By Mark Mazzetti
Source: LA Times
U.S. military websites that pay journalists to write articles and commentary supporting military activities in Europe and Africa do not violate U.S. law or Pentagon policies, a review by the Pentagon's chief investigator has concluded. But a senior Defense Department official said this week that the websites could still be shut down to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
The Pentagon inspector general's inquiry concludes that two websites targeting audiences in the Balkans and in the Maghreb region of northern Africa are consistent with U.S. laws prohibiting covert propaganda, are properly identified as U.S.-government products and are maintained in close coordination with U.S. embassies abroad, according to a previously undisclosed summary of the report's findings.
Yet a top Pentagon official, chief spokesman Lawrence DiRita, said he was concerned that a Pentagon practice of hiring news reporters to advance a U.S. government agenda could draw criticism and that an ever larger military role in shaping public opinion overseas might have negative consequences.
The Pentagon's efforts to win hearts and minds abroad have come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed last month that the military had hired a private contractor, Lincoln Group, as part of a separate operation to pay Iraqi newspapers to print positive stories written by U.S. troops.
An investigation into that information offensive is ongoing, and Pentagon officials expect the inquiry, headed by Navy Rear Adm. Scott R. Van Buskirk, to be completed soon.
DiRita ordered a separate review of the websites and other military information operations in February, when news accounts reported the Pentagon's connection to the websites and after disclosures that U.S. agencies such as the Department of Education had paid journalists to promote Bush administration policies.
DiRita said he had not been briefed on the results of the inspector general's review, and said he had asked the National Security Council to consider whether other U.S. agencies should take over the websites, or whether the sites should be shuttered.
"If somebody comes back to me and says there's nothing wrong with the Department of Defense paying journalists, I'll say, 'Even if there's nothing wrong, does it make sense?' " DiRita said.
The two websites are run by U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, and maintained by Anteon Corp., a Fairfax, Va., contractor. The European Command is one of five regional U.S. military headquarters around the world and is given authority for U.S. operations in Europe and most of Africa.
The Balkans website, originally called Balkan Exchange and later renamed Southeast European Times, was a result of a secret directive signed by President Clinton in 1999. The order, called Presidential Decision Directive 68, launched an information offensive to counter Serbian propaganda during the Kosovo war.
The European Command created the Africa website in October 2004. It attempts to advance U.S. interests in a region long sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. The Maghreb region encompasses Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco, countries that are in the European Command's area of responsibility.
Neither the Southeast European Times nor the African website, called Magharebia, prominently states its connection to the U.S. military, although both link to a disclaimer saying that the sites are "sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense."
The Southeast European Times aims to "offer accurate, balanced and forward-looking coverage of developments in Southeast Europe," the website reads. "Each business day, the site captures the top news from across the region as reported in local and international media. It also features analysis, interviews and commentary by paid Southeast European Times correspondents in the region."
The correspondents often are freelance reporters hired by Anteon Corp. Recent stories on the websites have highlighted a thawing of relations between Serbia and Croatia and efforts to promote female entrepreneurship in northern Africa.
Both websites feature stories culled from independent news services such as the Associated Press, UPI and Reuters. They also provide links to websites of the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and government organizations in the Balkans and Africa.
Two other U.S. military commands ? the Pacific Command, which oversees operations in Asia, and the Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East ? are developing their own versions of regional information websites.
Any decision to shut down the websites could add fuel to an ongoing debate within the Pentagon about which tactics the U.S. military should use to counter a propaganda and disinformation campaign waged by Islamic extremists worldwide. Many military officials fear that operations such as the European Command websites and Lincoln Group's campaign in Iraq blur the lines between news and propaganda and put the Pentagon into a legal gray area.
U.S. law forbids the Pentagon from conducting propaganda campaigns against American audiences. And though efforts such as the websites target foreign countries, they are available to any person with a computer.
Yet others argue that only the Pentagon has the capabilities for an aggressive campaign to counter enemy propaganda. Such efforts are far more essential to the ongoing fight against Islamic fundamentalism than multibillion-dollar tanks, jets or aircraft carriers, they argue.
"We have never been outgunned in any battle, but we are constantly being outmedia-ed," said one Pentagon official who supported an aggressive information operations campaign. "These are things we should be doing more of."
Given the Pentagon's massive budget and offices of soldiers who carry out information operations, DiRita said it was natural that the Defense Department would try to "fill the vacuum" left after the State Department's public diplomacy budget was slashed after the Cold War.
"We have a lot of skilled people, a lot of energy, and a lot of money," said DiRita, an assistant secretary of Defense. "But I question whether the DoD is the best place to be doing these things."
As part of broad assessment of Pentagon policies, doctrine and weapons systems, a Defense Department working group has been trying to develop guidelines for the proper role of information dissemination during wartime. DiRita leads the working group.