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November 30, 2005

Paying off journalists in Iraq
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

In yet another indication of the Administration's utter obliviousness to the ill-effects of patent hypocrisy in US foreign policy (see here for discussion of virtually the same point re torture), the Pentagon was caught today paying a PR firm millions to plant one-sidedly positive stories in the Iraqi media, while in the meantime training Iraqi journalists on the virtues of independence and the need to avoid accepting payoffs from governments. 

Well over a year after being exposed for trying to pressure and/or squelch Al Jazeera (never mind the still unconfirmed reports that Bush was in fact plotting to bomb the Qatari media outlet's headquarters), is anyone really surprised the Administration is still at it?


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And then there's John Rendon, the PR mogul -- The Man Who Sold The War, by James Bradford, Rolling Stone::
One of the most powerful people in Washington, Rendon is a leader in the strategic field known as "perception management," manipulating information -- and, by extension, the news media -- to achieve the desired result. His firm, the Rendon Group, has made millions off government contracts since 1991, when it was hired by the CIA to help "create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power." Working under this extraordinary transfer of secret authority, Rendon assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, personally gave them their name -- the Iraqi National Congress -- and served as their media guru and "senior adviser" as they set out to engineer an uprising against Saddam. It was as if President John F. Kennedy had outsourced the Bay of Pigs operation to the advertising and public-relations firm of J. Walter Thompson.
& You'll love this---
Indeed, Rendon is already thinking ahead. Last year, he attended a conference on information operations in London, where he offered an assessment on the Pentagon's efforts to manipulate the media. According to those present, Rendon applauded the practice of embedding journalists with American forces. "He said the embedded idea was great," says an Air Force colonel who attended the talk. "It worked as they had found in the test. It was the war version of reality television, and for the most part they did not lose control of the story." But Rendon also cautioned that individual news organizations were often able to "take control of the story," shaping the news before the Pentagon asserted its spin on the day's events.

"We lost control of the context," Rendon warned. "That has to be fixed for the next war."

I can’t see the hypocrisy here. This article simply assumes what is at issue. Can anyone explain it to me?

Most every company in the world employs to some extent the PR strategy called Media Relations. Indeed, Ms. Nossel’s own organization, SPI, seeks to hire a PR professional to “Place the op-eds and articles of SPI fellows and affiliates in newspapers and scholarly publications.”

The practice of paying people to get a message through the media is not only common, but standard practice.

If there is any hypocrisy here, it doesn’t seem to lie with the DoD.

"If there is any hypocrisy here, it doesn’t seem to lie with the DoD."

It depends. There's nothing wrong with the US military trying to get its points across. There might be something a bit wrong with pretending those points come from somebody else.

But here's the problem. Stuff in iraqi media that has no relation to reality is not likely to affect iraqis much. The people who're going to get affected are americans. We'll have wingnuts and for that matter official sources quoting the fakes, in some cases maybe quoting things they personally wrote themselves -- to try to persuade american voters that the war is going better than it is.

It's absolutely wrong for the US military to spend US tax dollars to fool US citizens into supporting a political party that's wrong. The US military should not lie to the american public to support the Republican war.

J Thomas, I am beginning to notice a pattern on liberal discourse. First, state a supposition. Then, show any number of bad consequences follow from the supposition. Then conclude the case is proven. But the case is only proven if the supposition is true.

In this case, the supposition is “Stuff in iraqi media that has no relation to reality is not likely to affect iraqis much. The people who're going to get affected are Americans,” which means “if stuff in Iraqi media has no relation to reality, then American are going to be negatively affected.” But then you must show that there exists “stuff” in Iraqi media that has no relation to reality. Liberal rhetoric is like one, giant, begged question.

If I grant your supposition, can you tell us what stories placed by the US in the Iraqi media “bear no relation to reality?” If you can’t, then you can conclude absolutely nothing from your supposition.

But in fact, I do not grant you supposition. If the US military uses the commonplace wartime tools of deception and propaganda to help defeat our enemies in battle, then it seems clear that Americans are positively affected.

Jeff, you started by assuming that there is nothing wrong going on. You asked for an explanation why there could be an issue here.

I believe I have done so. If the Army hires a US public relations firm to write copy and place it in iraq with the pretense that it came from iraqi sources, that's bad.

Note that the updates don't say with any certainty that this has been going on. We've had a massive CYA operation, and the Army says it's investigating to find out what's been going on, while part of what's been going on is classified and we aren't getting any confirmation what it involved. So there's some sort of possibility that we were only doing public relations intended to present our point of view to iraqis, which surely ought to be OK.

Part of the spin to say it's OK for us to present our point of view as if it's news out of iraq that didn't come from us, is that the newspapers etc that print our stuff might get bombed by insurgents if they are known to publish our stuff. To the extent this is true, it shows how badly we are losing. We can't get our point across because anybody who admits to printing our stuff is in danger. Sad.

So, what sort of deception and propaganda do you think we're publishing in iraq to help us win battles? You think the insurgents read and believe our upbeat articles about how we're winning the war, so they'll get depressed and fight us in a depressed way so we kill them easier?

I'm guessing we can't fool iraqis about their local situations. They know how much electricity they're getting. They know the price of gasoline. They know how often they get stuck in traffic jams because of checkpoints, and how often they have traffic jams because of car bombs. And they've had quite a few years of Saddam's news to give them a nose for bullshit.

I'm guessing we *can* fool americans who look at iraqi news reports that don't say the US Army or the Lincoln Group wrote them.

Is that really going on? I dunno, maybe the investigation will reveal it or maybe it will stay hidden or maybe it isn't happening. But don't you agree that's a legitimate issue?

It's fine to use deception to defeat the enemy. It isn't fine to use deception to defeat the american public. The voters aren't the enemy. The USA is what we're defending, and deceiving us is wrong. It's absolutely wrong for the US Army to run a propaganda battle to fool the US public into supporting Bush and the Republican war.

J Thomas wrote, ”Jeff, you started by assuming that there is nothing wrong going on.”

You are wrong again. I’ve only pointed out that your supposition is unproved because the hypothesis of the supposition has not been shown to obtain. Indeed, you response still provides no supporting facts. I suspect that you have none.

With regard to military deception, it seems impossible to deceive the enemy while not deceiving the American public. If 280 million American knew the deception plan, then surely the enemy would have no trouble learning of it. Thus, liberals would strip the US military from deploying strategic and operational deception plans. Such a policy would deterministically lead to military defeat. As a matter of history, it would have meant the loss of every war in US history.

That must surely be a reduction to absurdity, even for a committed liberal. The criticism of military deception, even using propaganda, is absurd on its face.

Jeff, there has been no claim by anyone that our deception in iraqi media is in any way intended to deceive insurgents, or that it can deceive insurgents.

The stated intention was to get our point of view across to iraqis, and to provide good news.

There is no evidence whether this attempt has succeeded in getting any iraqis to feel better about the progress of the war. But there is solid evidence that it has been used by US bloggers and then US media in attempts to get americans to feel better about the war.

This is dead wrong. It is wrong to use federal money to try to make the Republican Party look good to voters. By trying to fool voters into believing that the war is not being lost, we are paying to get Republicans elected. This is treason.

You have not said that you agree that it would be wrong if it were happening. You do agree with that, don't you? Independent of the evidence whether it's happening or not?

J Thomas, I honestly find the whole idea completely uncontroversial. The Army has PR units, authorized by Congress, that are tasked with promoting the positive image of US forces.

Liberals constantly exhort the Executive to improve the image of the US, while denying it the practices to accomplish it!

Jeff, I understand. You think there's nothing wrong with blowback.

So OK, you figure there's nothing wrong with the US government putting false information in the iraqi news that gets attributed to somebody else, and that disinformation getting back to the US media.

Do you think there's anything wrong with the US government spreading false information in US media that gets attributed to somebody else, with the intention of misinforming the US public?

J Thomas, if the intention is to mislead the public, then I have a problem. If the intention is to mislead the enemy, then I do not have a problem. We have Congressional oversight committees specifically to allow for secrecy in the conduct of US foreign policy.

For example, the D-day deception plan mislead the US public, but the intention was to mislead the Germans (which it accomplished spectacularly well) and save American lives.

Of course, if you want the US to lose a war, then you could get a long way toards that goal by preventing deception operations. So, I can see why you'd be against them.

Jeff, the published descriptions of the articles that are written by US military men and translated by US contractors and then posted in iraqi media as if written by iraqis, make them appear to look like feel-good stories. I've seen no indication that they reveal military secrets -- but lie about them to lead insurgents into traps.

If the central aim is the latter then I have no quarrel with it. But the feelgood stories look like they would mostly work to deceive the clueless -- us -- and not iraqi insurgents. And they have had that effect, they do get quoted here as good news about the war.

So it sounds -- at last -- like we're agreed about the fundamentals. We agree that it's good to deceive the enemy and bad to deceive the US public, and the US public is not the enemy.

So the remaining question is which of those has actually been going on. And the last I heard, Senator Warner didn't know. He couldn't get the data yet. And a lot of it was classified. Warner talked like the military brass weren't trying to mislead him. He just got inside their OODA loop and he needed to wait for them.

J Thomas, again Congress has authorized PR units for the military specifically to produce feel-good pieces. There's nothing wrong with that, or Congress wouldn;t ahve authorized. Congress representats the People, remember? the People have had their say, and it was "publish feel-good stories."

If you have evidence of false stories let's have it. If you don't then you cannot logically maintain "We'll have wingnuts and for that matter official sources quoting the fakes, in some cases maybe quoting things they personally wrote themselves -- to try to persuade american voters that the war is going better than it is."

No fakes, no argument. Sorry.

When the feel-good stories are pretended to come from independent iraqis, as news, that's fake.

It's fine for the military to publish stuff under its own name.

Do you doubt that they published things that were pretended to come from iraqi sources?

I never knew the Iraqi people were the enemy. That is not what our president says. He says we are there to help the brave Iraqi people get democracy. Now if anyone believes that, they have been reading DOD propaganda. The war is based on lies and is being supported by more lies. It bugs the hell out of me that my money is paying for lies, murder and torture.

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