The Lincoln Group was tasked with presenting the US version of events in Iraq to counter adverse media coverage. Here we present examples of its work, and the reality behind its headlines.
by Andrew Buncombe
This is the news from Iraq according to Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration.
A week after the US Defense Secretary criticized the media for " exaggerating" reports of violence in Iraq, The Independent has obtained examples of newspaper reports the Bush administration want Iraqis to read.
They were prepared by specially trained American "psy-ops" troops who paid thousands of dollars to Iraqi newspaper editors to run these unattributed reports in their publications. In order to hide its involvement, the Pentagon hired the Lincoln Group to act as a liaison between troops and journalists. The Lincoln Group was at the centre of controversy last year when it was revealed the company was being paid more than $100m (£58m) for various contracts, including the planting of such stories.
The Pentagon – which recently announced that an internal investigation had cleared the Lincoln Group of breaching military rules by planting these stories – has claimed these new reports did not constitute propaganda because they were factually correct. But a military specialist has questioned some of the information contained within their reports while describing their rhetorical style as "comical". Furthermore, it has been alleged that quotations contained within these reports and others – attributed to anonymous Iraqi officials or citizens – were routinely made up by US troops who never went beyond the perimeter of the Green Zone.
What seems clear is that, taken by themselves, these reports would provide an unbalanced picture of the situation inside Iraq where ongoing violence wreaks daily chaos and horror. Three years since US and UK troops invaded, more than 2,500 coalition troops have been killed. How many Iraqi civilians have died is unclear. The Iraqi Body Count puts the minimum at 33,773, but this figure is based on media reports and the group admits "it is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media". An extrapolation published in The Lancet 18 months ago said more than 100,000 had been killed.
A former employee of the Lincoln Group, who spent last summer in Baghdad acting as a link between US troops who were part of the Information Operations Task Force and Iraqis contracted by the company to establish contact with Iraqi journalists, said his job was to ensure "there were no finger-prints".
"The Iraqis did not know who was writing the stories and the US troops did not know who the Iraqis were," said the former employee, who declined to be named. It is not known whether the stories included here were ever printed or simply prepared for publication, but he said it was normal for around 10 stories a week to be printed. He said US troops routinely fabricated their quotations.
The former employee said the Lincoln Group paid up to $2,000 for the publication of each article – a sum that had risen from when he started working, suggesting the Iraqi editors realized who was behind the articles and knew there was plenty of money. The Lincoln Group was paid $80,000 a week by the military to plant these stories.
The former employee said the stories – which often feature phrases such as " brave warriors" and "eager troops" – were designed to bolster the image and purported efficiency of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and their involvement in operations. The Bush administration says the ability of Iraqi security forces to deal with insurgents remains the key to a withdrawal of US troops.
In reality, while one article describes the ISF as a "potent fighting force", the training of Iraqi forces has been a slow and troubled process. The Pentagon recently said the only Iraqi battalion judged capable of fighting without US support had been downgraded, requiring it to fight with American troops.
John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense think-tank, who reviewed some of the Lincoln Group stories, said he found them unconvincing. "Anybody who knows about propaganda knows the first rule of propaganda is that it should not look like propaganda," he said. "It’s embarrassing enough that [the US military] got caught … but then for their product to be so cheesy … It’s just embarrassing."
He added: "Some of the vignettes are cartoonish. The ISF? Many of them are surely brave. But a potent fighting force? I think that’s a little clearer than the truth. It’s propaganda."
Another story mentions the Iraqi oil industry and calls it "unique in that it is the only sector in which every dollar invested, either directly or indirectly, provides direct revenue to Iraq for future reconstruction" .
Yet a report published last November by a group of aid agencies and NGOs claimed that production-sharing agreements (PSAs) proposed by the US State Department before the invasion and adopted by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), could see Iraqis lose $200bn in revenue if the plan comes into effect.
Data collated by the Brookings Institution says oil production in Iraq remains below the estimated pre-invasion levels. At the moment, Iraq annually spends $6bn to import oil.
The Lincoln Group is headed by Christian Bailey, a Briton with no experience in PR, and a former US Marine, Paige Craig. The company failed to respond to a call seeking comment yesterday. A spokesman for the US military in Iraq, Lieut-Col Barry Johnson, said last night: "The results of the investigation have not yet been made public while the report undergoes final review by Multinational Force leadership. I am unable to comment on unsubstantiated allegations."
While the Lincoln Group has been cleared by one Pentagon inquiry, it remains the subject of a separate inquiry being conducted by the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). A spokesman, Gary Comerford, said that the OIG had been asked by the Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to review how the company had won its contract.