Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged the American press yesterday to reassess what he called repeated negative coverage of Iraq as his commanders in Iraq push an extensive information war to counter terrorists’ propaganda.
“We’ve arrived at a strange time in this country, where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. The reporting is “often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact.”
Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks were part of the new Bush campaign of forceful answer to partisan criticism of the war and domestic policies. President Bush spoke of the expanding economy in glowing terms in North Carolina, citing strong job growth and swift recovery from two brutal hurricanes, and in Berlin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly told Europeans that resistance to Islamic terrorism will require overcoming “new challenges” and new ways of warfare.
Mr. Rumsfeld spoke to a group of academics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. The Pentagon chief cited a “false and terribly damaging” Newsweek story that American guards flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
He cited a New York Times editorial that equated U.S. troops with the police state of Saddam Hussein, and to press reports quoting two Iraqis’ unsubstantiated assertions that American soldiers attacked them with lions.
“Government has to reassess continuously, and we do,” the defense secretary said. “So, too, it’s useful, I believe, for the media to reassess.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said the press is too fixated on the Iraq casualty count, which includes more than 2,000 American troops killed.
“It’s appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed — and may God bless them and their families — but what they died for, or, more accurately, what they lived for,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
When he meets with troops in Iraq, “They ask, ‘Why aren’t the American people being given an accurate picture of what’s happening in Iraq?’ ”
Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged the risks of reporting a war firsthand, saying, “They have a tough job that’s not easy, and a number of them have put their lives at risk, and some have been killed.”
In Iraq, to counter bad press and terrorist propaganda, the U.S. command is waging an information war almost as intense as the real fighting. It relies on teams of private public-relations firms to counter militant Islamist propaganda.
The Washington-based Lincoln Group has developed a comic book series and cartoons, produced a documentary on the battle for Fallujah, coddled local reporters and delved into the minds of young Iraqis to determine why they plant deadly improvised explosive devices, according to a briefing the company is providing members of Congress.
Congress and the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, which awarded Lincoln a $5 million contract, is now reviewing one of Lincoln’s practices — paying local newspapers to publish stories on what the U.S. military thinks are the facts about the war and political process.
“Lincoln was tasked with empowering the local Iraqi population to report terrorists seen planting improvised explosive devices intended to create civilian and coalition deaths,” states a briefing paper Lincoln delivered to Congress. “Unlike a typical Saturday morning cartoon, Lincoln produced an 80-second animation spot that sought to highlight the personal suffering caused by criminals and terrorists. The cartoon depicts the cowardice of a terrorist placing an improvised explosive device in a crowded street.”
Lincoln has produced posters and pamphlets on the democratic process as the country prepares for Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. It produced a comic book series aimed at young men and depicting operations by American commandos.
The company’s approved practice of paying Iraqis to run prepared stories has attracted the most press attention and a Pentagon inquiry.
“That story has been pounded in the media,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “It’s very attractive for the media because it’s about the media, and they like that. But we don’t know what the facts are yet.”
Said Rumsfeld spokesman Larry Di Rita: “There seems to be a lot less interest in the systematic anti-coalition disinformation campaign that has been going on for three years than in the modest attempt by U.S. forces to transmit actual information to counter it.”