Shaping the Bush administration’s message on the Iraq war has taken on new fervor, just as anticipation is building for the September progress report from top military advisers.
For the Pentagon, getting out Iraq information will now include a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week Iraq Communications Desk that will pump out data from Baghdad — serving as what could be considered a campaign war room.
According to a memo circulated Thursday and obtained by The Associated Press, Dorrance Smith, assistant defense secretary for public affairs, is looking for personnel for what he called the high-priority effort to distribute Defense Department information on Iraq.
The move — requested by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England — comes as administration officials are gearing up for a rash of reports on progress in Iraq and recommendations from the military on troop levels going into next year. The key report will come from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Other reports are expected from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, retired Gen. James Jones — who will examine the progress of the Iraqi security forces — and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which will review whether the Iraqi government has hit security and political benchmarks outlined by Congress.
Official: Not a 'war room'
The Pentagon dismissed suggestions that the communications desk will be a message machine or propaganda tool, and instead said it is being set up to gather and distribute information from eight time zones away in a more efficient and timely manner.
“I would not characterize it as a war room,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday. “It’s far less sinister than that. It’s more like a library.”
Morrell called it a “smarter way of doing business” and said the intent is to “create a central clearinghouse of information so we can pull in all that is coming out of Baghdad and Iraq and have it come into one point, so we can better be able to share it with people who are interested.”
Some of the information collected, he said, would include data from briefings in Iraq, which take place when people on the U.S. East Coast are sleeping.
“It’s for our benefit and for your benefit,” said Morrell.
Strained relations at times
Defense officials familiar with the plan said it will provide information to other federal agencies, including the White House and State Department, so that officials can speak more consistently and accurately about the war.
The plan would put a team of people in the Joint Chiefs of Staff top-secret operations center.
Less than a year ago, Smith developed plans for teams of people to “develop messages” for the 24-hour news cycle and “correct the record” when news agencies put out what the Pentagon considered inaccurate information.
At the time, he outlined an operation that resembled a political campaign — such as that made famous by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign war room — calling for a “Rapid Response” section that quickly answers opponents’ assertions.
It was set up to focus more resources on the Internet and blogs and book civilian and military guests on television and radio shows.
While portions of the plan were put in place, much of it was shelved when Donald H. Rumsfeld stepped down as defense secretary and Robert Gates took over. At the time, Rumsfeld was complaining bitterly that the news media were focusing too much on bad news coming out of Iraq and not enough on progress there.
Defense officials denied that the program was a propaganda tool or that it was set up to respond to the eroding public support for the war.