updated 2/4/2005 5:08:28 PM ET 2005-02-04T22:08:28

The Pentagon’s chief investigator is looking into the military’s practice of paying journalists to write articles and commentary for a Web site aimed at influencing public opinion in the Balkans, officials said Friday.

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At the request of Larry Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon’s inspector general, Joseph Schmitz, is reviewing that case and also looking more broadly at Pentagon activities that might involve inappropriate payments to journalists.

The Balkans Web site, called Southeast European Times, as well as a second aimed at audiences in North Africa, have no immediately obvious connection to the U.S. government but contain a linked disclaimer that says they are “sponsored by the U.S. European Command.” That is the military organization based in Germany responsible for U.S. forces and military activities in Europe and parts of Africa.

The second site, called Magharebia and aimed at the Maghreb region that encompasses Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, is still in development and has not reached the stage of having paid correspondents, said Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Kaufman, a European Command spokesman.

Both sites carry news stories compiled from The Associated Press, Reuters and other news organizations. The Pentagon’s role in these Web sites was first reported by CNN on Thursday.

‘Information operations’
The Balkans Web site also has articles and commentary by about 50 journalists who Kaufman said are paid by European Command through a private contractor, Anteon Corp., an information technology company based in Fairfax, Va.

The Web sites are examples of what the military calls “information operations,” or programs designed to influence public opinion by countering what the Pentagon considers to be misinformation or lies that circulate in the international news media. The Pentagon’s use of the Web sites has raised questions about blurring the lines between legitimate news and what some would call government propaganda.

The Balkans site grew out of the U.S. air war against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, Kaufman said. It sought to counter what U.S. officials considered a Serb propaganda machine that made effective use of the Internet.

The site aimed at North Africa was started in October 2004 and is a new weapon in the global war on terror.

“This specifically is trying to reach a youthful audience that is potentially ripe for extremist messages and terrorist recruitment,” Kaufman said. “It’s very much an effort to provide a voice of moderation, but it’s not disinformation. Every printed word is the truth.”

Journalists’ identities not disclosed
Kaufman said information warfare experts at European Command do not edit the stories written by contributing journalists for Southeast European Times, but they “review” the stories after they are processed by Anteon editors, and they sometimes change the headlines. He cited as an example a proposed headline that originally read, “Croatian Prime Minister Remembers Holocaust Victims,” which European Command changed to “Croatian Prime Minister Remarks on Dangers of Extremism,” which Kaufman said “more closely reinforced” the U.S. message.

About 50 paid correspondents contribute to Southeast European Times, including one American journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Kaufman said. Another European Command spokesman, Air Force Maj. Sarah Strachan, said many of the journalists work primarily for news organizations, although she said the details of those employers could not be provided for privacy reasons.

In a letter Thursday to the Pentagon inspector general, Di Rita asked for a comprehensive review in light of recent disclosures that other government agencies paid journalists to promote administration policies.

“I have no reason to believe there might be a problem,” Di Rita wrote, but he said a review was called for in view of the Defense Department’s size and its complex budgeting structure.

Previous case involved Education Department
Without mentioning him by name, Di Rita alluded to the case of commentator Armstrong Williams, who was hired by the Education Department — through a contract with a public relations firm — to produce ads that featured former Education Secretary Rod Paige and promoted President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Two other cases of columnists being paid to help promote administration policies have come to light in recent weeks, and Bush said Jan. 26 that the practice must stop.

“It would be most helpful to review activities going back six to eight years, as I assume many existing relationships have continued for that many years or longer,” Di Rita wrote, noting the Southeast European Times operation. “It would be appropriate to review that activity and others like it.”

It was not clear Friday whether other U.S. military commands have similar Web site operations. Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, the chief spokesman at Central Command, responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said, “We’re reviewing the utility of this kind of Web site.”

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