WASHINGTON - The White House expressed concern about the US military secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-American articles, but the military said it was important to spread the truth while insurgents were "lying to the Iraqi people."
Troops in an "information operations" task force have written articles with positive messages about the US mission in Iraq that have been translated from English into Arabic and planted in Iraqi newspapers in return for money, according to defence officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We're very concerned about the reports. We are seeking more information from the Pentagon," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, was asked during a briefing in Baghdad whether paying off Iraqi news organisations to run pro-American stories undermines the credibility of the US military and of the new Iraqi media.
Lynch replied that al Qaeda leaders believe "half the battle is the battlefield of the media," citing a letter, released by the United States in October, said to have been written by al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, to the extremist network's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"And what Zarqawi's doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community, conducting these kidnappings, these beheadings, these explosions so that he gets international coverage to look like he has more capability than he truly has," Lynch said.
"We don't lie. We don't need to lie. We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public, but everything we do is based on fact not based on fiction," Lynch said.
Lynch did not explicitly confirm the practice of paying newspapers to run pro-American articles, first reported on Wednesday by The Los Angeles Times, but other officials did confirm it. The Times also reported that the military had bought an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station to disseminate pro-American views.
A senior State Department official, who asked for anonymity because his views could be seen as critical of the Pentagon, said the reports of planted stories undermined US diplomats' efforts to foster democracy in Iraq.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat defeated by President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, told reporters at the White House, "I think that the United States of America paying for stories in Iraqi papers undermines America's credibility."
"What we need are Iraqis who really believe what they're saying and say it for themselves," Kerry said.
A defence contractor involved in the effort, Washington-based public relations and strategic communications firm Lincoln Group, declined to detail its activities.
McClellan said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had indicated Pentagon officials are looking into the matter. "We need to know what the facts are. Gen. Pace indicated it was news to him as well," McClellan said.
The Pentagon in 2002 closed its Office of Strategic Influence after reports that it planned to plant false news stories with foreign media outlets.
The Bush administration also has tried to influence domestic media, including having federal agencies distribute video packages to US TV stations that could be broadcast as news stories and paying commentator Armstrong Williams to tout Bush education policies in TV appearances and in his column.