The Defense Department will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.
The new contracts -- awarded last week to four companies -- will expand and consolidate what the U.S. military calls "information/psychological operations" in Iraq far into the future, even as violence appears to be abating and U.S. troops have begun drawing down.
The military's role in the war of ideas has been fundamentally transformed in recent years, the result of both the Pentagon's outsized resources and a counterinsurgency doctrine in which information control is considered key to success. Uniformed communications specialists and contractors are now an integral part of U.S. military operations from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond.
Iraq, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on such contracts, has been the proving ground for the transformation. "The tools they're using, the means, the robustness of this activity has just skyrocketed since 2003. In the past, a lot of this stuff was just some guy's dreams," said a senior U.S. military official, one of several who discussed the sensitive defense program on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon still sometimes feels it is playing catch-up in a propaganda market dominated by al-Qaeda, whose media operations include sophisticated Web sites and professionally produced videos and audios featuring Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. "We're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave," Secretary Robert M. Gates often remarks.
But Defense Department officials think their own products have become increasingly imaginative and competitive. Military and contractor-produced media campaigns, spotlighting killings by insurgents, "helped in developing attitudes" that led Iraqis to reject al-Qaeda in Iraq over the past two years, an official said. Now that the insurgency is in disarray, he said, the same tools "could potentially be helpful" in diminishing the influence of neighboring Iran.
U.S.-produced public service broadcasts and billboards have touted improvements in government services, promoted political reconciliation, praised the Iraqi military and encouraged Iraqi citizens to report criminal activity. When national euphoria broke out last year after an Iraqi singer won a talent contest in Lebanon, the U.S. military considered producing an Iraqi version of "American Idol" to help build nonsectarian nationalism. The idea was shelved as too expensive, an official said, but "we're trying to think out of the box on" reconciliation.
One official described how part of the program works: "There's a video piece produced by a contractor . . . showing a family being attacked by a group of bad guys, and their daughter being taken off. The message is: You've got to stand up against the enemy." The professionally produced vignette, he said, "is offered for airing on various [television] stations in Iraq. . . . They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything."
"If you asked most Iraqis," he said, "they would say, 'It came from the government, our own government.' "
The Pentagon's solicitation for bids on the contracts noted that media items produced "may or may not be non-attributable to coalition forces." "If they thought we were doing it, it would not be as effective," another official said of the Iraqis. "In the Middle East, they are so afraid they're going to be Westernized . . . that you have to be careful when you're trying to provide information to the population."
The Army's counterinsurgency manual, which Gen. David H. Petraeus co-wrote in 2006, describes information operations in detail, citing them among the "critical" military activities "that do not involve killing insurgents." Petraeus, who became the top U.S. commander in Iraq early last year, led a "surge" in combat troops and information warfare.
Some of the new doctrine emerged from Petraeus's own early experience in Iraq. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Nineveh province in 2003, he ensured that war-ravaged radio and television stations were brought rapidly back on line. At his urging, the first TV programs included "Nineveh Talent Search" and a radio call-in show hosted by his Arabic interpreter, Sadi Othman, a Palestinian American.
Othman, a former New York cabdriver employed by Reston-based SOS International, remained at Petraeus's side during the general's subsequent Iraq deployments; the company refers to him as a senior adviser to Petraeus.
SOSi has been one of the most prominent communications contractors working in Iraq, winning a two-year $200 million contract in 2006 to "assist in gathering information, conducting analysis and providing timely solutions and advice regarding cultural, religious, political, economic and public perceptions."
"We definitely believe this is a growth area in the DOD," said Julian Setian, SOSi's chief operating officer. "We are seeing more and more requests for professional assistance in media-related strategic communications efforts, specifically in gauging of perceptions in foreign media with regard to U.S. operations."
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The four companies that will share in the new contract are SOSi, the Washington-based Lincoln Group, Alexandria-based MPRI and Leonie Industries, a Los Angeles contractor. All specialize in strategic communications and have done previous defense work.
Defense officials maintained that strict rules are enforced against disseminating false information. "Our enemies have the luxury of not having to tell the truth," Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman told a congressional hearing last month. "We pay an extremely high price if we ever even make a slight error in putting out the facts."
Contractors require security clearances, and proof that their teams possess sufficient linguistic abilities and knowledge of Iraqi culture. The Iraqi government has little input on U.S. operations, although U.S. officials say they have encouraged Iraqis to be more aggressive in molding public support.
The Pentagon is sensitive to criticism that it has sometimes blurred the lines between public-affairs activities and unattributed propaganda. As information operations in Iraq expanded, some senior officers warned that they risked a return to psychological and deception operations discredited during the Vietnam War.
In 2006, the Pentagon's inspector general found that media work that the Lincoln Group did in Iraq was improperly supervised but legal. The contractor had prepared news items considered favorable to the U.S. military and paid to place them in the Iraqi media without attribution. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that his initial reaction to the anonymous pay-to-publish program was "Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing."
On Aug. 21, the day before bids on the new contract were closed, the solicitation was reissued to replace repeated references to information and psychological operations with the term "media services."
Senior military officials said that current media placement is done through Iraqi middlemen and that broadcast time is usually paid. But they said they knew of no recent instance of payment to place unattributed newspaper articles. The officials maintained that news items are now a minor part of the operation, which they said is focused on public service promotions and media monitoring.
But a lengthy list of "deliverables" under the new contract proposal includes "print columns, press statements, press releases, response-to-query, speeches and . . . opinion editorials"; radio broadcasts "in excess of 300 news stories" monthly and 150 each on sports and economic themes; and 30- and 60-minute broadcast documentary and entertainment series.
Contractors will also develop and maintain Web sites; assess news articles in the Iraqi, U.S. and international media; and determine ways to counter coverage deemed negative, according to the contract solicitation the government posted in May. Polls and focus groups will be used to monitor Iraqi attitudes under a separate three-year contract totaling up to $45 million.
While U.S. law prohibits the use of government money to direct propaganda at U.S. audiences, the "statement of work" included in the proposal, written by the U.S. Joint Contracting Command in Iraq, notes the need to "communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (i.e. Iraqi, pan-Arabic, International, and U.S. audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of [U.S. and Iraqi government] core themes and messages."
Lawmakers have often challenged the propriety of the military's information operations, even when they take place outside the United States. The Pentagon itself has frequently lamented the need to undertake duties beyond combat and peacekeeping, and Gates has publicly questioned the "creeping militarization" of tasks civilians traditionally perform.
In 2006, President Bush put the State Department in charge of the administration's worldwide "strategic communications," but the size of the military's efforts dwarf those of the diplomats. State estimates it will spend $5.6 million on public diplomacy in Iraq in fiscal 2008. A provision in the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization Bill has called for a "close examination" of the State and defense communications programs "to better formulate a comprehensive strategy."
Some inside the military itself have questioned the effectiveness of the defense program. "I'm not a huge fan" of information operations, one military official said, adding that Iraqi opinions -- as for most people -- are formed more by what they experience than by what they read in a newspaper, hear on the radio or see on billboards.
"A lot of money is being thrown around," he said, "and I'm not sure it's all paying off as much as we think it is."