WASHINGTON — The U.S. military plans to continue paying Iraqi newspapers to publish articles favorable to the United States after an inquiry found no fault with the controversial practice, the top U.S. general in Iraq said Friday.
Army Gen. George W. Casey said the internal review had concluded that the U.S. military was not violating U.S. law or Pentagon guidelines with the information operations campaign, in which U.S. troops and a private contractor write pro-American articles and pay to have them planted without attribution in Iraqi media.
"By and large, it found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities," Casey said, adding that he had no intention of shutting the program down.
The program has been criticized both inside and outside the military as detrimental to U.S. credibility and contrary to the principles of a free press in a nascent, embattled democracy.
Though the final report by Navy Adm. Scott R. Van Buskirk is not complete, Casey's comments are a clear sign that the U.S. military sees the propaganda effort as a critical tool for winning hearts and minds in Iraq.
Van Buskirk's report could pave the way for the Pentagon to replicate the practice — which would be illegal in the United States — in other parts of the world.
Casey's comments, made during a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters, also highlighted the split in attitude on the program between military commanders in Baghdad and some senior officials in Washington.
After the program's existence was revealed in an article in The Times three months ago, White House officials said they were "very concerned" about the practice of paying Iraqi newspapers to publish unattributed articles written by members of the American military.
At the same time, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently defended the program during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, saying it was an innovative tool for countering a "campaign of disinformation" by Iraqi insurgents.
Rumsfeld also criticized media coverage of the program, saying the reporting had created a "chilling effect" on efforts to improve the way the U.S. communicates with foreign audiences.
Since early last year, the program has planted hundreds of articles in Iraqi newspapers highlighting progress made by Iraqi troops, efforts to rebuild Iraq and U.S.-led offensives against insurgents.
American troops write the articles, called storyboards, which are given to the Iraqi staff of Lincoln Group, the contractor, to translate into Arabic.
The contractor's Iraqi staff pays newspaper editors in Baghdad to publish the articles without revealing their origin.
Revelations about the program brought fierce criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and from many within the Pentagon who argue that the U.S. should not pay for favorable press coverage in Iraq even as it tries to promote democracy there.
Van Buskirk's report, some fear, could lead to a proliferation of similar operations around the world. No other reviews are pending in the Pentagon or Congress.
"Other commanders could do exactly the same thing and assume it is appropriate," said one Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the internal debate underway at the Pentagon.
But the official said it was his understanding that Van Buskirk would also recommend that the Pentagon examine its regulations and procedures to determine whether it is appropriate to replicate the program.
During his briefing with reporters, Casey also addressed conditions in Iraq, saying commanders thought that the violence brought on by last month's bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra had largely subsided and that Iraq had moved away from the brink of large-scale civil war.
"Has there been violence and terrorism here in Iraq in the wake of the Samarra bombings? Clearly. Is the violence out of control? Clearly not. Now it appears that the crisis has passed," Casey said.
Casey is scheduled to meet with President Bush next week to discuss Iraq.
The general said he had not yet decided whether to recommend reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq over the summer.
For months, U.S. officials have said they plan to begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces during the summer.
To do so, military commanders must decide in the next several weeks whether to cancel the planned deployment to Iraq of several combat brigades.
Casey said he and his staff would factor the recent violence into their recommendations. "It's certainly something that we will consider in our decisions," he said.
The general said he was pleased with the performance of Iraqi troops during the recent surge in violence.
But he said the U.S. military had received reports that some Iraqi units had aided sectarian militias in Baghdad.
The reports indicated that Iraqi troops were allowing members of the Shiite Al Mahdi militia to pass through Iraqi government checkpoints.
"Obviously, this is not something that we are going to condone, nor will the Iraqi security force leadership condone," Casey said.
Pentagon officials most fear the possibility that the Iraqi military could one day fracture along sectarian and ethnic lines, paving the way for a full-blown civil war between members of a force trained and armed by the United States.
To avoid such a scenario, Casey said, one of the priorities of the Iraq effort is to disarm militias that pose a constant threat to the authority of Iraqi government troops.
"I do not believe that we will ultimately succeed until the Iraqi security forces — the police and the military — are the only ones in Iraq with guns," he said.
© Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times