Pentagon launches foreign news websites
WASHINGTON The Pentagon is setting up a global network of foreign-language news websites, including an Arabic site for Iraqis, and hiring local journalists to write current events stories and other content that promote U.S. interests and counter insurgent messages.
The news sites are part of a Pentagon initiative to expand "Information Operations" on the Internet. Neither the initiative nor the Iraqi site, www.Mawtani.com, has been disclosed publicly.
At first glance, Mawtani.com looks like a conventional news website. Only the "about" link at the bottom of the site takes readers to a page that discloses the Pentagon sponsorship. The site, which has operated since October, is modeled on two long-established Pentagon-sponsored sites that offer native-language news for people in the Balkans and North Africa.
Journalism groups say the sites are deceptive and easily could be mistaken for independent news.
"This is about trying to control the message, either by bypassing the media or putting your version of the message out before others (and) there's a heavy responsibility to let people know where you're coming from," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. A disclosure on a separate page "isn't something most people coming to the site are likely to see."
Pentagon officials say the sites are a legitimate and necessary way to promote U.S. policy goals and counter the messages of political and religious extremists. They also note that the United States and its allies have been outgunned in the battle to get information to audiences in Iraq and elsewhere.
"It's important to engage these foreign audiences and inform," says Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of Defense in charge of special operations and stabilization efforts. "Our adversaries use the Internet to great advantage, so we have the responsibility of countering (their messages) with accurate, truthful information, and these websites are a good vehicle."
The Mawtani site is named for the Iraqi national anthem and means "my homeland." It is available in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu but not in English and is supervised by the Pentagon's Iraq command.
The U.S. Southern Command is building a similar site for Latin American audiences. The Pacific Command, which covers Asia, is interested in setting up a news site, says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a spokeswoman.
'True in fact and intent'
In a memo last summer, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told all regional commanders that developing such sites was "an essential part of (their) responsibility to shape the security environment in their respective areas." The previously unreleased memo, provided by the Pentagon at USA TODAY's request, directed that all site content be "accurate and true in fact and intent."
Content for the news sites is written by local journalists hired to write stories that fit the Pentagon's goals for the sites, such as promoting democracy, security, good government and the rule of law. Military personnel or contractors review the stories to ensure they are consistent with those goals. Reporters are paid only for work that is posted to the sites.
A recent edition of Mawtani.com featured a story on Iraqi leaders decrying Iranian sponsorship of insurgent groups, as well as coverage of Iraqi-U.S. efforts to restore order in strife-torn Sadr City.
Vickers says sponsorship disclosures on Mawtani.com and other Pentagon-run news sites are clear. "Is this propaganda? No," he says. "It's intended to counter extremist propaganda with truth."
The new websites follow the Pentagon's launch last year of a "Trans Regional Web Initiative" expected to lead to "a minimum of six" news sites run by military commands around the globe, according to a Special Operations Command notice for contractors interested in running the sites.
The initiative has its roots in the Balkans, where U.S. commanders set up a website in 1999 to rebut then-Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist rhetoric in the Kosovo conflict. In 2002, it became a news site, employing local reporters, and hundreds of thousands of people turn to the Southeast European Times for news on politics, culture, sports or weather in 10 languages.
Neither that site nor those being set up are allowed to accept ads. They're not about profit; they're about shaping perceptions.
"Youngsters on the street are into the World Wide Web that's how they communicate, how they learn what's going on in the world, how they stay informed and they pick and choose what (news sources) they have on their desktop," says Army Col. Jerry O'Hara, spokesman for the Pentagon's Iraq command. "We have to be involved in that in order to communicate effectively."
Moving past leaflets
It wasn't long ago that the military's approach to Information Operations focused largely on dropping leaflets behind enemy lines or broadcasting messages over loudspeakers. Those tactics can't draw the audience of a news website, where a story on a local soccer team might be the hook that gets readers to click on another story about, say, U.S. troops rebuilding a school.
The success of the Pentagon's news sites will ride on whether they're seen as credible outlets or propaganda vehicles, says Franklin Kramer, a former assistant Defense secretary and, until last year, a fellow at National Defense University.
"In some parts of the world, it's just important to have a reliable, steady source of news and being straightforward and truthful is the best way to have a long-term impact," Kramer says. "I think most (users) know these are Defense Department sites they really don't hide it at all and the audience is going to decide for itself whether it trusts the source."
For decades, influencing foreign audiences has been the purview of Voice of America, the U.S. radio and TV service. VOA is under the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an eight-member, presidentially appointed board that oversees all U.S. foreign-language broadcasts, including Radio Sawa and Al Hurra television in the Middle East.
Previous Pentagon information efforts have attracted controversy.
In 2005, members of Congress chastised the Pentagon over a program that paid for the placement of favorable stories in the Iraqi press. The practice could "erode the independence of Iraqi media," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who then chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon stopped the program.
Last month, The New York Times reported how the Pentagon was giving secret briefings and guidance to former Defense officials who are paid by television news outlets for independent analysis. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has asked for a Pentagon investigation.
The websites suggest a pattern of Pentagon efforts to promote its agenda by disseminating information through what appear to be independent outlets, says Marvin Kalb, a fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
"This is deliberate deception, and it's bad (because) it weakens the image of journalism as an objective bystander," Kalb says, noting that many of the Pentagon's intended audiences live in a world where they expect the government to control their news. "We're the exception, and unfortunately, we begin to look more and more like the rest of the world when we do this sort of thing." (usatoday, 5.01.2008, Peter Eisler, USA TODAY) http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2008-04-30-sites_N.htm