IRAQ: Firm That Paid Iraq Papers Gets New Deal

A public relations company that participated in a controversial U.S. military program that paid Iraqi newspapers for stories favorable to coalition forces has been awarded another multimillion-dollar media contract with American forces in Iraq.

Washington-based Lincoln Group won a two-year contract to monitor a number of English and Arabic media outlets and produce public relations-type products like talking points or speeches for U.S. forces in Iraq, officials said Tuesday.

"Lincoln Group is proud to be trusted to assist the multinational forces in Iraq with communicating news about their vital work," Lincoln Group spokesman Bill Dixon said in a statement. Details about the contract were confirmed by the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, and were described in documents posted on a federal government Web site outlining contracts awarded.

The contract is worth roughly $6.2 million per year over a two-year period, Johnson said.

The idea is to use the information to "build support" in Iraqi, Arabic, international and U.S. audiences for what the military describes as its goals in Iraq, such as destroying the insurgency and helping Iraqis build a democracy, according to contract documents.

The list of media outlets to be watched includes the New York Times, Fox Television and the satellite channel, Al-Arabiya.

The Lincoln Group was mired in controversy last year when it became known that the company had been part of a U.S. military operation to pay Iraqi newspapers to run positive stories about coalition activities. According to the company's Web site, it was created in 2003 to do public relations and communications work in challenging environments such as Iraq.

The type of contract, its cost, and the fact that it was awarded to the PR and communications company have raised questions.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said he would be asking the Department of Defense for information about how this "controversial" vendor was chosen, saying the choice of the Lincoln Group "concerns me greatly."

But, Andrews said he's more concerned about the fact that the contract was awarded at all, not just to the Lincoln Group.

"I wish that our problem in Iraq was that the military wasn't getting good PR," Andrews said. "The problem seems to be that the country is sliding into civil war."

Johnson could not comment on how the Lincoln Group was chosen, saying it was a "standard contracting process." He said the contract did not include any provisions to purchase favorable coverage or pay for favorable stories. The Lincoln Group would not comment on the contract beyond the statement issued.

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va., said she was worried about whether the military would be creating its own news through its own newspapers or Web sites.

"If they're trying to influence Iraqi opinion of Americans, I almost find that to be unconscionable because that would say that they do not value a free and independent press in Iraq," Dalglish said.

Johnson said the contract is really nothing new from programs that are already in existence.

Multi-National Forces-Iraq already has in place a one year contract with The Rendon Group, a Washington D.C.-based company, to perform many of the same functions this current contract would fulfill, Johnson said.

"We always monitor the press. Any organization, anywhere monitors the press to see what's being said to determine what messages are out there and how it's impacting the environment," Johnson said.

The Rendon Groups contract, worth $6.4 million over one year, was scheduled to expire this September but Johnson said it has been extended until Oct. 27 while the winner of the new contract is determined.

A key question is whether any public relations campaign in Iraq will work.

Nabil Khalid, the executive news director of Al-Arabiya, one of the most popular Arabic-language television stations in the Middle East, said right now, the multinational forces in Iraq are losing the public relations battle.

"If you asked me who better influences the media, the insurgents or the multinational forces, I would say that the insurgents," Khalid said, speaking by telephone from the station's Dubai headquarters.

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