This week’s Fortune offers a tantalizing glimpse of a company we are dying to read more about. Bearing the alluring headline, “Secret No More: Inside the Pentagon’s Iraqi PR Firms,” the magazine’s story seemed to promise a comprehensive look at the Lincoln Group, the Washington public relations firm with a $100 million mandate to buy off Iraqi journalists and plant positive stories about the occupation. But at fewer than 500 words, the piece doesn’t disclose many new secrets.
The Lincoln Group is run by two men now barely out of their twenties, Christian Bailey, an Oxford graduate and Paige Craig, a former marine, who had minimal experience in consulting before their big break. The small bit of new information we get from the Fortune piece is that Craig, apparently on a whim, flew to Amman in 2003 and took a taxi to Baghdad in search of business opportunities. Within two and a half years, he and his partner had transformed themselves from jobless nobodies to heads of a powerful mega-firm with twenty Defense Department contracts and 240 employees.
How could this be? By what feats of salesmanship and networking, by what miraculous chance encounters, good luck, and access to capital could a couple of twenty-somethings gain access to the military elite and build a successful company in so little time?
And, more generally, to what extent is the Lincoln Group typical of the Wild West prospecting by American entrepreneurs in Iraq? The country is no doubt rife with intriguing business stories populated by larger-than-life characters. We wonder why the major business publications have not devoted more resources to covering these stories.
Aside from the brief Fortune article, most of what we know about the Lincoln Group was revealed last month, when the story first broke. We know from a Washington Post piece that the two entrepreneurs originally planned to start a business magazine in Iraq. But once the insurgency eclipsed all other activity, the partners turned their focus to winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis (and cash for themselves). In the summer of 2004 they got their first government contract, worth $5 million. By the following summer they were one of three firms hired by the Pentagon for a total of $100 million to develop media programs all over the world. Apparently, they have been prominent members of the foreign policy establishment ever since.
How do Craig and Bailey explain this stellar success? Lincoln Group officials told the Washington Post last month that they happened to be on the ground with an extensive network of Iraqi journalists when the Pentagon came calling.
But, though this goes further than the Fortune blurb, we are still a long way from understanding the phenomena that produced this strange firm. As the Independent points out, “much is unclear about the Lincoln Group, its youthful executive vice- president and his string of previous companies that have left only the faintest paper trail.” This story goes so far as to question whether “Christian Bailey” is a real name, but makes no attempt to answer the question conclusively.
We were similarly frustrated by a story last month in the New York Times, which reported (Times Select required): “It is something of a mystery how Lincoln came to land more than $25 million in Pentagon contracts in a war zone.” Yes, it is a mystery. And we were hoping the Times would help solve it.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
Without knowing more than what has been reported, we can only speculate that obviously some vast right-wing conspiracy must be at work. And while the media has wasted plenty of ink on insinuations about the stateside links between the Bush administration and Iraq contractor Halliburton, we’ve been left mostly in the dark about the actual activities of American business people in Iraq. (There are, of course, notable exceptions, including the Chicago Tribune’ s wonderful exposé on the trafficking of foreign laborers to American contractors.) The American public would be well served if reporters in Iraq and Washington were to adhere to one of the journalism profession’s most important rules: Follow the money.