(11-30) 15:48 PST WASHINGTON, (AP) --
The U.S. military offered a mixed message Wednesday about whether it embraced one of its own programs that reportedly paid a consulting firm and Iraqi newspapers to plant favorable stories about the war and the rebuilding effort.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said the program is "an important part of countering misinformation in the news by insurgents." A spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, called a report detailing the program troubling if true and said he was looking into the matter.
"This is a military program initiated with the Multi-National Force to help get factual information about ongoing operations into Iraqi news," Johnson said in an e-mail. "I want to emphasize that all information used for marketing these stories is completely factual."
Members of Congress immediately called for an investigation.
Details about the program were first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. It marked the second time this year that Pentagon programs have come under scrutiny for reported payments made to journalists for favorable press.
Two other federal agencies have been investigated in the past year for similar activities, leading Congress' Government Accountability Office to condemn one, the Education Department, for engaging in illegal covert propaganda.
The Los Angeles Times quoted unidentified officials as saying that some of the stories in Iraqi newspapers were written by U.S. troops and while basically factual, they sometimes give readers a slanted view of what is happening in Iraq. Some of those officials expressed fear that use of such stories could hurt the U.S. military's credibility, the newspaper said.
Defense Department officials did not deny the story's allegations, and Rumsfeld spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was looking into the program.
Whitman said the department has clear principles for dealing with news organizations, "so this article raises some question as to whether or not some of the practices that are described in there are consistent with the principles of this department."
He would not specify the questions he felt the article raised, but the issue
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said his panel will look into the issue. And Rep. Henry Waxman of California called for the House Government Reform Committee to launch an investigation; he is the panel's top Democrat.
"I'm concerned that our credibility abroad is very important," Warner said on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews, adding that he wants to know "if we're manufacturing things, or taking our wonderful troops and trying to translate their ideas into something that's more our ideas rather than the troops' idea."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also questioned the program Wednesday.
"I wouldn't fault somebody trying to get the American message out," Lugar said. "(It) may be about the only way that any sort of a message will ever get to anybody. But that's a very forlorn conclusion early on, and really sort of violates what we're attempting to do to begin with in our emphasis on democracy."
The Pentagon hired the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based firm that translates the stories into Arabic and places them in Baghdad newspapers, the newspaper reported. The organization's staff or subcontractors in Iraq occasionally pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they hand stories to Iraqi media outlets, it said.
Laurie Adler, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln Group, said Wednesday she could not comment on the contract because it is with the U.S. government. The company, which does work in Iraq, is a public affairs firm that does advertising and other communications in "challenging locations," she said.
John Schulz, a former executive with Voice of America who is now dean of the Boston University College of Communication, called the military program scary.
"The Bush administration, and some elements within the Defense Department do not seem to grasp the irony that, in their efforts to create, impose or inspire democratic society in Iraq, they are subverting the very core of what democracy means and are instead, by example, undercutting the very thing they are attempting to instill in Iraq," Schulz said.
In the last year, the Bush administration has been called to task for paying journalists to promote its programs. GAO slammed the Education Department for illegal propaganda when the agency paid columnist Armstrong Williams to publicize the "No Child Left Behind" education law.
And the GAO is looking into the Heath and Human Services Department's contract with syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher to help promote a marriage initiative.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon's inspector general's office said it was investigating a program that paid journalists to write articles and commentary for a Web site called Southeast European Times that was aimed at influencing opinion in the Balkans.
Military officials who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity said the "Information Operations Task Force," part of a multinational corps with headquarters in Baghdad, bought an Iraqi newspaper and took over a radio station to put out pro-American messages. Neither outlet was named out of fear that they would be targeted by insurgents, the newspaper said.
The stories in Iraqi newspapers often praise the efforts of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce terrorism and promote the country's reconstruction efforts. The Times said documents it obtained showed that the Baghdad-based newspaper Al Mutamar was paid about $50 to run one of the stories, which had the headline "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism" on Aug. 6.
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