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Iraq: Broadcast Blues

by Bruce B. AusterUS News and World Report
January 26th, 2004

Even before the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq last March, American officials put in motion a plan to help win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The idea was simple enough: Create a broadcast and newspaper network that would provide credible information to the Iraqi masses. As it turned out, the plan flopped, and U.S. officials have been forced to go back to the drawing board.

What happened? Some U.S. officials and others critical of the project say the principal contractor stumbled, almost from the beginning. Science Applications International Corp. won $82 million in contracts to create the Iraqi Media Network, or IMN. But the operation was amateurish at best, according to the critics, who point out that the big defense contractor had no special expertise in broadcasting and publishing. The IMN was also seen as far too close to American officials in Baghdad to be credible. "The Iraqis," says a former SAIC consultant, "know state-run TV when they see it."

American officials described widespread problems with the IMN project. Pentagon contracting officials found that SAIC failed to account for transmitters and other equipment that were paid for but never delivered to Iraqi TV stations in the field, according to a source with firsthand knowledge. Separately, the contractor spent top dollar for executives--up to $273 an hour--but skimped on basic equipment for its Iraqi journalists. SAIC also paid bloated fees for security officers, up to $1,000 each a day.

Wasteful

Now, the Defense Department has turned to another contractor to manage the project. Last week, the Pentagon gave the Harris Corp., a Floridaconcern, a $96 million contract. SAIC did not bid, and a company official says the planned pullout of the American governing coalition in July led it to back out of the competition. But critics say poor performance and wasteful practices were also factors in the company's decision.

SAIC, a diversified San Diego-based company with close ties to Washington power brokers, concedes some missteps but defends its work. "We started with virtually nothing, and today we're broadcasting to more than 80 percent of the population," says Kenneth Van Dillen, an SAIC vice president. "Given working conditions in Iraq, it's a pretty good achievement."

Ambassador Paul Bremer, who heads the U.S. governing coalition in Baghdad, is so dissatisfied with the fledgling Iraqi media network that he may create a new private-public effort modeled on America's Corporation for Public Broadcasting or Britain's BBC, according to a U.S. official. However, it is not clear how such a scheme would be implemented, given the new contract award to Harris Corp. and its partners in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Lugar, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, will step up oversight. "We know that the viability of democracy is dependent on a free press," he says. "To do this in Iraq and the Middle East, we need the vision, the strategy, and the mechanisms in place to ensure that a free, fair, and legally protected media is the result. All of those things are now lacking."

The media operation is a vital part of the Bush administration's current $18.6 billion effort to rebuild Iraq. But that effort, as SAIC's work suggests, has not been without problems. Pentagon auditors accused Texas-based Halliburton Co., once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, of overcharging for fuel, although the Army Corps of Engineers now says that the price was fair. Critics have accused several companies of profiteering. "It's not as if the Iraqis are going to be getting $20 billion worth of services," says a consultant for a contractor in Iraq. "By the time you add it all up, there's not a lot of bang for the buck."

SAIC's problems stem, in part, from a November visit to Iraq by four Pentagon contracting officials who reviewed the project. SAIC was supposed to build an infrastructure that would let it beam programming to the Iraqis. But the officials discovered that SAIC had been paid for work it had not completed, according to a person familiar with their visit. They found that 11 of 16 large shipping containers of gear hadn't been unloaded, although a U.S. official in Baghdad certified that the work had been done. At one TV station, the Pentagon visitors expected to find a transmitter, antenna equipment, and feeder cables, but the gear couldn't be located. "We have no information about any missing equipment on this project," says SAIC's Van Dillen. A Pentagon audit agency is conducting an equipment inventory; SAIC says that's routine.

SAIC's operation also is seen as too close to the U.S. occupation authority, largely because of its ties to the Defense Department. Norman Pattiz, who oversees Radio Sawa, a U.S.-backed effort that also broadcasts in the Middle East, puts it this way: "The [Iraqi] audience immediately got the feeling that IMN was the official mouthpiece for the coalition, which created a good deal of skepticism." SAIC insists that the IMN is independent. But the chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority is also the key executive for IMN. In one case, IMN money was used to buy a teleprompter--not for the Iraqi news anchors but for Bremer, the top U.S. official in Baghdad. Although SAIC claims to reach many Iraqi people, some surveys suggest that most Iraqis don't watch IMN regularly. About one third say they tune in to the satellite channel al Jazeera; that's a substantial number because satellite dishes are not widely available in Iraq.

Stingy

Pattiz says IMN has a low- budget look that turns off viewers. SAIC skimped on basic news gear. Requests for batteries, tripods, and other equipment were routinely denied, according to Don North, an independent journalist and former SAIC consultant. Iraqi news anchors were paid as little as $60 a month, not enough to pay for decent on-air attire. When a request was made to dress them up, SAIC offered $150 for each, but only for clothes from the waist up. An SAIC official says the company didn't realize it needed to provide a clothing allowance.

SAIC hasn't been so stingy with its own executives. "There were too many people riding the contract who weren't providing on-the-ground service," says a former SAIC employee. One person, he says, earned $209 an hour while scouting other business for the company. According to SAIC's contract, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity under the Freedom of Information Act, another executive earned $273 an hour. SAIC paid $890,000 to an advertising firm, J. Walter Thompson, to promote a new concept for IMN, including renaming the network al Iraqiya.

SAIC also paid top dollar for security. It hired retired U.S. Special Forces troops, including former members of the elite Delta Force, to run a security force of some 30 people. "They are the best in the world," says SAIC's Van Dillen. And they are also among the most expensive. The ex-Deltas were paid up to $1,000 a day, according to a source familiar with the pay scale. Critics say that local Iraqis can provide security for a small fraction of what SAIC is paying.

SAIC isn't even the only American operation broadcasting into Iraq. When the Pentagon awarded SAIC the contracts last year, the United States was already spending heavily on radio and television programming for the region. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent, government-funded organization that also airs the Voice of America, spends more than $100 million annually to beam a pro-U.S. message into the Mideast, including Iraq. Its flagship station, Radio Sawa, which means "together" in Arabic, is a controversial mix of pop music and news programming. A satellite-based TV version, soon to be launched, is designed to compete with the popular, and sometimes anti-American, broadcasts of al Jazeera. Critics wonder why taxpayer money is being spent on two media projects when, they say, one would do. "Everyone tells me they have separate missions, but I can't get it through my thick skull what the difference is," says Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Senator Lugar. "And I'm not sure the average Iraqi will see the difference either."



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