WASHINGTON—U.S. Army officers have been secretly paying Iraqi journalists to produce upbeat newspaper, radio and television reports about American military operations and the conduct of the war in Iraq.
U.S. officials in Washington said the payments were made through the Baghdad Press Club, an organization they said was created more than a year ago by U.S. Army officers. They are part of an extensive American military-run information campaign—including psychological warfare experts—intended to build popular support for U.S.-led stabilization efforts and erode support for Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Members of the Press Club are paid as much as $200 a month, depending on how many positive pieces they produce.
Under military rules, information operations are restricted to influencing the attitudes and behavior of foreign governments and people. One form of information operations—psychological warfare—can use doctored or false information to deceive or damage the enemy or to bolster support for American efforts.
Many military officials, however, said they were concerned that the payments to Iraqi journalists and other covert information operations in Iraq had become so extensive that they were corroding the effort to build democracy and undermining U.S. credibility in Iraq. They also worry that information in the Iraqi press that's been planted or paid for by the U.S. military could "blow back" to the American public.
Eight current and former military, defense and other U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington agreed to discuss the payments to Iraqi reporters and other American military information operations because they fear that the efforts are promoting practices that are unacceptable for a democracy. They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.
"We are teaching them (Iraqi journalists) the wrong things," one military officer said.
Moreover, the defense and military officials said, the U.S. public is at risk of being influenced by the information operations because what's planted in the Iraqi media can be picked up by international news organizations and Internet bloggers.
"There is no `local' media anymore. All media is potentially international. The Web makes it all public. We need to ... eliminate the idea that psychological operations and information operations can issue any kind of information to the media ever. Period," said a senior military official in Baghdad who has knowledge of American psychological operations in Iraq.
Finally, military and defense officials said, the more extensive the information operations, the more likely they'll be discovered, thereby undermining the credibility of the U.S. armed forces and the American government.
"It's a culture of being loose with the truth. We'd better stop it or we are going to end up like we did in Vietnam," said a senior U.S. defense official in Washington. "The problem is if you get caught, it destroys everything, and they don't realize the collateral damage potential."
Spokesmen for the American command in Iraq and for the Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command, which has overall responsibility for American military operations in the Middle East, said they had no immediate comment.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "We're looking into this issue . . . to ascertain all of the facts."
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld hailed what he called the country's "free media," saying they were acting as "a relief valve" through which Iraqis have been engaging in democratic debate and dialogue.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the U.S. military has been paying Iraqi newspapers to print pro-American stories written by U.S. information operations troops.
A Knight Ridder investigation has found that the American military's information operations have been far more extensive.
In addition to the Army's secret payments to Iraqi newspaper, radio and television journalists for positive stories, U.S. psychological-warfare officers have been involved in writing news releases and drafting media strategies for top commanders, two defense officials said.
On at least one occasion, psychological warfare specialists have taken a group of international journalists on a tour of Iraq's border with Syria, a route used by Islamic terrorists and arms smugglers, one of the officials said.
Usually, these duties are the responsibility of military public-affairs officers.
In Iraq, public affairs staff at the American-run multinational headquarters in Baghdad have been combined with information operations experts in an organization known as the Information Operations Task Force.
The unit's public affairs officers are subservient to the information operations experts, military and defense officials said.
The result is a "fuzzing up" of what's supposed to be a strict division between public affairs, which provides factual information about U.S. military operations, and information operations, which can use propaganda and doctored or false information to influence enemy actions, perceptions and behavior.
Information operations are intended to "influence foreign adversary audiences using psychological operations capabilities," according to a Sept. 27, 2004, memo sent to top American commanders by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
Myers warned that putting public affairs and information operations in the same office had "the potential to compromise the commander's credibility with the media and the public."
The payments to Iraqi journalists originally were intended to nurture a fledgling domestic press corps by rewarding Iraqi journalists who put their lives and the safety of their families at risk by attending U.S. military briefings in the high security Green Zone in Baghdad, where American officials live and work.
"These guys had to take extraordinary risk to cover our stories," said a U.S. military officer in the United States who's familiar with the program.
The effort, however, "has gotten out of hand," said an American military official in Baghdad.
"The Iraqi population doesn't realize that some of the information" they receive from their news media "is bought and paid for by the United States," said the senior defense official in Washington.
A former senior defense official who served in Baghdad said the group was created for the same reason that the Bush administration initially tried "to put an American face" on every Iraqi government ministry. U.S. officials, the official said, were unprepared for the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and were forced to construct "almost from scratch" an Iraqi government and ways to communicate with a frightened and disoriented populace.
"No one in charge had thought very much about the Iraqi media, about the fact that because it was part of Saddam's regime, it would just cease to exist after the regime fell and that there wasn't anything to take its place," the former senior defense official said.
"The State Department had done some work on that, but the Defense Department, which was running the show, hadn't paid attention to what State had done. So it came as something of a surprise to the troops who were there that they'd give a briefing and no Iraqis would come," he said.
However, a current American official and a second former U.S. official, both of whom served in Iraq, said the attempt to jump-start independent Iraqi media—described by the current official as "priming the pump"—quickly mushroomed into a much more ambitious and entrenched effort to influence what was being reported in the Iraqi media.
"The Iraqis learned that if they reported stuff we liked, they'd get paid, and our guys learned that if they paid the Iraqis, they'd report stuff we liked," the former senior defense official said.
While the Pentagon's media campaign in Iraq harks back to CIA efforts in Italy, Greece and elsewhere after World War II to discredit communism and promote pro-Western ideas, it also reflects a widespread belief by some Bush administration officials that the news media are merely another interest group to be spun, influenced, bullied or, if necessary, bought or rented.
"They don't represent the public any more than other people do," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card once said, as quoted in The New Yorker magazine. "In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."