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Pentagon debate rages over 'information operations' in Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi forces won control of Falluja after intense fighting in November.
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CNN's Barbara Starr looks at whether misleading comments on CNN from a military spokesman were part of a military "psy-ops" strategy.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid a debate over the use of misinformation by the U.S. military, the Pentagon says it is investigating an October incident in which a Marine spokesman gave CNN misleading information about an attack on the Iraqi city of Falluja.

In an October 14 interview from Iraq, 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert announced that a major U.S. military operation was under way in Falluja -- three weeks before the offensive that eventually recaptured the city began.

A senior Pentagon official told CNN that Gilbert's remarks were "technically true but misleading." It was an attempt to get CNN "to report something not true," the official said.

CNN management has asked the Pentagon for an official response to a report in the Los Angeles Times that identified Gilbert's comments as a possible case of deliberate misinformation of news outlets. The newspaper reported that the interview was part of a broader effort to manipulate the media to achieve U.S. goals in Iraq.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said U.S. personnel are never allowed to deceive reporters, and he said he is reviewing the circumstances surrounding the Gilbert interview.

"We are looking into reports where people may have gotten more creative than they should have," he said.

Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned commanders not to mix up "information operations" with the dissemination of news to reporters. But some in the military are concerned about blurring clear distinctions among three goals: psychological operations against enemy forces; offering timely and accurate information to reporters; and influencing international audiences.

The interview with Gilbert was unusual. He appeared on air only because military officials contacted CNN and said they had someone ready on the scene to discuss major unfolding developments that night.

"The troops crossed the line of departure. We had artillery fire, prep fire going out," Gilbert said in the October 14 interview. "Aircraft have been moving through the area all day, helicopters providing transport. It's been a pretty uncomfortable time."

The objective, Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Mazzetti said Wednesday, was "to see what the enemy was up to."

"The Pentagon people I spoke to said that the intended audience was the insurgent population around Falluja [who] might think that the U.S. military was coming to get them, and the U.S. military wanted to observe what they did when they thought the U.S. was coming," Mazzetti told CNN's "Newsnight With Aaron Brown."

Military officials said later that the operation was not an attempt to retake the city, just an effort to lay the groundwork for the eventual offensive that began in November.

"As the story developed, we quickly made it clear to our viewers exactly what was going on in and around Falluja," CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said.

The Gilbert interview sheds light on a debate behind the scenes at the Pentagon about the use of information as a weapon in the war in Iraq -- and whether a single battlefield commander should be in charge of both psychological operations and media operations at the same time. Some senior officers who served in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, when the credibility of the military was damaged, have raised concerns about the issue.

"Over time, people just didn't believe what the military was saying, and they fear that if we go down this path, the same thing is going to happen again," Mazzetti said.

A proposal circulated within the Pentagon calls for a new post for a "director of central information" to be established as part of a deeper effort to "counter ideological support to terrorism."

A Pentagon advisory panel warned recently that the military must make an effort to communicate better with the Muslim world. But critics worry that effort is becoming a Madison Avenue-style campaign full of leaflets, broadcasts and government-sponsored "influence" that crosses the line.

CNN Pentagon Correspondents Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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