them all and hope that the 1% of the Iraqis comprising the insurgency reads the newspaper.