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Congress Probes U.S. Efforts to Sway Iraq Media

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Two days after learning that the US military is paying to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers, Congress is demanding answers from the Pentagon. The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee made an unscheduled trip to the Pentagon today. He wants to know why the military is pursuing a program that he fears undermines both American credibility and the independence of a fledgling Iraqi press. NPR's John Hendren reports.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner says the Pentagon has now confirmed that a private contractor called the Lincoln Group does have a military contract to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers. He says the stories were supposed to include disclaimers that made it clear they were paid advertisements, but defense officials and a consultant who worked in Iraq privately say the disclaimers were often omitted. That's one reason why Warner wants to discuss the matter with his committee when the Senate returns.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): I had strong comments on this the other day when I came out and said that I was gravely concerned, and I remain gravely concerned about this situation.

HENDREN: This week, as the president has attempted to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the war with a speech and touted plan for victory, the story of paid propaganda has become a distraction. At a brief Rose Garden event this morning on the economy, the president waved and walked away from this shouted question from CBS reporter Bill Plante.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you very much.

Mr. BILL PLANTE (CBS News): What about the planting of hate propaganda in the Iraqi press, Mr. President? Just thought I'd ask.

HENDREN: The story has been on the radar screen at the White House, however, where spokesman Scott McClellan had this to say yesterday in response to repeated questions.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): In terms of this specific issue, again, what we want to do is find out what the facts are and then we'll be able to talk about it more at that point. But we are very concerned about the reports.

HENDREN: McClellan was talking about reports that the Lincoln Group planted stories in the Iraqi press. But according to a consultant who has worked in Iraq, the program goes beyond one company and beyond planting a few stories in Iraqi newspapers. The consultant agreed to talk to NPR, but would not be recorded because he signed an agreement to keep the arrangement secret. He says the Pentagon has divided contracts worth up to $300 million between the Lincoln Group and two other companies. The consultant says the contract guarantees only a $250,000 annual retainer, and he says the Lincoln Group has a $500,000 deal with an unnamed Iraqi television news program.

Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon press secretary who now heads the non-profit group Refugees International, says the program has done more harm than good.

Mr. KENNETH BACON (Refugees International; Former Pentagon Press Secretary): I think they've come up with the wrong solution to a legitimate problem and really, I think, hurts the credibility of the United States, and it's going to set back our efforts to work for democracy in Iraq.

HENDREN: Warner's staff the committee needs more information to judge whether the program undermines American credibility and that of Iraq's newly independent media. Among the questions lawmakers are likely to ask, says Ken Bacon, is who knew about this operation and when.

Mr. BACON: Was it a rogue operation by some generals in Baghdad, or is it part of a broader plan that had approval at a much higher level?

HENDREN: If the paid-for-news program turns out to be part of a larger operation, it's likely to reverberate in the larger debate over the war itself, a debate in which the credibility of the administration is a key element.

In a statement issued today, the US military headquarters in Iraq said the military is reviewing serious allegations that the program is not working as planned. It says, quote, "If any contractor is failing to perform as we have intended, we will take appropriate action." John Hendren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.