Lincoln Group Pushes US Propaganda as News
By Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi
November 30, 2005
WASHINGTON — As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the U.S.
military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by
American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in
The articles, written by U.S. military "information operations" troops, are
translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers with the help of a
defense contractor, according to U.S. military officials and documents obtained
by the Los Angeles Times.
Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news
accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet
the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led
efforts to rebuild the country.
Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of
events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi
governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has
paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as
"Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this
The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The
Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln
Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group's Iraqi
staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or
advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media
The military's effort to disseminate propaganda in the Iraqi media is taking
place even as U.S. officials are pledging to promote democratic principles,
political transparency and freedom of speech in a country emerging from decades
of dictatorship and corruption.
It comes as the State Department is training Iraqi reporters in basic
journalism skills and Western media ethics, including one workshop titled "The
Role of Press in a Democratic Society." Standards vary widely at Iraqi
newspapers, many of which are shoestring operations.
Underscoring the importance U.S. officials place on development of a
Western-style media, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday cited the
proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great
successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein. The hundreds of
newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve"
for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy,
The military's information operations campaign has sparked a backlash among
some senior military officers in Iraq and at the Pentagon who argue that
attempts to subvert the news media could destroy the U.S. military's
credibility in other nations and with the American public.
"Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every
speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we're breaking all the
first principles of democracy when we're doing it," said a senior Pentagon
official who opposes the practice of planting stories in the Iraqi media.
The arrangement with Lincoln Group is evidence of how far the Pentagon has
moved to blur the traditional boundaries between military public affairs
— the dissemination of factual information to the media — and
psychological and information operations, which use propaganda and sometimes
misleading information to advance the objectives of a military campaign.
The Bush administration has come under criticism for distributing video and
news stories in the United States without identifying the federal government as
their source and for paying American journalists to promote administration
policies, practices the Government Accountability Office has labeled "covert
propaganda." (note: covert propaganda is against the law and obviously an
Military officials familiar with the effort in Iraq said much of it was
being directed by the "Information Operations Task Force" in Baghdad, part of
the multinational corps headquarters commanded by Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were critical of the
effort and were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
A spokesman for Vines declined to comment for this article. A Lincoln Group
spokesman also declined to comment.
One of the military officials said that, as part of a psychological
operations campaign that has intensified over the last year, the task force
also had purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and
was using them to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public. Neither is
identified as a military mouthpiece.
The official would not disclose which newspaper and radio station are under
U.S. control, saying that naming them would put their employees at risk of
U.S. law forbids the military from carrying out psychological operations or
planting propaganda through American media outlets. Yet several officials said
that given the globalization of media driven by the Internet and the 24-hour
news cycle, the Pentagon's efforts were carried out with the knowledge that
coverage in the foreign press inevitably "bleeds" into the Western media and
influences coverage in U.S. news outlets.
"There is no longer any way to separate foreign media from domestic media.
Those neat lines don't exist anymore," said one private contractor who does
information operations work for the Pentagon.
Daniel Kuehl, an information operations expert at National Defense
University at Ft. McNair in Washington, said that he did not believe that
planting stories in Iraqi media was wrong. But he questioned whether the
practice would help turn the Iraqi public against the insurgency.
"I don't think that there's anything evil or morally wrong with it," he
said. "I just question whether it's effective."
One senior military official who spent this year in Iraq said it was the
strong pro-U.S. message in some news stories in Baghdad that first made him
suspect that the American military was planting articles.
"Stuff would show up in the Iraqi press, and I would ask, 'Where the hell
did that come from?' It was clearly not something that indigenous Iraqi press
would have conceived of on their own," the official said.
Iraqi newspaper editors reacted with a mixture of shock and shrugs when told
they were targets of a U.S. military psychological operation.
Some of the newspapers, such as Al Mutamar, a Baghdad-based daily run by
associates of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, ran the articles as news
stories, indistinguishable from other news reports. Before the war, Chalabi was
the Iraqi exile favored by senior Pentagon officials to lead post-Hussein
Others labeled the stories as "advertising," shaded them in gray boxes or
used a special typeface to distinguish them from standard editorial content.
But none mentioned any connection to the U.S. military.
One Aug. 6 piece, published prominently on Al Mutamar's second page, ran as
a news story with the headline "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism."
Documents obtained by The Times indicated that Al Mutamar was paid about $50 to
run the story, though the editor of the paper said he ran such articles for
Nearly $1,500 was paid to the independent Addustour newspaper to run an Aug.
2 article titled "More Money Goes to Iraq's Development," the records
indicated. The newspaper's editor, Bassem Sheikh, said he had "no idea" where
the piece came from but added the note "media services" on top of the article
to distinguish it from other editorial content.
The U.S. military-written articles come in to Al Mutamar, the newspaper run
by Chalabi's associates, via the Internet and are often unsigned, said Luay
Baldawi, the paper's editor in chief.
"We publish anything," he said. "The paper's policy is to publish
everything, especially if it praises causes we believe in. We are pro-American.
Everything that supports America we will publish."
Yet other Al Mutamar employees were much less supportive of their paper's
connection with the U.S. military. "This is not right," said Faleh Hassan, an
editor. "It reflects the tragic condition of journalists in Iraq. Journalism in
Iraq is in very bad shape."
Ultimately, Baldawi acknowledged that he, too, was concerned about the
origin of the articles and pledged to be "more careful about stuff we get by
After he learned of the source of three paid stories that ran in Al Mada in
July, that newspaper's managing editor, Abdul Zahra Zaki, was outraged,
immediately summoning a manager of the advertising department to his
"I'm very sad," he said. "We have to investigate."
The Iraqis who delivered the articles also reaped modest profits from the
arrangements, according to sources and records.
Employees at Al Mada said that a low-key man arrived at the newspaper's
offices in downtown Baghdad on July 30 with a large wad of U.S. dollars. He
told the editors that he wanted to publish an article titled "Terrorists Attack
Sunni Volunteers" in the newspaper.
He paid cash and left no calling card, employees said. He did not want a
receipt. The name he gave employees was the same as that of a Lincoln Group
worker in the records obtained by The Times. Although editors at Al Mada said
he paid $900 to place the article, records show that the man told Lincoln Group
that he gave more than $1,200 to the paper.
Al Mada is widely considered the most cerebral and professional of Iraqi
newspapers, publishing investigative reports as well as poetry.
Zaki said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were
from the U.S. government, he would have "charged much, much more" to publish
According to several sources, the process for placing the stories begins
when soldiers write "storyboards" of events in Iraq, such as a joint U.S.-Iraqi
raid on a suspected insurgent hide-out, or a suicide bomb that killed Iraqi
The storyboards, several of which were obtained by The Times, read more like
press releases than news stories. They often contain anonymous quotes from U.S.
military officials; it is unclear whether the quotes are authentic.
"Absolute truth was not an essential element of these stories," said the
senior military official who spent this year in Iraq.
One of the storyboards, dated Nov. 12, describes a U.S.-Iraqi offensive in
the western Iraqi towns of Karabilah and Husaybah.
"Both cities are stopping points for foreign fighters entering Iraq to wage
their unjust war," the storyboard reads.
It continues with a quote from an anonymous U.S. military official: " 'Iraqi
army soldiers and U.S. forces have begun clear-and-hold operations in the city
of Karabilah near Husaybah town, close to the Syrian border,' said a military
official once operations began."
Another storyboard, written on the same date, describes the capture of an
insurgent bomb-maker in Baghdad. "As the people and the [Iraqi security forces]
work together, Iraq will finally drive terrorism out of Iraq for good," it
It was unclear whether those two storyboards have made their way into Iraqi
A debate over the Pentagon's handling of information has raged since shortly
after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In 2002, the Pentagon was forced to shut down its Office of Strategic
Influence, which had been created the previous year, after reports surfaced
that it intended to plant false news stories in the international
For much of 2005, a Defense Department working group has been trying to
forge a policy about the proper role of information operations in wartime.
Pentagon officials say the group has yet to resolve the often-contentious
debate in the department about the boundaries between military public affairs
and information operations.
Lincoln Group, formerly known as Iraqex, is one of several companies hired
by the U.S. military to carry out "strategic communications" in countries where
large numbers of U.S. troops are based.
Some of Lincoln Group's work in Iraq is very public, such as an animated
public service campaign on Iraqi television that spotlights the Iraqi civilians
killed by roadside bombs planted by insurgents.
Besides its contract with the military in Iraq, Lincoln Group this year won
a major contract with U.S. Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, to
develop a strategic communications campaign in concert with special operations
troops stationed around the globe. The contract is worth up to $100 million
over five years, although U.S. military officials said they doubted the
Pentagon would spend the full amount of the contract.