The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is conducting a campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military-intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with the effort, noting that tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked al-Zarqawi loyalists.
For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize al-Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the “U.S. Home Audience” as a target of a broader propaganda campaign.
Some senior intelligence officers believe al-Zarqawi’s role might have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist.
Although al-Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bomb attacks, they remain “a very small part of the actual numbers,” Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military-intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.
In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, “Our own focus on al-Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will — made him more important than he really is, in some ways.”
“The long-term threat is not al-Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends,” said Harvey, who did not return phone calls seeking comment on his remarks.
There has been a running argument among specialists in Iraq about how much significance to assign to al-Zarqawi, who spent seven years in prison in Jordan for attempting to overthrow the government there. After his release, he spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan before moving his base of operations to Iraq.
He has been sentenced to death in absentia for planning the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan. U.S. authorities have said he is responsible for dozens of deaths in Iraq and have placed a $25 million bounty on him.
“Home audience” among targets
The military’s propaganda program largely has been aimed at Iraqis but seems to have spilled over into the U.S. media. One briefing slide about U.S. “strategic communications” in Iraq, prepared for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, describes the “home audience” as one of six major targets of the American side of the war.
That slide, created by Casey’s subordinates, does not specifically state that U.S. citizens were being targeted by the effort, but other sections of the briefings indicate there were direct military efforts to use the U.S. media to affect views of the war. One slide in the same briefing, for example, noted that a “selective leak” about al-Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter based in Baghdad. Filkins’ resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by al-Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the newspaper’s front page Feb. 9, 2004.
Filkins, reached by e-mail, said he was not told at the time that there was a psychological-operations campaign aimed at al-Zarqawi but said he assumed the military was releasing the letter “because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicized.” No special conditions were placed upon him in being briefed on its contents, he said. He said he was skeptical about the document’s authenticity and remains so, and tried to confirm its authenticity with officials outside the military.
“There was no attempt to manipulate the press,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military’s chief spokesman when the propaganda campaign began in 2004, said Friday. “We trusted Dexter to write an accurate story, and we gave him a good scoop.”
Another briefing slide states that after U.S. commanders ordered that the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s government be publicized, U.S. psychological-operations soldiers produced a video disc that not only was widely disseminated inside Iraq, but also was “seen on Fox News.”
“You don’t psyop Americans”
U.S. military policy is not to aim psychological operations at Americans, said Army Col. James Treadwell, who commanded the U.S. military psychological-operations (psyops) unit in Iraq in 2003. “It is ingrained in U.S.: You don’t psyop Americans. We just don’t do it,” said Treadwell. He said he left Iraq before the al-Zarqawi program began but was later told about it.
“When we provided stuff, it was all in Arabic” and aimed at the Iraqi and Arab media, said another military officer familiar with the program, who spoke on background because he is not supposed to speak to reporters. This officer said the al-Zarqawi campaign “probably raised his profile in the American press’s view.”
With satellite TV, e-mail and the Internet, it is impossible to prevent some carryover from propaganda campaigns overseas into the U.S. media, said Treadwell, who is now director of a new project at the U.S. Special Operations Command that focuses on “trans-regional” media issues.
The al-Zarqawi program was not related to another effort, led by the Lincoln Group, a U.S. consulting firm, to place pro-U.S. articles in Iraq newspapers, according to the officer familiar with the program who spoke on background.
It is difficult to determine how much has been spent on the al-Zarqawi campaign, which began two years ago and is believed to be ongoing. U.S. propaganda efforts in Iraq in 2004 cost $24 million, but that included extensive building of offices and residences for troops involved, as well as radio broadcasts and distribution of thousands of leaflets, said the officer speaking on background.
The al-Zarqawi campaign is discussed in several internal military documents. “Villainize al-Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response,” one U.S. military briefing from 2004 stated. The methods listed included “Media operations” and “PSYOP.”
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