Washington 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."
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.
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."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 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.