Retired soldier Bill Roggio was a computer technician living in New Jersey less than two months ago when a Marine officer half a world away made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the news media, the Marines invited Roggio, 35, who writes a popular Web log about the military called "The Fourth Rail" (http://www.billroggio.com), to come cover the war from the front lines.
He raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment and body armor. A few weeks later, he was posting dispatches from a remote outpost in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Iraq's insurgency.
"I was disenchanted with the reporting on the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror and felt there was much to the conflict that was missed," Roggio, who is currently stationed with Marines along the Syrian border, wrote in an e-mail response to written questions. "What is often seen as an attempt at balanced reporting results in underreporting of the military's success and strategy and an overemphasis on the strategically minor success of the jihadists or insurgents."
Roggio's arrival in Iraq comes amid what military commanders and analysts say is an increasingly aggressive battle for control over information about the conflict. Scrutiny of what the Pentagon calls information operations heightened late last month, when news reports revealed that the U.S. military was paying Iraqi journalists and news organizations to publish favorable stories written by soldiers, sometimes without disclosing the military's role in producing them.
"I am convinced that information operations from both sides are increasing and intensifying. I think both sides are beginning to understand that this struggle will be waged in both the kinetic and informational realms, but that the latter is the decisive area of operations," wrote Daniel Kuehl, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington who specializes in information operations. "The insurgents target several audiences, including the Islamic world and the American populace."
Paying for TV coverage
In addition, the military has paid money to try to place favorable coverage on television stations in three Iraqi cities, according to an Army spokesman, Maj. Dan Blanton. The military, said Blanton, has given one of the stations about $35,000 in equipment, is building a new facility for $300,000 and pays $600 a week for a weekly program that focuses positively on U.S. efforts in Iraq. The names of the city and the television station are being withheld because the producer of the show said he and his staff would be seen as collaborators and endangered if identified.
A local U.S. Army National Guard commander acknowledged that his officers "suggest" stories to the station and review the content of the program in a weekly meeting before it is aired. Though the commander, a lieutenant colonel whose name is being withheld because he is based in the same area, denied that payments were made to the station, the Iraqi television producer said his staff got $1,000 a month from the military. It does not disclose any financial relationship to viewers. There was no explanation of the discrepancy between that amount and the figure of $600 per week provided by Blanton.
"The coalition forces support us," said the producer, who added that while the U.S. military reviews each program, "they don't change anything."
But he also said military commanders suggest stories, often about U.S. reconstruction projects or community efforts by the military. He acknowledged that the program portrays American military projects in a positive light.
The commander said: "We want a free and independent press. We found this small little TV [station] and asked if they are able to work with us. Our only guide to them is to tell our story, good or bad."
Military officials say they have stepped up their responses to insurgent groups' attempts to influence news coverage -- including attacks aimed at media organizations, such as a pair of recent bombings at Baghdad hotels where journalists stay, attacks that officers and analysts said were designed to generate large-scale coverage.
"The American media seems to be either unaware or unconcerned that when it carries video of an [improvised bomb attack], it is running terrorist video and thus doing their work for them," Kuehl said.
Militant media manipulation
On Dec. 2, in an incident reported by media outlets around the world, insurgents briefly massed in the streets of Ramadi, the violence-plagued capital of Anbar province. Some reporters at the scene were told by rifle-toting guerrillas to publish accounts claiming the city had been taken over by insurgents. The Marines said the incident, which ended when insurgents left the streets after only minor clashes with U.S. troops, was staged to influence media coverage.
"We were told in no uncertain terms by several news organizations that Ramadi was lost and subsequently asked what our plan to retake the city was," said Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, public affairs officer for the 2nd Marine Division, which is based in Ramadi. "This was clearly a propagandist victory for the insurgents and further reinforced the perception that the media is biased against coalition forces."
A few days later, after an insurgent bomb attack on Marines at a factory complex in the city of Fallujah, some television networks aired what they described as a video showing the attack. In it, a large explosion consumed an American Humvee and some troops walking beside it.
The military quickly issued a statement calling the tape "disinformation."
"The circumstances of the IED attack near Fallujah do not match those shown on the video," the statement said, using the military acronym for improvised explosive device, or makeshift bomb. "While we are unable to discern if the video is authentic, the statement claiming that the video shows the Dec. 3 IED attack near Fallujah is false."
At the same time, the military also put out false information about the Fallujah attack and later corrected it. In an initial statement, it said the bombing targeted a "foot patrol." A subsequent release said the Marines involved were holding a promotion ceremony in a local factory complex when the bomb went off.
Pool said he spends a growing portion of his time working to dispel what he calls erroneous tips from insurgents to reporters, including regular reports of Marines taken captive or helicopters downed.
"We now take all of these rumors seriously," he said. "We also use different [media] to get our messages out."
He said he recently began distributing his news releases to military bloggers and organizations such as veterans associations. The Marines also took a more direct approach by inviting Roggio to cover their operations.
"A thorough review of his work was taken into account before authorizing the embed," said Pool. "Overall, it has worked out really well."
Bloggers: Independent reporters
Pool also praised the work of Michael Yon (http://michaelyon.blogspot.com), an independent author and blogger who embedded for almost a year with a U.S. Army unit in the northern city of Mosul.
"His reporting was objective, credible and compelling. But most of all, it was independent," Pool said. "He didn't have to worry about some editor back in the States altering what he wrote before it got published. Plus, he had no competition from other news sources to churn out a 'marketable' product on a day-to-day basis."
After military officials in Baghdad said Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization in Washington, offered him an affiliation, according to an entry on Roggio's blog. He and two other bloggers launched a new Web site a month ago (http://threatswatch.com), where he has posted many stories about his time with the Marines. Most provide detailed accounts of patrols or other outings on which he accompanied U.S. forces.
When news organizations began reporting about the insurgent activity in Ramadi on Dec. 1, Roggio posted "The Ramadi Debacle: The Media Bites on Al Qaeda Propaganda."
"The reported 'mini-Tet offensive' in Ramadi has turned out to be less than accurate," he wrote, citing information provided by Pool. "In fact, it has been anything but."
On Dec. 15, when Iraqis voted in nationwide elections, Roggio reported from Barwana, a Western town where turnout was far heavier than in Iraq's constitutional referendum held Oct. 15.
"Barwana, once part of Zarqawi self declared 'Islamic Republic of Iraq,' " he wrote, "is now the scene of al-Qaeda's greatest nightmare: Muslims exercising their constitutional right to chose their destiny."