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2006-08-21

"I Was a Propaganda Intern in Iraq"–Fmr. Lincoln Group Intern Describes Paying Iraqi Press to Plant Pro-American Articles Secretly Written by U.S. Military

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We speak with Willem Marx, a former intern with the Washington-based government contractor, the Lincoln Group. He spent a summer in Baghdad paying to plant pro-American articles secretly written by the U.S. military in the Iraqi press. [includes rush transcript]

He held a loaded submachine gun while being driven through Baghdad by two Kurdish security men.

He had three million dollars in cash locked inside his bedroom in the Green Zone.

Armed with a gun, he interrogated Iraqi employees about whether they were doing their job.

He spent a summer in Baghdad paying to plant pro-American articles in the Iraqi press that were secretly written by the US military.

He was just 22 years old and he was an intern at the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based government contractor. The company gained notoriety last November after the Los Angeles Times first revealed it was being paid by the Pentagon to plant stories in the Iraqi press as part of a secret military propaganda campaign. A subsequent Pentagon investigation in March cleared the Lincoln Group of any wrongdoing.

Today, we speak with that former intern of the Lincoln Group. Willem Marx is a freelance writer and a graduate student in journalism at New York University. His article detailing his experience is published in the latest issue of Harpers Magazine. It’s titled "Misinformation Intern: My summer as a military propagandist in Iraq." He joins us on the line from Uzbekistan.

  • Willem Marx, former intern with the Lincoln Group in Iraq.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we speak with that former intern of the Lincoln Group — his name, Willem Marx. He joins us on the line from Uzbekistan. He’s a freelance writer and a graduate student in journalism at New York University. His piece — his latest piece appears in Harper’s magazine, detailing his experience. It’s called "Misinformation Intern: My Summer as a Military Propagandist in Iraq." Willem Marx, thank you for joining us.

WILLEM MARX: Hi, Amy. Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t you start out just explaining, how did you get this job?

WILLEM MARX: Well, it started when I was approaching my final exams at Oxford just over a year ago, and a cousin of mine who lived in New York told me about a company that was offering internships in Baghdad. I had a place to study at NYU the following September, and I thought that a summer working in Iraq would be a very good experience for me as a burgeoning young reporter. And I sent off my resume. I saw a sort of position offered as a media intern. It didn’t give a huge amount of detail. And it seemed like an opportunity that very few people my age would get. And having sent off my resume, I was contacted by the company, went through a few telephone interviews, and soon found myself flying over to D.C. to pick up a military identification card and then, a few days later, landing in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: When you came to this country, you met the founders of the Lincoln Group?

WILLEM MARX: Yes, I did. Two men — one called Christian Bailey, who is a Brit like me, and another former Marine called Paige Craig, who — they have their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us any more about them and about that part of —

WILLEM MARX: Absolutely. Absolutely. I arrived in D.C., having not been there for a few years, since I visited a cousin at a university there. I didn’t know the city very well. They put me up in a hotel near their office, and the morning after I had arrived, I walked up there. It was on K Street, the heart of the lobbying industry. And I was introduced to both of them. Paige Craig was very military, not particularly friendly, and just, you know, muttered a few words to me, whereas Christian Bailey had also gone to Oxford, and so we chatted about that for a while.

Neither of them were very forthcoming really about what I would be doing out in Iraq. Pretty sort of sketchy on details. But both, you know, were telling me there were great opportunities for young people like me. They were a company that was growing rapidly. And they welcomed me on board and wished me good luck.

AMY GOODMAN: Willem Marx, we’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back to hear about your time in Iraq, your time in the Green Zone and out. Willem Marx, former intern with the Lincoln Group. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Willem Marx. We’re speaking to him now in Uzbekistan, a freelance writer and graduate student, spent the summer, last summer, in Iraq as an intern with the Lincoln Group and has written a piece about it in the latest edition of Harper’s magazine called "Misinformation Intern: My Summer as a Military Propagandist in Iraq." Willem Marx, had either man who founded the Lincoln Group been to Iraq?

WILLEM MARX: Yes. Paige Craig, the former Marine, had certainly spent a lot of time there, I think after the initial invasion in March 2003, and from what I understood, he went out there to try and facilitate business opportunities for foreign investors and in a very roundabout way ended up with a contract for, I think, what they call "strategic communications" with the U.S. military.

The other, the Brit, Christian Bailey, had never, when I first met him, been out to Iraq, and he explained to me that every time he meant to go out there, something would come up in D.C., and he was needed to stay behind. Just after I left, at the end of August, I think he made a trip out there for a few days, but as far as I’m aware, that’s the only time he’s been there.

AMY GOODMAN: So you got on a plane and went to Baghdad. Describe your experience there.

WILLEM MARX: Well, I arrived in Baghdad airport and was taken to a villa in the Green Zone via Camp Victory. After about a week of twiddling my thumbs and not really doing a lot, I became rather impatient and emailed people back in D.C., saying, you know, "What am I doing here? I thought I was going to be doing some work." And within a day or two, I was taken to lunch by another employee, and he explained to me in detail what exactly it was the Lincoln Group was doing. And I was going to take over his position, because he was going on holiday, so — on vacation, I should say.

And what he was doing was receiving English-written articles by soldiers in a certain unit inside Camp Victory, the major U.S. base just south of Baghdad. He was choosing which of those articles would be published in Iraqi newspapers. He was sending them to Iraqi employees, getting them translated into Arabic, getting them okayed by the command back at Camp Victory and then having other Iraqi employees run them down to Iraqi newspapers, where they would pay editors, sub-editors, commissioning editors to run them as news stories in the Iraqi newspapers. And that was the role, you know, after about a week or ten days of me being there, that I took over.

And for the first two or three weeks of that, things seemed to go according to plan. I obviously wasn’t hugely happy about the work I was doing, but I saw it as a very, very interesting insight into how both the U.S. military operate in Iraq and also how contractors operate there. And things started to get slightly more exciting, in that the company was offered a much larger contract to do all sorts of other types of media placement, both on television and radio, and the internet and through posters around Baghdad. And I was involved in setting up some of the budgeting and the execution of this larger contract, which was worth $10 million a month for the company.

AMY GOODMAN: $10 million. According to MSNBC, "In December 2005, Pentagon documents indicate the Lincoln Group […] received a $100 million contract to help produce these favorable articles, translate [them] into Arabic, get them placed in Iraqi newspapers and not reveal the Pentagon’s role."

WILLEM MARX: I think MSNBC has got it slightly confused. The Lincoln Group was one of three companies also offered — also contracted for up to $100 million for a contract with the Psychological Operations Joint Task Force, I think it’s called, down in Florida. And that $100 million was dependent on pictures they made, ideas they came up with and could then sell to the military. That contract, with Lincoln Group at least, has been canceled, I think as recently as this month. I think I saw a piece in the Washington Post reporting that. So that $100 million, very little of it was ever given to the company, I think, and it was certainly touted by them as one of their major crowning achievements. But these are $20 million over two months, the $10 million a month for media placement in Iraq, was a separate contract with the military in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Willem, talk about how you chose these articles. Talk about the generals you communicated with, what the content of the articles were.

WILLEM MARX: Sure. Well, I’d get about five a day from this unit inside Camp Victory. And they’d vary from profiles of an Iraqi policewoman, maybe, to stories about factories opening, hospitals opening, terrorists being eliminated. And I tried as much as possible to stay away from those that dealt with terrorism and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I thought they were particularly inflammatory, often badly informed about local feelings towards insurgents in Iraq.

And I tried as much as possible to push pieces which talked about reconstruction. I’d pass those ones onto Iraqi employees, that talked about hospitals being rebuilt, and they were very clinical stories. There was not often a lot of art to the writing, but I felt that those were definitely stories that, you know, the mainstream media, both in Iraq and elsewhere, would not be writing about, purely because they would have no access to them. And it was the kind of positive spin on the situation that I felt more comfortable with using.

AMY GOODMAN: And then —

WILLEM MARX: And I’d — sorry, yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about then what you would do once you chose these articles? Who would you transmit them to?

WILLEM MARX: I would send them to an Iraqi in Lincoln Group’s downtown Iraqi office, which was staffed entirely by local Iraqis, and he would choose one of the translators they had there, get it turned into Arabic, send back to me. I unfortunately don’t read Arabic at all well. And I would then send it to the command. I think they had an Iraqi translator there themselves, who would check that it more or less followed the original English. They would rubber stamp it, and I would then send it back to the Iraqi office saying, "This is good to go. Put it in newspaper A, B, or C."

And from there, the process really was beyond my control, and they would do their best to place it in the newspaper I’d ask them to put it in, and often they didn’t, and I began to grow suspicious about why exactly they weren’t putting it in certain newspapers. And that led to what was, to me, the most shocking episode of my time in Iraq, when I was called upon to question some of the Iraqi employees at the downtown office as to why articles were being placed in newspapers we hadn’t asked them to be put in and also why they were charging these newspapers far more than they had when I’d first arrived, the suspicion being that Iraqi employees were taking a cut of the money they then expensed the company.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you explain that whole journey, how you left the Green Zone and went to conduct this interrogation?

WILLEM MARX: It was extraordinary. I was asked by my boss at the company to look into — you know, I’d noticed these discrepancies myself in the kind of flow charts we kept, which monitored how many articles were published and where, and I saw there were some very strange goings on in these records, and I was sent to go and investigate, myself. So I took a friend from the Green Zone, an Iraqi guy who lived nearby and worked more or less as a handyman for another American contractor. He agreed to come down as a mutual sort of friend of mine and translator, who the other Iraqi employees wouldn’t know and would not be able to follow or suspect, in case there was any foul play to be experienced.

And he and I drove down to this downtown office through all the checkpoints, sort of mid-afternoon, I would say, arrived at this office, which, of course, is bolted and relatively heavily guarded inside this apartment building. And I went straight to the head of the Iraqi office and said, "I want to speak to such-and-such and such-and-such and ask them about these discrepancies." And I, at this stage, had no idea who was really involved, who was guilty and, because my Arabic was very rudimentary, I very rarely understood much of what was sort of said in front of me, so it was difficult to know who I should be trusting. And I sat down with one employee after another and really questioned them about their involvement in the publishing of these stories and whether they had been taking kickbacks in connivance with local editors.

And the really startling episode I write about is sitting down with one of these men, who I’d never really trusted, and he very angrily was protesting the accusations I was laying against him. And I carried a gun very often with me when I traveled outside of the Green Zone, a small sort of Glock revolver, and carried it in my belt, and as I sat down to talk to this man, after a few moments, I realized that the revolver was very uncomfortably placed inside my belt. And as I started asking these very accusatory questions, I pulled the gun out of my belt and put it on the table between the two of us and suddenly realized that was a horrifically threatening motion. And I was really quite disgusted with myself, and the man left. He ran away out of the office when I was questioning someone else.

The two men who had been sent to help me put pressure, along with my own translator friend, to help me put pressure on these employees were former Mukhabarat officers, part of Saddam’s intelligence service, and they told me the best approach would be to sort of threaten this guy with a CIA investigation, telling me that those three letters were the most threatening three letters to any Iraqi. And once I had learned that the man I’d probably gone on, as it were, had left the building, I decided, you know, it was getting dark, and I needed to get the hell out of there, and this was not at all the sort of thing I should be spending my time doing if I wanted to be a journalist. And that really precipitated my departure from Baghdad. I decided, you know, that week, I was out of there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the amounts of money that we’re talking about on both ends? Here you were interrogating these Iraqis about whether they had possibly pocketed some of the money that was supposed to go to the newspapers. And yet, on the other hand, you had the Lincoln Group receiving millions of dollars.

WILLEM MARX: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain?

WILLEM MARX: Well, that was one of the really shocking things to me, is that, you know, I was sent down to talk to these guys, and at most we paid, I think, roughly $2,000 to place an article in the best Iraqi newspapers. And, you know, they were taking half of that. They were pocketing a grand an article, which in Iraq, as I’m sure you’d appreciate, is a huge amount of money and would have helped them and their families quite significantly.

At the same time, items in the contract that the Lincoln Group had with the U.S. military — one such item, a line item, as they would call it, would be placing a TV commercial on Iraqi television, and that would require them to film, edit and then air these 30-second-long or minute-long on-air sort of commercials. And each commercial, they were paid $1 million, just over $1 million. And when I went to try and, you know, get some idea of prices for these things, I was told that you could effectively get one of these on air for about $12,000, and as I’m sure you appreciate, that’s a pretty significant profit margin. And yet, there was I, interrogating people with guns for a mere $1,000.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the U.S. generals involved and also the Iraqi newspapers you had these articles placed in?

WILLEM MARX: Yes. The process by which I passed on these articles often involved a bit of back-and-forth between myself and captains and majors in the U.S. military unit that I dealt with, and my relationship with them was very important to the company. I had to at times be diplomatic, at times be critical. And occasionally I would have to give up my editorial control over which articles were pushed through to the Iraqi media, because they had, themselves, received orders from above, from men like General Casey, who was the top commander in Iraq at the time and, I believe, still is. And General Casey said, "No, sorry. It’s very important we publish this article. You guys make sure the Lincoln Group publishes it." And lo and behold, we’d publish it, even though it would be something that I felt was, you know, not really suitable and would grate with many Iraqis reading it, who would think this is obviously American propaganda.

And, you know, the newspapers we dealt with, I think on occasions like that, were very, very suspicious, I would imagine, of who was planting these articles, where they were coming from, why freelance Iraqi writers would turn up to their offices and offer them $1,000, $2,000 to publish an article. And there must have been a huge suspicion from some of these editors that the Americans were involved.

And one particular article about the Badr Brigade, which is a Shiite militia, I’m sure you know, which General Casey was very keen to push, basically applauded the Badr Brigade for not retaliating against attacks on the Shia in Baghdad. And he was very keen to get it pushed out, and two newspapers in a row refused to publish it, because it was too inflammatory in a political sense. So that was a very interesting experience, having this senior, senior general getting involved in the nitty-gritty and wanting one particular story to go out, only to discover that no Iraqi newspapers in their right mind were willing to publish it for however much money we offered.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Willem Marx, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Have a safe trip back to the United States. I look forward to meeting you when you come back to New York to get your journalism education. Willem Marx has written a piece in the latest edition of Harper’s magazine called "Misinformation Intern: My Summer as a Military Propagandist in Iraq."

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