Wherein We Learn More of the Propaganda Machine

Each time the Bush administration has been caught manufacturing news, top officials claim ignorance and innocence. But the more we learn about the latest payola program, the less likely that seems.

Two weeks ago, when the Los Angeles Times first broke the story of how the U.S. military is paying under the table for positive press coverage in Iraq, the president and his attendant spokesbots quickly claimed ignorance of the operation and promised to look into it. But in yesterday’s update on the story, the New York Times gave us a bit more to chew over, and we see that, as with so much else, the administration’s claims of absolute ignorance were either just that — ignorant — or else completely false. And given this administration’s track record on producing its own news, we’re inclined to believe the latter.

It’s a familiar pattern. Each time the Bush administration has been caught manufacturing news — be it Karen Ryan or Mike Morris or Armstrong Williams or Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus or Mike Vasilinda — the Bushies claim innocence. It’s possible that the people at the top of the administration consistently don’t know about these ambitious attempts by their underlings to mislead the press and the public — but how likely is that, given the sustained coordination and the money spent on this years-long effort?

Read the Times article, and all of the different pieces begin to come together. As the paper reported yesterday, in order to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the White House “set up a secret panel soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information operations by the Pentagon, other government agencies and private contractors.” What’s more, around the same time, “the White House recruited Jeffrey B. Jones, a former Army colonel who ran the Fort Bragg psychological operations group, to coordinate the new information war. He led a secret committee, the existence of which has not been previously reported, that dealt with everything from public diplomacy, which includes education, aid and exchange programs, to covert information operations.”

Add to this the Lincoln Group, the company contracted by the Pentagon to blanket Iraq in pro-American propaganda (and paid more than $25 million to do so), and which claims to have “planted” over 1,000 articles in the Iraqi and Arab media at the military’s direction. At one point in 2004, the Lincoln Group partnered with the Rendon Group, which had previously worked for the C.I.A., to “secretly help the nascent Iraqi National Congress wage a public relations campaign against Saddam Hussein” in the 1990s, and which had been awarded a $27.6 million contract by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct media analysis of Arab media outlets and lead focus groups. Together, the two won a $5 million Pentagon contract for an advertising and public relations campaign to ‘accurately inform the Iraqi people of the Coalition’s goals and gain their support.’”

To put things in perspective, $57.6 million — $25 million, plus $27.6 million, plus $5 million — is more than the annual newsroom budget allotted to most American newsrooms to cover all the news from everywhere for an entire year.

Sure sounds like well-financed policy to us — and a well- coordinated one as well — and not one hatched by low-level officials who never let their bosses at the White House in on what they were doing.

One part of the story of particular interest is the claim that Lincoln employees would often visit the Baghdad convention center, “where the Iraqi press corps hung out, to recruit journalists who would write and place opinion pieces, paying them $400 to $500 as a monthly stipend.”

It occurs to us that there’s more to the Baghdad convention center angle than meets the eye. The convention center isn’t just where the Iraqi press corps “hung out,” but it’s where many of them did — and do — a good portion of their work, sometimes on computers provided by the U.S. military. Beyond that, the convention center, ensconced in the fortified “Green Zone” in Baghdad, is home to the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC), the military’s one-stop shop for press needs, and where some western journalists can stay for free before embedding with military units across Iraq. In other words, in a sense, the convention center is the hub of the “official” press in Iraq, not just the place that the military’s PR corps calls home.

And while we think it’s great that the CPIC provides equipment and a safe environment for Iraqi journalists to ply their trade, given these new revelations, we have to wonder if part of the motivation for it was to set up a fishbowl for the propaganda machine to do some recruiting — not just of Iraqi journalists, but also of whichever U.S. journalists happened to wander in from the cold.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.