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2006-03-24

The PsyOps War: A Look at the Lincoln Group and the U.S. Military’s Planting of Stories in the Iraqi Press

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The Pentagon defends its policy of paying Iraqi news organizations to publish pro-American articles secretly written by the U.S. military. Its contractor, the Lincoln Group is being paid over a hundred million dollars to write and plant stories. We speak with reporter Andrew Buncombe of the London Independent and retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner. [includes rush transcript]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday the Pentagon will review whether it is proper for the military to pay Iraqi news organizations to publish pro-American articles secretly written by U.S. forces.

Earlier in the day, Marine Corps General Peter Pace–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–called for a formal review of the policy and said that the military should disclose when it pays for a story. He said, "The worst thing you can have is people feeling like somehow they’ve been snookered."

Last November, the Los Angeles Times first revealed that the US military was secretly planting stories in the Iraqi press. Articles written by U.S. military "information operations" are translated into Arabic and then placed in Iraqi newspapers with the help of Washington-based defense contractor the Lincoln Group. The articles are presented to an Iraqi audience as unbiased news accounts written by independent journalists. The Lincoln Group’s contract is worth up to $100 million dollars over five years.

When the secret propaganda program was first revealed even the White House admitted it was "very concerned" about the practice. But earlier this month, the top Pentagon brass insisted it will go on. General George Casey said an internal review of the program had "found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities." Pentagon officials told the New York Times this week that the Lincoln Group remains under contract, and would continue its activities unless the military revises its policies.

In February, Rumsfeld gave a major address on information warfare at the Council on Foreign Relations. In it, he criticized the media’s coverage of the Iraq war and defended the military practice of planting stories.

For more on the story we are joined by two guests:

  • Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent for the London Independent.
  • Col. Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force Colonel. He has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, AirWar College and Naval War College.

AMY GOODMAN: In February, Rumsfeld gave a major address on information warfare at the Council on Foreign Relations. In it, Rumsfeld criticized the media’s coverage of the Iraq war and defended the military practice of planting stories.

DONALD RUMSFELD: In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military command, working closely with the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy, has sought nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people in the face of aggressive campaign of disinformation, yet this has been portrayed as inappropriate. For example, the allegations of someone in the military hiring a contractor, and the contractor allegedly paying someone to print a story, a true story, but paying to print a story, for example.

The resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything, all activity, all initiative to stop — just frozen. Even worse, it leads to a chilling effect for those who are asked to serve in the military public affairs field. The conclusion to be drawn logically for anyone in the military who is asked to do something involving public affairs is that there is no tolerance for innovation, much less for human error, that could conceivably be seized upon by a press that seems to demand perfection from the government, but does not apply the same standard to the enemy, or even sometimes to themselves.

Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment. Some additional photographs have come out just this week. This, of course, was an event where the policy of the President and the policy of the government was for humane treatment and was against torture, and there were some people on a night shift who engaged in mistreatment of detainees.

So this week, again, out of Australia, I guess, some same pictures, similar pictures, same event, of people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq, who did some things that they have since been punished for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But weigh the numbers of column inches and hours of television involving that event, for example, against the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, which were filled with literally hundreds of thousands of human beings, innocent Iraqis who were killed. That’s the reality of the world in which we must operate and in which our forces are fighting. The terrorists are trained. We’ve seen the so-called "Manchester Manual." They’re trained to lie. They’re trained to allege that they’ve been tortured. They’re trained to put out misinformation, and they’re very good at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went on to stress the importance of information warfare.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake, and the center of gravity of that struggle is not simply on the battlefields overseas. It’s a test of wills, and it will be won or lost with our publics and with the publics of other nations. We’ll need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts and to correct the lies that are being told, which so damage our country, and which are repeated and repeated and repeated.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this story, we’re joined by Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent for the London Independent, who has covered the Lincoln Group and the military practice of planting news stories. He’s joining us in Washington, D.C. And on the phone from Virginia, we’re joined by Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel. He has taught strategy in military operations at the National War College, Air War College, and Naval War College. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Andrew Buncombe, we begin with you. Tell us about the Lincoln Group. Who started it? Who pays for it?

ANDREW BUNCOMBE: The Lincoln Group remains to this day a somewhat mysterious and hidden group based here in Washington. They were set up five or six years ago, essentially, by a young British guy called Christian Bailey. That wasn’t his first name; his first name was Christian Jozefowicz. He changed his name whilst he was at university at Oxford, and since then, it seems his career has been one of shifting and moving and perhaps not being as forthcoming about the truth as one would hope.

He’s only a young chap; he’s 30, 31. He’s got no experience in public relations, and yet last summer he landed a $100 million contract for planting faux news stories, should we say, within the Iraqi media. These weren’t technically false stories; they were technically true, but they portrayed an inaccurate and unbalanced picture of what’s going in Iraq, essentially bribes, because the Iraqi journalists were being paid vast amounts of money, relatively vast amounts of money, to put these stories in, essentially out of the control of their editors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, how does a young person with no experience, even in the public relations field, manage to land a $100 million contract?

ANDREW BUNCOMBE: I think they call it "networking," and as you probably know, Washington is the prime city for networking. What Mr. Bailey assiduously did since arriving in the U.S. in the late 1990s, first in San Francisco, then in New York, then in D.C., he very meticulously developed a network of contacts, up-and-coming young professionals, mostly linked to the Republican Party. He courted them assiduously. He’s a very charming young man from all accounts, and he saw an opportunity. He made a partnership with a former Marine, a guy called Paige Craig, who took care of the Iraqi end of the business, and in the aftermath of the invasion back in the spring of 2003, they leapt on an opportunity to go and make their fortune, as many other companies across the U.S. and Britain have done, you know, on the spoils of the war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, he also claims to have as a partner in his company a group called WCV3 Security. Could you tell us about them?

ANDREW BUNCOMBE: Well, if you look on their website, they list a number of groups and people and individuals who they say have been partners with them and have helped them over the years. A lot of those people have since pointed out that their partnership with Mr. Bailey and the Lincoln Group have been all but fleeting. They have since ceased and never really amounted to much. The one group that you mentioned, from memory, is a consulting firm out in northern Virginia. One of their senior executives was involved in the attempt during the last election — you’ll remember back in October — sorry, the summer of 2004, I think it was August, — the swift boat affair that was one of the things that severely damaged John Kerry’s campaign. That was the group of veterans, which essentially portrayed a false picture of John Kerry’s war record and questioned his claims about his service in Vietnam and the Cambodian border. That involved one of this group’s chief executives, who took unpaid leave to go work on that project.

AMY GOODMAN: And that project, of course, was Stolen Honor, the famous film that was aired around the country.

ANDREW BUNCOMBE: That’s absolutely right.

AMY GOODMAN: Aimed at discrediting John Kerry. Andrew Buncombe with us, Washington correspondent for the London Independent. Also Colonel Sam Gardiner on the line with us, retired U.S. Air Force colonel, who is very familiar with PsyOps, with psychological operations. Can you respond to the Pentagon saying the Lincoln Group is doing a good job, even if right now General Peter Pace is saying they’re going to review further what the Pentagon is doing, the whole issue of planting stories?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Sure, Amy. What — if I had to sort of — I would say they’re doing some good things, but they’re doing bad things, and it may be the bad things come from their lack of experience or this attitude that seems to exist within the Department of Defense that it’s better — it’s 'the story is more important than what you do,' which seems to dominate it.

The good things — I mean, they’re doing sort of typical psychological operations stuff. For example, they printed for the Marine Corps labels that went on water bottles that they handed to pilgrims in Iraq, and the label said, "If you see a terrorist, please call this phone number." Now, that’s not bad, that’s good psychological operations. It doesn’t destroy democracy. It doesn’t destroy the faith of the people. That’s the kind of thing that they ought to be doing.

But when you begin to — gosh, when I hear the Secretary of Defense talk about this, I worry that he doesn’t really — doesn’t really want to defend democracy, because he doesn’t trust it. And that is, when you have to make up stories to sell the thing that you’re trying to defend, you’ve gone down a bad road. And that seems to be what he talks about, and that seems to be what — part of what we’re seeing from the Lincoln Group.

Now, the good news is, that you’ve mentioned, is I think General Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said and probably upset the Secretary of Defense, that ’I’m not’ — I’m sort of paraphrasing him now — ’I’m not sure this makes sense when we do this kind of thing.’ Good on him. This is the second or third time that he’s stood up to the Secretary of Defense.

The other thing that Rumsfeld said in that piece that you quoted, he sort of, in his mind, he mixed public affairs and psychological operations. "Public affairs" is what the Pentagon tells us. "Psychological operations" is what they tell the enemy. The former chief of staff, General Myers, was very concerned that these were coming together, like it sounded as if Secretary Rumsfeld wanted them to. They have to be separated, or we end up with a situation where the people who are supposed to be making democracy work don’t have the truth to deal with, and then we’ve got real problems.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But there is this other area, not of what, as you say, public relations that they tell us or psychological operations against the enemy, but the public that surrounds, let’s say, an insurgent force, and there’s been a long history within the United States government of trying to influence public opinion through, quote, "legitimate press." I remember studies written about — in Guatemala, how the C.I.A., in the run-up to the 1954 coup against Arbenz, planted numerous stories in the Guatemalan press to sort of prepare public opinion for it, and most recently the — it was revealed in papers of the COINTELPRO F.B.I. operations in Puerto Rico how the F.B.I. regularly wrote and planted and got editors of legitimate newspapers to plant stories against the independence movement. So, there’s been somewhat of a history of our government, unfortunately, resorting to using legitimate press to sort of shape public opinion.

COL. SAM GARDINER: Right, Juan, and you’ve, you know, you’ve probably had to mention the C.I.A. in most of those. There is a law which forbids the government to plant false stories in American press. The problem with technology is it’s now no longer possible to separate those. So we get false stories that are planted overseas.

But let me just use an example in the early part of the Gulf War. About day one in Gulf II, the Pentagon reported, and it was reported in Doha, that the 51st Division, which was the division that Iraq had defending down there, had surrendered in total. The commander and all the people had surrendered. Now, that was put in, because the military wanted the people of Iraq to believe that the fighting was going very much on our side, and the units were disintegrating. That was not true, and the British ended up fighting this 51st Division in Basra for almost a week afterwards.

It’s a good psychological operations technique to say that to the military in Iraq, but with current technologies, that was said to the American people, and it was not true. It was a lie. And that’s where the psychological operations and the public affairs have become mixed, and, you know, it’s hard to tell, you know, when we’re getting the truth and when we’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Sam Gardiner, who is very experienced in whole issue of PsyOps, psychological operations, and Andrew Buncombe of the Independent. Andrew, when the whole operation takes place in Iraq, the planting of these stories, can you tell us about the process, the storyboards, how Iraqi journalists get these stories, the Pentagon writers who write them?

ANDREW BUNCOMBE: Yeah, I can tell you something. I can’t tell you everything, the reason being that the Pentagon refuses to reveal its hand in this still. I spent some time trying to obtain examples of the stories that were being printed. That was refused on the basis that this investigation was still ongoing. Perhaps now that it’s been concluded, we’ll see what they were actually doing. But there were a number of ways. The stories were written by American troops, the Joint Operations Command — sorry, the Joint Psychological Operations Command. I’m sure that the colonel can correct me if I have got that wrong. But there are British troops trained to do this stuff, and they were either paid for or they were provided to editors through go-betweens in Iraq. Very often Iraqi editors didn’t require payment. They were happy just to print stuff to fill their pages. In other cases, they were paid up to $1,000 to pay them.

What they also did, however, was that they courted local Iraqi journalists, correspondents, reporters. They established a so-called Baghdad Press Club, something which never previously existed, but a system whereby journalists would be invited to attend a Lincoln Group facility, and they’d be given money or gifts to go back to their offices and say they had these stories.

Now I spoke to some Iraqi newspaper editors who said — who were trying to professionalize the journalism post-Saddam Hussein, and they said there was no way they could compete with this, because in one morning an Iraqi journalist would be receiving from the Lincoln Group a month’s wages. Now, how do you deal with that if you’re an editor? How do you say, 'Well, that's not the sort of thing that we want,’ when, obviously, you can’t check out your sources for every story that every reporter brings in and you’re relying a lot on trust? And if you’re an Iraqi journalist, why would you necessarily think anything wrong was happening, if you didn’t know this was being done by the military?

Remember, of course, the U.S. military hid its hand in all of this; it didn’t come out and say, 'This is being done by the U.S. military.' That’s what the Lincoln Group is there for. Indeed, they hid their hand, and you know, let’s be honest, if you’re being given a month’s salary for a morning’s work and you’ve got a family, and given the chaos and violence and madness that is the current situation in Iraq, who would not be tempted to take that money and to run with the story?

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but Colonel Sam Gardiner, you referred to a law, the Smith-Mundt Act, that prevents the propaganda — the government from putting it out in this country, but it can be done internationally. Now, with the global media, with the internet, would you venture to speculate, if some of this that they say is directed to the Iraqi population is actually the main point is to have it recycled back into the United States as a PsyOps operation right here at home?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, the Secretary of Defense told us he wanted to do that, and he was going to do that, when he started out with the Strategic Influence Group. Now, that still exists, and it has been transferred down to this contracting unit that contracted with the Lincoln Group, which is the Special Operations Command. And they have worldwide responsibilities, and I — yeah, I think it certainly exists, and it’s part of what’s been making up the story.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. We certainly will continue to follow these stories, these planted stories. Colonel Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel, taught strategy and military operations at various military colleges here in this country, and Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent for the London Independent.

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