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Private Military Contractors Writing the News? The Pentagon's Propaganda at Its Worst

Months after the Pentagon pundits flap, the Department of Defense continues to hand down contracts for propaganda in Iraq and beyond.
 
 
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Less than a week after the Washington Post reported that the Department of Defense will pay private contractors $300 million over the next three years to "produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to 'engage and inspire' the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government," Virginia Sen. Jim Webb wrote a strongly worded letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I have serious reservations about the need for this expenditure in today's political and economic environment," he wrote. "Consequently, I am asking that you put these contracts on hold until the Armed Services Committee and the next administration can review the entire issue of U.S. propaganda efforts inside Iraq."

Such a review, if it were to happen, would be a formidable undertaking, one that would have to start with the declaration of the "War on Terror" itself. It's a project the Bush administration has always approached as a PR campaign as much as a military one. Who can forget former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card's explanation for the need to introduce the Iraq War to Americans in September: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." And remember the short-lived attempt by administration officials to re-brand the "War on Terror" by renaming it the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"? (Reports at the time were that administration officials worried that the original phrase "may have outlived its usefulness," due to its sole focus on military might.)

Regardless of what you call it, the so-called "War on Terror" has cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in propaganda costs alone. As with so much of modern war-making, most of this work is carried out by private military contractors. With the word "Halliburton" now shorthand for waste, fraud and abuse for many Americans, taxpayers' tolerance for war profiteering has reached new lows -- especially when private military companies operating with no oversight undermine the very "hearts and minds" that mission propaganda is supposedly meant to advance.

Selling the War to Americans

Perhaps one of the Bush administration's most egregious PR undertakings in the war on Iraq was revealed this spring, when the New York Times blew the lid off the Pentagon's military analyst program, in which more than 75 retired military officials were recruited to spout pro-war rhetoric on major networks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. These "message force multipliers," as they were branded, were provided with thousands of talking points by the Department of Defense starting in 2002. In one memo, dated Dec. 9, 2002 and titled "Department of Defense Themes and Talking Points on Iraq," a quote from Paul Wolfowitz -- "We cannot allow one of the world's most murderous dictators to provide terrorists a sanctuary in Iraq" -- was followed with a bullet point: "Saddam Hussein: A Global Threat."

The investigative piece by the Times said the project "continues to this day," seeking to "exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air."

"Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse -- an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks." It would be hard to overstate the implications of such a program, particularly for a country that claims to be a beacon of democracy.

Although the Pentagon was said to have suspended its PR briefings of retired military officials shortly after the Times story broke, since claiming that its inspector general is conducting an investigation, in reality there has been precious little fallout. However, in one promising move, earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission sent five letters of inquiry to TV military analysts in an apparent probing of the program. According to one report, "at issue is that some of them were also linked to Pentagon contracts, raising the issue of conflict of interest. In its letter signed by the chief of the investigations and hearings division enforcement bureau, the FCC suggests that TV stations and networks may have violated two sections of the Communications Act of 1934 by not identifying the ties to the Pentagon that their military analysts had." Diane Farsetta at PR Watch, who has written extensively on the Pentagon's pundits, particularly their work on behalf of defense contractors, says, "the good news is that that's (a first) step toward conducting an investigation."

Profiting off the "War of Ideas"

Beyond the Pentagon's pundit "scandal," the fact that propaganda contracts continue to be awarded to the very companies that have previously been implicated in ethical breaches for disseminating unattributed U.S. propaganda abroad is reason enough to renew alarm. More than the dollar amount, what is outrageous to Farsetta about the most recent propaganda contract is that it is "blatantly illegal." "If you look at this most recent contract," she explains, "one of the 'strategic audiences' is U.S. audiences." According to federal law going back to World War II, she says "no taxpayer money can go to propagandize U.S. audiences."

The Washington Post story describes the contract as the latest in a series of cutting-edge PR initiatives undertaken since 2003 that represent a revolution in what it calls "the military's role in the war of ideas." "Iraq, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on such contracts, has been the proving ground for the transformation."

"The tools they're using, the means, the robustness of this activity has just skyrocketed since 2003. In the past, a lot of this stuff was just some guy's dreams,'" said a senior U.S. military official, one of several who discussed the sensitive defense program on the condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon still sometimes feels it is playing catch-up in a propaganda market dominated by al Qaeda, whose media operations include sophisticated Web sites and professionally produced videos and audios featuring Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. "We're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave," Secretary Robert M. Gates often remarks.

The new contract was awarded to four companies, most of whom Farsetta refers to as "the usual suspects," including Lincoln Group, the Pennsylvania Avenue company that in 2005 was found to have planted articles written by U.S. military officials in Iraqi newspapers without attribution. (Although the group was cleared of any illegalities, even then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recognized the potential breach, remarking, "Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing."

Selling the War to Iraqis

The main target audience for the $300 million contract is Iraqis. But, different from earlier propaganda efforts, the content is not simply meant to convince them of the noble intentions of their American occupiers. "Originally, the major focus was all about the U.S.," says Farsetta. "The message then was, 'Hey, you're free now,' but over time it has shifted to more 'make sure you support your own government, your own police.'"

Indeed, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed official who described one component of the program:

"There's a video piece produced by a contractor showing a family being attacked by a group of bad guys, and their daughter being taken off. The message is: You've got to stand up against the enemy." The professionally produced vignette, he said, "is offered for airing on various (television) stations in Iraq. They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything.

"If you asked most Iraqis," he said, "they would say, 'It came from the government, our own government.'"

A pretty blunt admission, to be sure, and one that lays bare the dubious ethical nature of the program (not to mention the extent that the military recognizes Iraqis' antipathy for the U.S. government). But it's not the first time the U.S. government has sought to play hand puppet with Iraqi media. Last spring, the NSA obtained and made public a document, along with a PowerPoint presentation, that revealed the Pentagon's plans in the run-up to the war to create a "Rapid Reaction Media Team." Jim Lobe, D.C. bureau chief of InterPress Services, covered the revelation in May 2007; as he wrote, the proposal was for a "six-month, $51 million budget for the RRMT operation, apparently the first phase in a one- to two-year 'strategic information campaign'":

Among other items, the budget called for the hiring of two U.S. ''media consultants'' who were to be paid $140,000 each for six months' work. A further $800,000 were to be paid for six Iraqi "media consultants" over the same period.

Both the paper and the slide presentation were prepared by two Pentagon offices -- Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which, among other things, specialize in psychological warfare, and the Office of Special Plans under then undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith -- in mid-January, 2003, two months before the invasion, according to NSA analyst Joyce Battle.

''The RRMT concept focuses on USG-UK pre- and post-hostilities efforts to develop programming, train talent, and rapidly deploy a team of U.S./UK media experts with a team of 'hand selected' Iraqi media experts to communicate immediately with the Iraqi public opinion upon liberation of Iraq,'' according to the paper.

The ''hand-picked'' Iraqi experts, according to the paper, would provide planning and program guidance for the U.S. experts and help ''select and train the Iraqi broadcasters and publishers ('the face') for the USG/coalition sponsored information effort.'' USG is an abbreviation for U.S. government.

In a rather extraordinary quote, the document boasted, ''It will be as if, after another day of deadly agit-prop, the North Korean people turned off their TVs at night, and turned them on in the morning to find the rich fare of South Korean TV spread before them as their very own."

Circumventing Congress

In the United States, few lawmakers have had a chance to scrutinize this latest deployment of public funds for propaganda. (Like so many other contracts awarded to private defense corporations, this one was awarded with no Congressional approval.) But Webb's letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggests that it could become an issue.

At a time when this country is facing such a grave economic crisis, and at a time when the government of Iraq now shows at least a $79 billion surplus from recent oil revenues, in my view it makes little sense for the U.S. Department of Defense to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to propagandize the Iraqi people. There is now an elected government in Iraq, which is recognized to have the power and authority to negotiate a long-term security agreement with the government of the United States. Clearly that government is capable, both politically and financially, of communicating with its own people in the manner now contemplated by these DOD contracts -- and without being accused by adversaries of being a foreign government that is fulminating internal conditions through propaganda.

Laudable as his efforts to reign in contractors may be -- much of Webb's letter was devoted to military contractors more generally, and Blackwater specifically -- his letter made no mention of the myriad ethical questions raised by the propaganda contract. To name a few, says Farsetta, "the fact that the media produced is overwhelmingly not attributed to the U.S. government;" "the fact that one of the 'strategic audiences' listed in the contract is 'U.S. audiences,' in apparent violation of U.S. law;" and "the difficulties in holding private contractors operating in war zones accountable to any standard (ethical, performance or otherwise)."

Webb, who first learned about this contract as did most Americans, from the Washington Post , has called for a thorough review of the Pentagon's "strategic communications" initiatives, including Congressional hearings." Were this to happen, says Farsetta, "I would love for those hearings to include representatives from foreign governments and civil society groups where the U.S. has major propaganda operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The heads of firms like the Lincoln Group, L-3 and Rendon should also testify, under oath."

But, she says, "What really bothers me is that Webb's using the "we've given Iraq so much and now it's time for them to step up" argument. That argument never fails to amaze and anger me. We bombed them in 1991, then for more than a decade placed them under such devastating sanctions that hundreds of thousands of children died, then bombed them more ferociously over a longer period of time. Yet some politicians have the gall to complain that the Iraqis aren't doing enough now? That's not to mention that the argument assumes that Iraqi leaders have the same priorities as U.S. officials. Personally, I say we need to get our propaganda and troops out of Iraq and pay them reparations."

 
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