Oct 3, 2006

Misinformation Intern

I was soon contacted by a Lincoln Group employee named Jon, who formerly had run political campaigns in Chicago and now worked on the company's I.O., or Information Operations. Over lunch at the recently bombed and rebuilt Green Zone Cafe-an air conditioned tent with plastic chairs and a TV airing Lebanese music videos-Jon explained that he was returning home for several weeks of R & R and that Jim Sutton had chosen me to be his replacement.

Jon quickly sketched out my new I.O. responsibilities. An Army team inside the Al Faw palace, another of Saddam's former residences, would send me news articles they had cobbled together from wire stories and their own reports from the field. It was my job to select the ones that seemed most like Iraqis had written them. I was then to pass these articles along to our Iraqi employees, who would translate the pieces into Arabic and place them in local newspapers.

Jon told me that the U.S. Army could hardly carry out this work in their military uniforms, so they hired Lincoln Group, which could operate with far fewer restrictions. It was a bread-and butter contract, he said, that paid the company about $5 million annually. I asked if the newspapers knew that Lincoln Group or the U.S. military were behind these articles. They did and they didn't, Jon said. The Iraqis working for us posed as freelance journalists, but they also paid editors at the papers to publish the stories-part of the cost Lincoln Group billed back to the military. "Look," Jon assured me, "it's very straightforward. You just have to keep the military happy." ...

I began my media work on July 14, waking up early to shave in the bathroom's cracked sink and brew some coffee in the sandy kitchen. I chose a spot on the large red sofa in the villa's living room, which also doubled as its office space, and waited for an email to arrive from the military. For several hours I checked the BBC website for news on Iraq, brewed more coffee, and sent emails home, telling friends and family that I was beginning to do real work here. In the afternoon I finally received an email from a First Lieutenant Christopher Denatale that was also copied to a long list of American military personnel with @iraq. centcom.mil address suffixes. The communique was labeled "Unclassified/For Official Use Only" and stated simply, "Here are the Corps IO storyboards for 14 JUL 05."

I carefully read the five articles that were attached as PowerPoint slides. The first reported on a speech by then prime minister Ibrahim al Jaafari, in which he announced that Iraqi troops would soon be able to replace foreign forces. It was accompanied by a photo of Jaafari at a lectern and ended with this bit of uplift: "Combined with the recurring successes of the ISF, Prime Minister Jaafari's remarks inspire a greater degree of hope for the peaceful and progressive future of Iraq."In the second article, also on the progress of the Iraqi security Forces, the U.S. Army writers at the Al Faw palace put an even more positive spin on the country's prospects. "Unlike the terrorists, who offer nothing but pain and fear, the ISF bring the promise of a better Iraq. No foreign al-Qa'ida mercenary would ever consider bringing gifts to Iraqi children. The Iraqi Army, however, fights for a noble cause. . . . Together with the Iraqi people, they will bring peace and prosperity to the nation."

The remaining stories continued in this vein. The American soldier writing one of them took on the persona of an Iraqi to denounce the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, another argued that insurgents were attacking Iraqis solely to instigate a civil war, and the final one concluded with an apparent public service announcement: "Continue to report suspicious activities and make Iraq safe again." These were far from exemplars of objective journalism, but Jon had said that I should think of the storyboards not so much as news but as messages Iraqis needed to hear. I supposed they were that.

I was to publish at least five stories each week, so I now had to decide which of these, if any, made the cut. After some deliberation, I chose the piece on the insurgency inciting Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. Its rhetoric was powerful, even Ciceronian, I thought, with the grand sweep of its opening line: "Great triumphs and great tragedies can redirect the course of a people's destiny." And I agreed with its overall message that one destructive act should not beget others. I was to pass along the article to a man named Muhammad, who would see that it was translated from the English. It also fell to me to tell Muhammad where to place the translated piece. Jon had left me a spreadsheet listing Iraqi newspapers and the amounts they charged to run our stories. Yet I knew nothing at all about the media in Iraq, and certainly didn't know the difference between the newspaper Al Sabah and the similar sounding Ai Sabah Al Jadeed. Jon didn't believe this would be a problem, however, having himself started with no regional expertise, and he made it very clear that I should under no circumstances ask the military team for guidance. He warned me that the two majors in charge, Scott Rosen and John Muirhead, would hound me for information on exactly how Lincoln Group placed the stories, and that I should remain cagey about the process, allowing secrecy to swell the perceived value of the company's work. I was to send them only the results of what had been published, detailed in a spreadsheet. The military, Jon said, loves statistics.

From the dozen publications on the list, I picked out Al Mutamar, or The Congress, because it was one of the least expensive (around $50 per story) and I could see we hadn't used it in a while. (I thought it would be good to mix things up a bit.) Later that day, Steve came into the living room with a story Jon had asked him to put together. Written from the perspective of a frustrated Iraqi citizen, it condemned a recent insurgent attack that had left twenty-three children dead. Steve's information came directly from news sources on the Internet, with no actual reporting of his own, but he had authored what I considered to be a very decent opinion piece. I emailed this to Muhammad as well, asking that it be published in another of the newspapers, Al Sabah (The Morning), which I selected because it was the most expensive on the spreadsheet, charging over $1,500 to run one of our pieces. Steve's writing, I felt, deserved the best.

I received an email back from Muhammad the following day, acknowledging my instructions and including two Word files. They separately contained the two stories in English and in what I assumed were their Arabic versions, and I saved the files onto my laptop, as Jon had instructed me to do. Two days later I felt a little thrill when Muhammad sent me scanned versions of the "articles" as they appeared in the Iraqi newspapers. Despite the subject matter of Steve's piece, he and I both laughed at the thought that he was now published in a major Iraqi newspaper.

I forwarded the scanned articles to Rosen and Muirhead and received emails thanking me for my work. Then I sat back on the red sofa, proud that I had successfully completed my initial run through this process. I had even made what I believed were sound journalistic decisions.

Over the next weeks, my U.S. military liaisons at the Al Faw palace continued to send me around five storyboards each day. I soon had a better sense of how Lincoln Group was positioned between the Army team and our Iraqi staff, who were themselves the company's sole link to the local press. Lincoln Group had originally signed its media contract with the military's Public Affairs Office, which supplies "real" information to reporters wishing to know about troop casualties or reconstruction projects. But Paige Craig had later convinced the military that his company was better suited to the more covert Information Operations sphere. I was still struggling to get a grip on all this information myself but recognized that there was some power in selecting which storyboards to publish. Although not exactly intoxicating, this power was certainly more significant in the grander scheme of things than anything I had experienced at university.

I also learned that whatever power I possessed was not absolute. When senior commanders labeled storyboards a priority, this trumped my particular journalistic proclivities. One storyboard, with the alliterative headline "Badr Corps Not Baited into Fight," was given a special "emphasis" by General George Casey, the most senior U.S. officer in Iraq at the time, and as such was made a top priority by Majors Rosen and Muirhead. The story took a new tack, it seemed, praising Shiite militias for refraining from retaliatory attacks against Al Qaeda. "The restraint of the Badr Corps and their faith in all Iraqis to stand up to terrorist violence bring great credit to themselves and great honor to all of Iraq," the article opined. "History does not fondly remember murderers and destroyers. History reveres the people who stand up against pain and risk of death to say 'No' to the murderers and destroyers. This is why it is such treacherous blasphemy when the al-Qa'ida gang claims the honored title of 'martyr' for their murderers."

I had by then developed what I considered a rapport with Muhammad and his staff, who had been remarkably forgiving of my naivete. Although I had assumed that all of the newspapers on the list Jon had left me were daily publications, Muhammad told me that, in fact, many were weekly, triweekly, or just unreliably issued. When I requested that an article appear in a specific paper, he would sometimes go against my request if he knew that the paper wouldn't publish for several days, and would place it instead in a daily. As he explained to me in an email, if he didn't do this, "Some of those articles will delay in time for couple or three days, and in this case their importance will reduce and attenuate and other newspapers will deal with them before us. This is one of the most important points which leads the newspapers' editors to know about the connection of those articles with the American, because who would pay money to publish an article which got old news!!!"

I passed Muhammad the Badr Corps story, explaining that it was of the utmost importance and feeling a bit excited to be carrying out the orders of such a senior officer. Days later, however, the story still had not been published. Muhammad told me that an editor at the newspaper I had chosen, Addustour, had rung the evening before it should have run, claiming that his managers had objected to its politics. By Muhammad's account, the same editor had then relented after some discussion, agreeing to publish the piece. (I assumed this meant that Muhammad had swayed him with an offer of more Lincoln Group money.) But when the newspaper came out the following morning, there was still no "Badr Corps Not Baited into Fight." I sent an apologetic email to the two majors, explaining why such a high-priority story had not been published. I hadn't taken up this issue with the newspaper's management, I wrote, because I didn't want to sour my relationship with the paper's editors. Rosen accepted this reasoning and was even somewhat pleased by the insight he thought it provided. "It is good feedback actually that the piece rubbed up against political/philosophical boundaries," he replied. "Is this something we should use to shape future pieces for that paper, for all papers, etc.? It is good to keep us on our toes and it shows that they are not our lapdogs."

Indeed, because Rosen and his team assumed I interacted regularly with the Iraqi press, they believed I was someone to take seriously. And Rosen's encouraging words actually emboldened me to offer additional suggestions on ways to improve our "pro-democracy" pieces. I told him that an article on the military's discovery of a cache of bulletproof vests was too outdated to run in a daily newspaper and read like a catalogue of munitions, with none of the "human appeal" that grabs readers. "This is not criticism," I wrote Rosen, "merely my honest opinion as a media analyst." (Jim Sutton had bestowed this title upon me, and it was by then printed on my Lincoln Group business cards.) For other articles, I pointed out that the military had failed to properly mask its own voice and intel, such as in one piece when the Army writers directly responded to an Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claim: "It is true that during one security operation a woman was detained by Coalition Forces." I told them that their entire approach to Zarqawi was wrong, as they were giving him far too much exposure-bad press being better than none at all. Rosen thanked me for all my "efforts to steer us toward better products." Although they, too, were reconsidering how to write about Zarqawi, the team had been "given some fairly rigid guidelines from our boss." Rosen added that they also were "synchronizing messages with PSYOP and PAO," and were thus limited in what they could do.

From "Misinformation Intern" by recent Oxford grad Willem Marx. (Mirror Site)

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