Monday, January 02, 2006

Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda

This is from The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 - A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.

The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.

Since then, the company has retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns, the former employee said. But documents and Lincoln executives say the company's ties to religious leaders and dozens of other prominent Iraqis is aimed also at enabling it to exercise influence in Iraqi communities on behalf of clients, including the military.

"We do reach out to clerics," Paige Craig, a Lincoln executive vice president, said in an interview. "We meet with local government officials and with local businessmen. We need to have relationships that are broad enough and deep enough that we can touch all the various aspects of society." He declined to discuss specific projects the company has with the military or commercial clients.

"We have on staff people who are experts in religious and cultural matters," Mr. Craig said. "We meet with a wide variety of people to get their input. Most of the people we meet with overseas don't want or need compensation, they want a dialogue."

Internal company financial records show that Lincoln spent about $144,000 on the program from May to September. It is unclear how much of this money, if any, went to the religious scholars, whose identities could not be learned. The amount is a tiny portion of the contracts, worth tens of millions, that Lincoln has received from the military for "information operations," but the effort is especially sensitive.

Sunni religious scholars are considered highly influential within the country's minority Sunni population. Sunnis form the core of the insurgency.

Each of the religious scholars underwent vetting before being brought into the program to ensure that they were not involved in the insurgency, said a former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Lincoln's Pentagon contract prohibits workers from discussing their activities. The identities of the Sunni scholars have been kept secret to prevent insurgent reprisals, and they were never taken to Camp Victory, the American base outside Baghdad where Lincoln employees work with military personnel.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the American military in Baghdad, declined to comment.

So, not only is the Bush administration setting up a program for the Lincoln Group to pay Iraqi journalists to write stories favorable to the U.S. occupation, but now they are paying Sunni religious leaders to write articles favorable to the U.S. Talk about an Iraqi free press here. When is the Bush White House going to learn that this propaganda control is going to blow up in their faces? Do you really believe that the average Iraqi on the street is going to believe the US-sanctioned news and opinions published by supposedly free Iraqi press, when those same free press stories were written and paid for by the U.S. government? Or will the average Iraqi believe a press agency willing to criticize the U.S. government's policies on Iraq--such as Al Jazeera? You don't win the hearts and minds of Arab Muslims in Iraq, and the Middle East, by planting stories that are paid for by the U.S. government. You win the hearts and minds by promoting ideals, and then living up to those ideals--even when they contradict short-term political, military, and business interests. And so far, we are failing miserably in the Iraq, and the Middle East.

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