The Pentagon's new 'Media War Plan' for Iraq

The Pentagon is stepping up its psychological operations program in Iraq over the next three years - spending $300 million to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service announcements for the Iraqi media. It is being billed as a counterweight to radical Al-Qaeda-style propaganda and a way to "engage and inspire" Iraqis to support U.S. objectives.
David Petraeus
General David Petraeus is on record as saying that winning the media war is crucial when dealing with a population hostile to U.S. objectives. © AP

BEIRUT, October 10, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The U.S. Defense Department awarded $300 million in contracts last week to four companies to expand the U.S. military's psychological operations program in Iraq over the next three years, The Washington Post reported on Friday.

The companies – including the most prominent communications contractor in Iraq, Virginia-based SOS international [SOSi] – will continue the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency strategy of engaging in "critical military activities that don't involve killing insurgents."

The money will be used to bolster existing American-produced public service campaigns  – on billboards, TV and radio – that have praised improvements in Iraq's infrastructure and social services, as well as to produce news stories highlighting U.S. reconciliation efforts and the activities of the U.S.- trained Iraqi security services.

SOSi joined Washington DC-based the Lincoln Group, another Virginia-based media company, MPRI, and Los Angeles-based Leonie Industries in winning the DOD contracts. All have done previous work for the DOD.

Counterinsurgency 101

The three-year psy-ops campaign is right out of U.S. Central Command chief General David H. Petraeus' counterinsurgency playbook. Petraeus, who in 2003 was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, was instrumental in making sure that the media continued to operate there in the first months of the U.S. occupation.

Petraeus wrote in a 2006 Army counterinsurgency manual that became a blueprint for the DoD's Media War Plan for Iraq, that winning the media war was crucial when dealing with a population hostile to U.S. objectives in Iraq.

The plan called for portraying "a new Iraq, offering hope of a prosperous and democratic future which would serve as a model for the Middle East."

At the heart of the Pentagon campaign is an admittance by U.S. war strategists that they have been losing the propaganda campaign to Al-Qaeda-inspired militants who have put new technology and the Internet to good use – creating anti-western sentiment with professionally produced videos and slick websites in the years since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

"We're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave," Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates once remarked in reference to Osama bin Laden.

FCC probe

The DOD no doubt sees the 3-year project as a means of reversing what critics of the Bush administration have said was a concerted U.S. military campaign of broadcasting false information during the early stages of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the new plan, the U.S. Joint Contracting Command in Iraq wrote, "The U.S. needs 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."

The announcement of this psy-ops campaign comes at a time when the United States' media watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has begun looking into allegations that the Pentagon trained retired military personnel to promote the war policies of the Bush administration in U.S. media outlets.

U.S. law, under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, prohibits tax money being spent on directing propaganda at U.S. audiences.

The probe follows a May 2008 New York Times investigation which suggested that TV stations and networks in the U.S. may have violated two provisions of the 1934 Communications Act, which compels media outlets to identify any ties between its analysts and the Pentagon.

The Lincoln Group

Meanwhile, a 2006 probe by the Pentagon's inspector general found that media work completed in Iraq by one of the new contract's recipients – the Lincoln Group – during 2005 was "improperly supervised but legal." Part of the contract with Lincoln Group was for placing "faux" news stories in Iraqi newspapers.

According to the inspector general, the Lincoln Group produced news items ignoring anything negative about the U.S. occupation, which they paid to be published in Iraqi media without sourcing.

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."

The U.S. military hid its involvement in the Lincoln Group, which in 2005 – under the name Iraqex – produced pro-U.S. military stories with headlines like "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism."

'Information superiority'

The media group also promoted an aggressive advertising and PR campaign that included a bid to convince the Iraqi and U.S. public that Iraqi troops played a vital role in the 2004 effort to clear the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

A strategy document obtained by ABC News revealed the Lincoln Group was seeking to promote the "strength, integrity and reliability of Iraqi forces during the fight for Falujah.”

Military analysts suggest a small number of Iraqi troops present was only minimally involved in the fighting.

At the time of the 2006 probe into the Lincoln Group's activities in Iraq, one PR consultant with experience in the private intelligence sector told The Independent, "Doctrinally, this is all part of what the military calls information superiority. It is part of the plan for what they call, rather upsettingly, full-spectrum dominance. The truth is that it is just propaganda. And there has always been propaganda in a war. And this is a war, so ... thus runs the thinking."

Officials maintain that placing news items in Iraqi newspapers are now a minor part of the operation, with public service announcements and media monitoring taing up the bulk of the media activities in the new Media War Plan.

But the Washington Post reported that 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."

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.

Other media consultants are being contracted to conduct polls and focus groups to monitor Iraqi attitudes under a separate 3-year $45 million contract.

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.