Rumsfeld's Fake News Flop in Iraq
By Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, AlterNet
Posted on September 15, 2006, Printed on May 19, 2007
The following is an excerpt from The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (Tarcher, 2006).
danger of negative news, according to President Bush, is that it may
undermine morale and support for the war, as Americans "look at the
violence they see each night on their television screens and they
wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in
Iraq." But propaganda itself is a danger to the nation, as the United
States has long recognized, both in theory and in law. In 1948,
Congress, concerned by what it had seen propaganda do to Hitler's
Germany, passed the Smith-Mundt Act, a law that forbids domestic
dissemination of U.S. government materials intended for foreign
The law is so strict that programming from Voice of
America, the government's overseas news service, may not be broadcast
to domestic audiences. Legislators were concerned that giving any U.S.
administration access to the government's tools for influencing opinion
overseas would undermine the democratic process at home. Since 1951,
this concern has also been expressed in the appropriations acts passed
each year by Congress, which include language that stipulates, "No part
of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used
for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not
heretofore authorized by Congress."
Economic and media
globalization, however, have shrunk the planet in ways that blur the
distinction between foreign and domestic propaganda. This has been
acknowledged in the U.S. Defense Department's Information Operations
Roadmap, a 74-page document approved in 2003 by Donald Rumsfeld. It
noted that "information intended for foreign audiences, including
public diplomacy and PSYOP [psychological operations], increasingly is
consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa. PSYOP messages
disseminated to any audience... will often be replayed by the news
media for much larger audiences, including the American public."
ought to be of particular concern to Americans because the Pentagon's
doctrine for psychological operations specifically contemplates
"actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to
foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective
reasoning. ... In various ways, perception management combines truth
projection, operations security, cover, and deception, and psyops."
example of a psyops operation that used "deception" in Iraq occurred
during the 2004 preparations for the U.S. military assault on Fallujah,
which had become a stronghold for insurgents. On October 14, a
spokesman for the marines appeared on CNN and announced that the
long-awaited military campaign to retake Fallujah had begun. In fact,
the announcement was a deliberate falsehood. The announcement on CNN
was intended to trick the insurgents so that U.S. commanders could see
how they would react to the real offensive, which would not begin until
three weeks later. In giving this bit of false information to CNN,
however, the marines were not merely reaching a "foreign audience" but
also Americans who watch CNN.
Much of the U.S. propaganda effort,
however, is aimed not at tactical deception of enemy combatants but at
influencing morale and support for the war in the United States. The
Office of Media Outreach, a taxpayer-funded arm of the Department of
Defense, has offered government-subsidized trips to Iraq for radio
talk-show hosts. "Virtually all expenses are being picked up by the
U.S. government, with the exception of broadcasters providing their own
means of broadcasting or delivering their content," reported Billboard
magazine's Radio Monitor website.
Office of Media Outreach
activities included hosting "Operation Truth," a one-week tour of Iraq
by right-wing talk-show hosts, organized by Russo Marsh & Rogers, a
Republican PR firm based in California that sponsors a conservative
advocacy group called Move America Forward. The purpose of the "Truth
Tour," they reported on the Move America Forward website, was "to
report the good news on Operation Iraqi Freedom you're not hearing from
the old line news media... to get the news straight from our troops
serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the positive developments
and successes they are achieving." Even before the trip began, however,
the radio talkers' take on Iraq was already decided. "The war is being
won, if not already won, I think," said tour participant Buzz Patterson
in a predeparture interview with Fox News. "[Iraq] is stabilized and we
want the soldiers themselves to tell the story."
2004, the U.S. military circulated a request for proposals, inviting
private public relations firms to apply for a contract to perform an
"aggressive" PR and advertising push inside Iraq to include weekly
reports on Iraqi public opinion, production of news releases, video
news, the training of Iraqis to serve as spokesmen, and creation of a
"rebuttal cell" that would monitor all media throughout Iraq,
"immediately and effectively responding to reports that unfairly target
the Coalition or Coalition interests."
According to the request
for proposals, "Recent polls suggest support for the Coalition is
falling and more and more Iraqis are questioning Coalition resolve,
intentions, and effectiveness. It is essential to the success of the
Coalition and the future of Iraq that the Coalition gain widespread
Iraqi acceptance of its core themes and messages."
valued initially at $5.4 million, went to Iraqex, a newly formed
company based in Washington, D.C., that was set up specifically to
provide services in Iraq. Not long thereafter, Iraqex changed its name
to the Lincoln Group. Its success in winning the contract "is something
of a mystery," the New York Times would report a year later, since the "two men who ran the small business had no background in public relations or the media."
were: Christian Bailey, a 30-year-old businessman from England, and
Paige Craig, a 31-year-old former marine intelligence officer. Before
taking the PR job in Iraq, they had racked up a string of short-lived
businesses such as Express Action, an Internet-based shipping company
that raised $14 million in startup financing during the dot-com boom
but disappeared within two years; or Motion Power, an attempt to invent
a shoe that would generate electrical power.45 Bailey had also been
active with Lead21, a fund-raising and networking operation for young
Shortly before the commencement of war in Iraq, he
set up shop in Iraq, offering "tailored intelligence services" for
"government clients faced with critical intelligence challenges." In
its various incarnations, Iraqex/Lincoln dabbled in real estate,
published a short-lived online business publication called the Iraq
Business Journal, and tried its hand at exporting scrap metal,
manufacturing construction materials, and providing logistics for U.S.
forces before finally striking gold with the Pentagon PR contract.
partnered initially with the Rendon Group, a public relations firm that
had already played a major role in leading the U.S. into war through
its work for Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. A few weeks
later, Rendon dropped out of the project and left Lincoln in charge.
Lincoln hired another Washington-based public relations firm as a
subcontractor -- BKSH & Associates, headed by Republican political
strategist Charles R. Black, Jr. BKSH is a subsidiary of
Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm whose previous experience in Iraq also
included work for Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. Other
Pentagon contracts for public relations work were awarded to SYColeman
Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, and Science Applications International
Corporation. All totaled, the PR contracts added up to $300 million
over a five-year period.
On November 30, 2005 -- the same day
that Bush gave his "Plan for Victory" speech to naval cadets --
taxpayers got their first glimpse at what was being done with their
money. The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. military
was "secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by
American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission
in Iraq. The articles, written by U.S. military 'information
operations' troops, are translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad
In an effort to mask any connection with the
military, the Pentagon had employed the Lincoln Group to translate and
place the stories. When delivering the stories to media outlets in
Baghdad, Lincoln's staff and subcontractors had sometimes posed as
freelance reporters or advertising executives. The amounts paid ranged
from $50 to $2,000 per story placed. All told, the Lincoln Group had
planted more than one thousand stories in the Iraqi and Arab press. The
U.S. Army also went directly into the journalism business itself,
launching a publication called Baghdad Now, with articles written by
some of its Iraqi translators, who received training in journalism from
a sergeant in the First Armored Division's Public Affairs Office. The
U.S. also founded and financed the Baghdad Press Club, ostensibly a
gathering place for Iraqi journalists. In December 2005, however, it
was revealed that the military had also been using the press club to
pay journalists for writing stories favorable to the U.S. and the
occupation. For each story they wrote and placed in an Iraqi newspaper,
they received $25, or $45 if the story ran with photos.
The planted stories were "basically factual," U.S. officials told the Los Angeles Times,
although they admitted that they presented only one side of events and
omitted information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi
governments. Actually, though, concealing the fact that the stories
were written and paid for by the United States was itself a form of
deception. Concealment of sponsorship, in fact, is the very standard by
which the U.S. Government Accountability Office defines propaganda. In
a 1988 report that has served as a standard ever since, the GAO stated,
"Our decisions have defined covert propaganda as materials such as
editorials or other articles prepared by an agency or its contractors
at the behest of the agency and circulated as the ostensible position
of parties outside the agency. ... A critical element of covert
propaganda is the concealment of the agency's role in sponsoring such
"In the very process of preventing misinformation from
another side, they are creating misinformation through a process that
disguises the source for information that is going out," said John J.
Schulz, the dean of Boston University's College of Communications. "You
can't be creating a model for democracy while subverting one of its
core principles, a free independent press." When the program was
exposed, government officials responded with contradictory statements.
The White House denied any knowledge of the program, and Donald
Rumsfeld said at first that it was "troubling." General Peter Pace,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was "concerned." In
Iraq, however, a military spokesman said the program was "an important
part of countering misinformation in the news by insurgents." A couple
of months later, Rumsfeld claimed that the pay-for-praise operation had
been shut down. "When we heard about it, we said, 'Gee, that's not what
we ought to be doing' and told the people down there. ... They stopped
doing that," Rumsfeld told interviewer Charlie Rose during an
appearance on public television. However, he said, "It wasn't anything
terrible that happened," and he argued that U.S. media exposure of the
program was unfortunate because it would have a "chilling effect" on
"anyone involved in public affairs in the military," preventing them
from doing "anything that the media thinks is not exactly the way we do
it in America."
The problem, in other words, was not that the
United States was running a covert propaganda operation. The problem
was that there were still independent journalists in the United States
capable of straying from the script. Even more unfortunately for
Rumsfeld, those same journalists happened to notice that he was not
telling the truth when he said the program had been shut down. Four
days after his interview with Charlie Rose, Rumsfeld was forced to
admit that he had been "mistaken" and that the program was merely
"under review." A couple of weeks later General George Casey, the top
U.S. commander in Iraq, said the military's review had found that it
was acting "within our authorities and responsibilities" in paying to
place stories in the press, and that it had no plans to stop.
is difficult to imagine that Rumsfeld and other White House officials
were as naive as they pretended to be when they denied knowledge of the
Lincoln Group's activities, since Lincoln's work was closely
coordinated with the Pentagon's psychological operations unit, a
1,200-person organization based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, whose
media center was so large that the New York Times called it
"the envy of any global communications company." The Pentagon had spent
$57.6 million on contracts to the Rendon Group and Lincoln Group -- an
amount that "is more than the annual newsroom budget allotted to most
American newsrooms to cover all the news from everywhere for an entire
year," observed Paul McLeary, a politics and media reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Spending on that scale, he added, "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."
Interviews with Lincoln Group
employees also undercut the claim that their work was some kind of
rogue operation. "In clandestine parlance, Lincoln Group was a 'cutout'
-- a third party -- that would provide the military with plausible
deniability," said a former Lincoln Group employee in an interview with
the Los Angeles Times. "To attribute products to [the military] would
defeat the entire purpose," he said. "Hence, no product by Lincoln
Group ever said 'Made in the U.S.A.'"
Another former Lincoln
employee openly scoffed at the program on grounds that it was having no
effect on Iraqi public opinion: "In my own estimation, this stuff has
absolutely no effect, and it's a total waste of money. Every Iraqi can
read right through it."
The question, then, is who was believing
it? Just who was the United States really fooling? The answer is that
it was mostly fooling itself.
Reprinted with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright © 2006.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the authors of, most recently, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (Tarcher, 2006). Stauber is the founder and director of the Center for Media & Democracy. Rampton is the founder of the website SourceWatch.org.
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/41512/