Demands for details from the White House and Congress were building on Thursday over a US military program whose multi-million dollar contracts include money for paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to plant favorable stories about the war and reconstruction.
Citing increasing misgivings about the matter, the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned Defense Department officials to Capitol Hill for a briefing yesterday.
"I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy," said Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia.
He said he has no information to confirm or rebut the reports.
"A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media," Warner said.
Defense Department officials in Baghdad continued to defend the program, saying it is a necessary tool to provide factual information to the Iraqi people.
One company involved, the Washington-based Lincoln Group, has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One, for US$6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, according to a document.
The other Lincoln contract, with the Special Operations Command, is worth up to US$100 million over five years for media operations with video, print and Web-based products. That contract is not related to the controversy over propaganda and was not for services in Iraq, according to Special Operations spokesman Ken McGraw.
The Lincoln Group shares that Special Operations contract with two other firms, SYColeman, a division of L-3 Communications; and Science Applications International Corp, a California-based defense contractor.
The program came to light as US President George W. Bush released his "Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which includes the need to support a "free, independent and responsible Iraqi media" and a vow to help the Iraqi government communicate in a "professional, effective and open manner."
Across the government on Thursday, officials said they were going after more information about the Iraq program.
"We're very concerned," said Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan. "We are seeking more information from the Pentagon."
Senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts attacked the program as a devious scheme that "speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap. If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said, as he did a day earlier in response to inquiries about the reports, that he was seeking details from US military officials in Baghdad.
"I have very few facts," Whitman said, adding that he would not confirm the essence of the story until he had learned more from Baghdad.
"It's certainly an issue that's easy to get emotional about, and we need to understand the facts, and when we do I'll provide you as much information as I can," Whitman said.
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