WASHINGTON - Military officials in Baghdad for the first time Friday described 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.
The U.S. officials in Iraq said articles had been offered and published in Iraqi newspapers "as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space, as is customary in Iraq."
The idea has been criticized in the United States, and John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went to the Pentagon Friday for an explanation. President Bush's spokesman said the White House was "very concerned."
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said that third parties - which would include the Washington-based Lincoln Group - were used to market the stories to reduce the risk to the publishers.
"If any part of our process does not have our full confidence, we will examine that activity and take appropriate action," he said in a statement. "If any contractor is failing to perform as we have intended, we will take appropriate action.
He also defended the program as critical to the war effort.
"The information battlespace in Iraq is contested at all times and is filled with misinformation and propaganda by an enemy intent on discrediting the Iraqi government and the coalition, and who are taking every opportunity to instill fear and intimidate the Iraqi people," his statement said.
Leaving a Pentagon meeting with Defense Department officials in Washington, Warner, R-Va., said the program was a serious problem.
But Warner told The Associated Press that, "Things like this happen. It's a war. The disinformation that's going on in that country is really affecting the effectiveness of what we're achieving, and we have no recourse but to try and do some rebuttal information."
And Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that, "We want to get the facts out. We want to get the truth out."
Warner met with chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita and members of Pace's staff, but only bumped into Pace on his way out of the building.
Meanwhile, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday it was not clear whether the program violated the law or Pentagon policy, a Defense Department spokesman said Friday.
"You can do something perfectly legal, but that is inconsistent with the policy or procedures of the department. Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," said spokesman Bryan Whitman.
He said the department is still gathering information on the matter.
Warner initially requested a Capitol Hill briefing for the committee, but committee spokesman John Ullyot said those plans were changed "at the Pentagon's request."
Whitman said the department was still gathering information about the program and the multimillion-dollar contracts that included paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to plant favorable stories about the war and the rebuilding effort.
"We don't have all the facts," he said, including whether or not defense officials in Iraq knew exactly what was happening or whether they believed any of it was improper.
Military officials in Iraq say the program is a critical tool on the Iraq battleground.
"The purpose of this program is to ensure factual information is provided to the Iraqi public," Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said in Iraq.
But Congress members and the White House have expressed concern.
"A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media," Warner said earlier.
One of the companies involved - the Washington-based Lincoln Group - has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One contract, for $6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, Defense Department records show.
The other Lincoln contract, which is with the Special Operations Command, is worth up to $100 million over five years for media operations with video, print and Web-based products. That contract is not related to the dispute over propaganda and was not for services in Iraq, according to command spokesman Ken McGraw.
The Lincoln Group shares that Special Operations contract with SYColeman, a division of L-3 Communications, and Science Applications International Corp., a San Diego-based defense contractor.
The program came to light just as President Bush released his strategy for victory in Iraq. It includes the need to support a "free, independent and responsible Iraqi media."
"We're very concerned," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "We are seeking more information from the Pentagon."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., characterized the program as a scheme that "speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap. If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."