The Pentagon is struggling to answer questions, including those from Congress, about a military program that planted favorable stories in Iraqi media.
Defense Department officials, summoned to a briefing Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, have remained silent about the program. Multimillion-dollar contracts cover paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to get into print such stories about the war and the rebuilding effort.
“A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media,” said the committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
Military officials in Iraq say the program is necessary.
“The purpose of this program is to ensure factual information is provided to the Iraqi public,” Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said in Iraq.
One of the companies involved — the Washington-based Lincoln Group — has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One contract, for $6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, Defense Department records show.
The other Lincoln contract, which is with the Special Operations Command, is worth up to $100 million over five years for media operations with video, print and Web-based products. That contract is not related to the dispute over propaganda and was not for services in Iraq, according to command spokesman Ken McGraw.
The Lincoln Group shares that Special Operations contract with SYColeman, a division of L-3 Communications, and Science Applications International Corp., a San Diego-based defense contractor.
The program came to light just as President Bush released his strategy for victory in Iraq. It includes the need to support a “free, independent and responsible Iraqi media.”
“We’re very concerned,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “We are seeking more information from the Pentagon.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., characterized the program as a scheme that “speaks volumes about the president’s credibility gap. If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn’t have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said late Thursday he was still trying to gather information from U.S. military officials in Baghdad.
A military spokesman in the Iraqi capital was asked if the program undercuts the credibility of the military or the news media. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch quoted a senior al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, as saying that “half the battle is the battlefield of the media.”
Lynch said the terrorists lie to the Iraqi people, but the American military does not.
“Everything we do is based on fact not based on fiction,” Lynch said.