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3 groups have contracts for pro-U.S. propaganda
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's latest project to win hearts and minds in the war on terrorism relies on two large defense contractors and a small start-up firm to craft messages appealing to people across the globe.

U.S. Special Operations Command awarded three five-year contracts in June for contractors to develop slogans, advertisements, newspaper articles, radio spots and television programs to build support for U.S. policies overseas. Each contract has a maximum value of $20 million per year for a total of $300 million.

The contractors include the Lincoln Group, a small firm that's under investigation for paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-American articles ghostwritten under a separate military contract.

Lincoln Group spokeswoman Laurie Adler says the articles produced by the Lincoln Group are true and "counter the lies, intimidation and pure evil of terror."

Another contractor, San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), won a no-bid Pentagon contract in 2003 to run an Iraqi media network that Defense Department investigators later said was mismanaged. The third company, SYColeman Inc., is led by a retired general who was a top official in the Defense Department agency that gave SAIC its Iraqi media contract.

The psychological warfare officials overseeing the project say the messages will be true, if not always attributed to the U.S. military.

"We're looking at programs, for example, to counter suicide bombers," says Mike Furlong of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element (JPSE).

Lincoln had little experience

Lincoln, which Maryland records show was created in January 2004 as Iraqex, had no experience in public relations, advertising or other media work. Adler says the firm went to Iraq to work with Iraqi businesses and did its first "strategic communications" work at the request of U.S. commanders.

One of Lincoln Group's founders, a native Briton named Christian Bailey, had been a co-chairman of a political group aligned with the Republican Party called Lead 21. Adler says Bailey did not use his political ties to get government contracts.

SAIC is one of the nation's larger defense contractors. It had more than $7 billion in revenue last year.

Until July, one of its directors was retired Army general Wayne Downing, a former head of Special Operations Command. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked Downing to assess Special Operations Command and suggest possible improvements.

The Pentagon awarded SAIC a no-bid contract in 2003 to run the Iraqi Free Media Program, a network of newspapers as well as radio and television stations. The military paid the company more than $80 million but dropped the contractor amid criticism from the Pentagon's inspector general that the network was poorly managed.

SYColeman's president is retired Army lieutenant general Jared Bates, who spent six months in 2003 helping set up the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which first governed postwar Iraq. That Pentagon agency gave SAIC the Iraq media contract.

Special Operations Command asked the three companies for ideas for anti-terrorism media campaigns and asked SYColeman to further develop its proposal, Furlong says.

The media campaign hasn't begun, and JPSE has spent only $700,000 on the project so far, Furlong says.

Disclosure worries

Paying journalists to plant stories contradicts efforts to encourage free and independent reporting in the Middle East, say critics of the military campaign.

"They say all's fair in love and war, but we shouldn't go so far as to violate our standards and traditions to achieve our goals," says Daniel Edelman, who founded the world's largest independent public relations firm that bears his name. During World War II, he worked on psychological operations while serving in the Army in Europe.

Contracting records show that contractors were worried about scrutiny by U.S. and foreign reporters.

During the bidding process for federal contracts, potential contractors can ask questions and make suggestions that are answered by contracting officials. One question for this contract was whether the command would "protect them from U.S. and foreign media inquiries into this project."

The command said it would follow the law but consult with contractors before answering requests for details filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a written response to questions from USA TODAY, JPSE says the military, not the contractor, is responsible for the work. Therefore, it would be "inappropriate" for contractors to discuss their work with reporters "without prior coordination with their government representative."

The companies also asked whether their employees would be allowed to arm themselves in dangerous places and whether they would have immunity from prosecutions in countries where they worked. The command said no in both cases; contractors aren't allowed to carry weapons without special exemption, and they would have no immunity and would have to "coordinate with other nations as required."

Contributing: Mark Memmott

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