U.S. military officials in Iraq were fully aware that a Pentagon contractor regularly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories about the war, and made it clear that none of the stories should be traced to the United States, according to several current and former employees of Lincoln Group, the Washington-based contractor.
In contrast to assertions by military officials in Baghdad and Washington, interviews and Lincoln Group documents show that the information campaign waged over the last year was designed to cloak any connection to the U.S. military.
"In clandestine parlance, Lincoln Group was a 'cutout' -- a third party -- that would provide the military with plausible deniability," said a former Lincoln Group employee who worked on the operation. "To attribute products to [the military] would defeat the entire purpose. Hence, no product by Lincoln Group ever said 'Made in the U.S.A.' "
A number of workers who carried out Lincoln Group's offensive, including a $20-million two-month contract to influence public opinion in Iraq's restive Al Anbar province, describe a campaign that was unnecessarily costly, poorly run and largely ineffective at improving America's image in Iraq. The current and former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality restrictions.
"In my own estimation, this stuff has absolutely no effect, and it's a total waste of money," said another former employee, echoing the sentiments of several colleagues. "Every Iraqi can read right through it."
Disclosures that the military used a private firm to plant stories written by U.S. troops in Iraqi newspapers have drawn widespread criticism.
The Pentagon has ordered an investigation, led by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Friday that he expected a report from Van Buskirk "in a week or so." Casey said that a preliminary assessment made shortly after the military's information operations campaign was revealed in a Times article last month concluded that the Army was "operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures."
Military officials initially distanced themselves from Lincoln Group's activities, suggesting the company may have violated its contract when it masked the origin of stories placed in the Iraqi press.
On Dec. 2, Pentagon officials told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) that all of the published materials were supposed to be identified as originating with the U.S. military but that identification was occasionally omitted by accident.
But Lincoln Group documents obtained by The Times, along with interviews with military officials and the current and former Lincoln Group employees, show that those who worked on the campaign believed the media products would be far more credible if their origins were disguised.
Pentagon officials say Warner was given the most accurate information the Pentagon had at the time.
"Certainly, nobody was trying to deceive Sen. Warner," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, who declined to comment further on the military's role in the information campaign.
With the insurgency in Iraq still strong more than two years after the American-led invasion, U.S. generals have come to believe that the battle for hearts and minds is as vital as the fight against insurgents. But of the handful of firms that have received tens of millions of Pentagon dollars to "level the information playing field," Lincoln Group would seem to be a curious case.
The company had had little public relations or communications experience when it won its first psychological operations contract last year. Yet it has become one of the biggest beneficiaries of the information war, and now has 20 Pentagon contracts, a company spokesman said.
With considerable swagger, Lincoln Group markets itself as a firm that can navigate the world's most hostile terrain. A statement on the company website says: "While others may view these locations as 'inhospitable,' we prefer to call them 'challenging.' " Documents obtained by The Times show that Lincoln Group is developing plans to expand its operations into Afghanistan under new Pentagon contracts.
Even in the face of a military investigation, congressional scrutiny and unwelcome media attention, Lincoln Group Executive Vice President Paige Craig wrote his staff in a recent e-mail that the company remained "on the offensive."
The Dec. 5 e-mail asserted that the company was "engaged in a morally just fight whose aim is to provide freedom to a fledgling nation."
Craig wrote: "The information war requires us to counter lies, media manipulation, perceptions, rumor and misquotes. It requires us to support the media in Iraq; it requires us to counter the propaganda of terrorism; it requires us to educate fathers not to enlist their sons to be suicide bombers."
Officials in Washington have long been frustrated by the U.S. government's efforts to explain its policies to a global audience.
While Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network deftly used Arabic media to create a worldwide movement, U.S. agencies fought turf battles over whether the CIA, Pentagon or State Department should take the lead in fighting an information war against Islamic extremists.
A 2004 report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, concluded that a "crisis" in strategic communications was undermining U.S. efforts.
As the battles raged in Washington, the Pentagon quietly awarded huge contracts to such companies as Lincoln Group to carry out information warfare around the globe.
The appeal of outside firms, experts say, is that the companies promise to carry out a nimbler, more sophisticated communication strategy than the U.S. can conduct on its own.
Lincoln Group was founded in 2003 after its two young leaders, Paige Craig and Christian Bailey, were introduced in New York City by a mutual friend, a company spokesman said. Within a year, the company became one of many to recognize the immense profit potential in Iraq.
Current and former employees and friends of Craig and Bailey -- both of whom hold the title of executive vice president -- said the men make for a corporate odd couple.
Craig, 31, dropped out of West Point, enlisted in the Marines, and later graduated from the University of Maryland. Bailey, 30, is an Oxford-educated Briton whom friends described as bright, likable and active in social circles. Craig and Bailey declined to be interviewed for this article.
In the year after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the company -- then called Lincoln Alliance Corp. -- undertook a series of disparate ventures. In April 2004, the company worked with the U.S. Marines to distribute water bottles in Najaf and Karbala with custom labels saying that the water was a gift from the Americans. The company also operated a brick factory in northern Iraq and salvaged scrap metal in Basra.
The company's breakthrough came in late 2004, when it submitted a bid on a military public affairs contract offering millions of dollars for an "aggressive advertising and public relations campaign that will accurately inform the Iraqi people" about U.S. goals.
The announcement called for a "full-service advertising and public relations firm," yet the nearly $18-million three-year contract eventually went to Lincoln Group -- a company with just a handful of American employees and little previous communications experience.
The U.S. military in Baghdad "was throwing money at people," said one former Lincoln Group employee. "This is a war where we're getting killed on the information battlefield so [the military] is desperate for anything that will help."
Bailey and Craig went on what many saw as a hiring spree to find people willing to work in Iraq. By early this year, Lincoln Group had a team working inside the opulent Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory near Baghdad.
Lincoln Group employees worked closely with soldiers from the Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad to turn "storyboards" written by soldiers into Arabic news stories and advertisements. A high-ranking Army officer closely monitored the operation, and Lincoln Group documents show that military officials gave the company clear guidelines about which stories to place in Iraqi newspapers.
In November, for instance, a military officer presented the company with a "publication priority" list for the storyboards released that day, including stories such as "Iraqis Must Unify Against Terrorism," "[Iraqi Security Forces] Step Up Security for Eid al-Fitr" and "Iraqi Soldiers Capture More Enemy Fighters."
Iraqi runners employed by Lincoln were used to transport the stories to newspapers and to pay editors amounts ranging from $50 to $2,000 for publication, a practice that editors and reporters in Baghdad say is not uncommon for the Iraqi press.
Information Operations "was very aware that newspapers were paid to publish articles," a former Lincoln Group employee said. "So any claim by them that they were unaware of the methods is false."
Lincoln Group employees kept detailed records of how much they paid to get the stories published. Current and former employees said they were told by military officers that the stories were not to be identified as U.S. government products.
On one occasion, a storyboard was accidentally published in English in a Baghdad newspaper. Military officials in Baghdad dressed down Lincoln Group employees because the error suggested that the material was American in origin. The employees promised it would not happen again.
Lincoln Group records also show that its Iraqi employees often warned their American bosses that the manner in which the news stories were distributed to the Iraqi press was leading some Iraqi editors to suspect U.S. government involvement.
Last summer, with the October constitutional referendum approaching, U.S. commanders in Iraq decided to ratchet up the information war in western Al Anbar province, the predominantly Sunni region that has been an insurgent stronghold.
It fell to Lincoln Group, with the $20-million two-month contract it had been awarded in July, to discredit the insurgency and burnish the image of the Iraqi government before Iraqis went to the polls on Oct. 15.
According to Lincoln Group documents, the company reported to the Army that more than $16 million was spent on television advertisements on Iraqi television over the two-month period.
The so-called Western Mission campaign also included radio advertisements, signs and Internet pop-up advertisements as well as a "rapid response" cell to produce TV, radio and print messages from Al Anbar province to counter insurgent propaganda.
The Western Mission Contract, along with a multi-year contract worth as much as $100 million that Lincoln Group signed with Special Operations Command over the summer, were financial turning points for the company.
The Pentagon has not commented on whether its investigation into Lincoln Group's practices in Iraq might affect its ongoing contracts.
But in Lincoln Group's morale-boosting e-mail, which closes by quoting the 19th-century Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz and the HBO comedic persona Ali G, Craig reassures his staff that there will be better days ahead: "Over the coming days and weeks, the military and the politicians will realize that your work is not only legal and just, but essential to the war on terror. I can guarantee you that your service will be demanded tenfold and that what might have at first seemed a tragedy will end in a victory.... As always, in the absence of further orders, attack."
Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.