The Department of Defense plans to spend $100 million USD a year, for the next three years in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support the Iraqi government.
The DOD will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media. It is part of a program that the US military is categorizing as "information/psychological operations" that is to be conducted in Iraq far into the future, presumably even after combat troops are withdrawn. Uniformed communications specialists and contractors are now an integral part of U.S. military operations from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond.
The Pentagon's effort is designed to close the gap in a propaganda market dominated by al-Qaeda, whose media operations include sophisticated Web sites and professionally produced videos and audio tapes featuring Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates often remarks:
"We're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave,"
U.S. law, under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. prohibits the use of government money to direct propaganda at U.S. audiences. Lawmakers have often challenged the propriety of military information operations, even when they take place outside the United States. The Pentagon itself has frequently lamented the need to undertake duties beyond combat and peacekeeping. It was with these thoughts in mind that the US government began funding Alhurra, which translates into "The Free One".
Al-Hurra, what government sources generally refer to the channel as, began broadcasting on February 14, 2004 in 22 countries across the Middle East. The station was founded by Norman Joel Pattiz, who was at the time a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the government’s non-military international broadcasting services, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia. Other related American-funded projects include the Arabic-language Radio Sawa founded in 2002 and also funded by the BBG.
The Congress approved $62 million to pay for Alhurra's first year and committed $40 million more to launch a sister station in April of 2004 aimed solely at Iraq. The U.S. government launched Alhurra after deciding that existing Arab news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-arabiya displayed anti-American bias. The aim was to promote a more positive U.S. image to Arabs. The $300 million over three years so far allocated for the new Pentagon program, pales in comparison to what has been spent on these projects so far.
As of the Summer of 2008, U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly $500 million to fund the broadcasts of TV's Alhurra and some have argued that the end result is not worthy of the funding. During Alhurra’s four years of operation, there have been numerous broadcast disasters that government officials believe are as negative as anything aired by Al Jazeera. In 2007 outraged members of Congress threatened to withhold funding for Alhurra after the network aired a report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran.
Alhurra’s president, Brian Conniff, has no journalism experience and worked previously as a government auditor. Coniff speaks no Arabic and is unable to understand anything broadcast on the network. His news director, Daniel Nassif, grew up in Lebanon and has no background in television. Before coming to the network, he helped promote the political aspirations in Washington of a Lebanese Christian former general.
It would be helpful if the program the Pentagon will implement, incorporates individuals that have experience in broadcasting as well as an understanding of the culture of the region.
General David H. Petraeus co-wrote the Army's counterinsurgency manual in 2006 and was critical in developing "Media War Plan" for Iraq. Petraeus, who became the top U.S. commander in Iraq early last year, led a "surge" in combat troops and information warfare. Some of the new doctrine to be implemented emerged from Petraeus's own early experience in Iraq. As commander of the 101st Airborne in Nineveh province in 2003, he ensured that war-ravaged radio and television stations were brought rapidly back on line. His Arabic interpreter, Sadi Othman, a Palestinian American and a former New York cabdriver is employed by Reston, Va. based SOS International.
SOSI has been one of the most prominent communications contractors working in Iraq. gathering information, conducting analysis and providing advice regarding cultural, religious, political, economic and public perceptions. They are one of the four companies that will share in the new contract along with the Washington, DC based Lincoln Group, Alexandria, Va. based Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) and Leonie Industries, a Los Angeles contractor. All specialize in strategic communications and have done previous defense work.
Defense officials stress that strict rules will be enforced against disseminating false information. Contractors require security clearances, and proof that their teams possess sufficient linguistic abilities and knowledge of Iraqi culture. The Iraqi government will have little input on U.S. operations. The Pentagon must be sensitive not to blur the lines between public-affairs activities and unattributed propaganda. Some senior officers warned that they risked a return to psychological and deception operations discredited during the Vietnam War.
In fact, during the early stages of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, disinformation and misinformation was regularly being disseminated by the Bush administration. The administration repeatedly claimed that care was being taken to protect innocent Iraqi civilians. It has been reported that:
“American guns, bombs, and missiles killed more civilians in the recent war in Iraq than in any conflict since Vietnam, according to preliminary assessments carried out by the United Nations, international aid agencies, and independent study groups. Despite the Bush administration boasting that the invasion was the fastest, most clinical campaign in military history, between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi non-combatants died in the course of the hi-tech blitzkrieg.” - The Herald of Scotland, May 23, 2003
We all remember the Bush administration bragging that the populace of Baghdad and of Iraq generally turned out in masses to greet American troops as liberators. But there were only scattered expressions of thanks when United States divisions arrived in Baghdad. Within a day or two of the Saddam government’s fall, the scene in the Baghdad streets turned to wholesale ransacking and vandalism. Within the week, large-scale protests of the United States occupation had already begun occurring in every major Iraqi city. Reportedly a spontaneous crowd of cheering Iraqis showed up in a Baghdad square to celebrate the toppling of Saddam’s statue. However, a long-distance shot of the same scene showed only one or two hundred people, contrary to the impression given by all the close-up TV news shots of what appeared to be a massive gathering. It was later reported that members of Ahmed Chalabi’s local entourage made up most of the throng.
In early 2003, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) set up a media operations center in Doha, Qatar, for the war in Iraq, he was ordered to go there. The American people witnessed daily high tech press briefings that explained the occupation from a mostly positive perspective. The media center was run by Marine Corps Captain Josh Rushing. Rushing was serving as a public affairs officer based at what is now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, north of San Diego on September 11, 2001. After the attacks, Rushing says he pressed commanders at the Pentagon to send him overseas, and CENTCOM ordered him to command the media center in 2003.
Many of the early media manipulations regarding the occupation came to light in a film called Control Room where Rushing was prominently featured. The Pentagon ordered him not to comment on the film, and he then left the Marine Corps. Ironically he is now working for Al-Jazeera English.
As previously mentioned, the Smith-Mundt Act. prohibits the military from engaging in foreign policy propaganda at home. However, the Pentagon has skirted this law in the past. In 2005, The Pentagon, coordinated a program dubbed “Operation Homefront,” which ordered military personnel to give interviews to their hometown newspapers, television stations and other media outlets and praise the American war effort in Iraq.
The new media program is just another example of how the government chooses to spend American taxpayer money. It chooses to spend millions to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens, while its own citizens struggle in an endless economic downturn.