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Inside Politics

Pentagon sites: Journalism or propaganda?

From Barbara Starr and Larry Shaughnessy
Magharebia is a news Web site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.
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Department of Defense
Paul D. Wolfowitz

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Department of Defense plans to add more sites on the Internet to provide information to a global audience -- but critics question whether the Pentagon is violating President Bush's pledge not to pay journalists to promote his policies.

The Defense Department runs two Web sites overseas, one aimed at people in the Balkan region in Europe, the other for the Maghreb area of North Africa.

It is preparing another site, even as the Pentagon inspector general investigates whether the sites are appropriate.

The Web sites carry stories on subjects such as politics, sports and entertainment.

Information warfare

The sites are run by U.S. military troops trained in "information warfare," a specialty that can include battlefield deception.

Pentagon officials say the goal is to counter "misinformation" about the United States in overseas media.

At first glance, the Web pages appear to be independent news sites. To find out who is actually behind the content, a visitor would have to click on a small link -- at the bottom of the page -- to a disclaimer, which says, in part, that the site is "sponsored by" the U.S. Department of Defense.

"There is an element of deception," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The problem," he said, is that it looks like a news site unless a visitor looks at the disclaimer, which is "sort of oblique."

The Pentagon maintains that the information on the sites is true and accurate. But in a recent memo, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz insisted that the Web site contractor should only hire journalists who "will not reflect discredit on the U.S. government."

The Defense Department has hired more than 50 freelance writers for the sites.

Some senior military officers have told CNN the Web sites may clash with President Bush's recent statements. "We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," Bush told reporters on January 26. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet." (Full story)

Bush made those comments after it came to light that the administration had paid several commentators to support U.S. policies in the U.S. media.

Many Democrats have called for an end to what they call administration propaganda within the United States.

But many lawmakers view the rules for handling information overseas as a separate issue.

On Thursday, Lawrence Di Rita, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, asked the Pentagon inspector general to examine Defense Department activities, including the Web sites in question, to see that they fall within the guidelines Bush laid out.

Di Rita said the department wanted "to make sure that we are staying well within the lines, and I believe we are."

Rosenstiel said there is a reason why rules exist to separate journalism from government information. "Anytime that the government has to assure you, 'Believe me, take my word for it, I'm telling you nothing but the truth,' you know you should be worried," he said.

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