The U.S. Defense Department is looking into allegations in Wednesday's "Los Angeles Times" newspaper, that U.S. military officials in Iraq are paying Iraqi newspapers to publish articles written by soldiers that praise the work the coalition is doing.
Spokesman Bryan Whitman says he first learned of the alleged activity from the newspaper article, and that it gave him cause for concern.
"This article raises some questions as to whether or not some of the practices that are described in there are consistent with the principles of this department," he said. "And that's what we're going to take a look at."
The official communications principles of the Defense Department say information provided by the department will be "timely and accurate," but they do not include any prohibition against paying to place stories in the media.
The Los Angeles Times article says the U.S. military stories in the Iraqi press were generally accurate, but were presented without making clear they had been written by soldiers or, in some cases, that their publication had been paid for. The newspaper says subjects included reconstruction efforts by U.S. troops, reports on atrocities by insurgents and other subjects that support the U.S. and coalition effort in Iraq.
Mr. Whitman says shortly after he saw the Los Angeles Times article he sent inquiries to U.S. commanders in Iraq to find out what is going on.
"It's important for us to hear from the command what they're actually doing and why they feel it's important and under what authorities they're executing those activities," he said.
The Pentagon spokesman says he will not have any more to say on the issue until he hears back from the commanders.
The articles were reportedly written by soldiers working in what is called "information operations," translated into Arabic and distributed to the Iraqi newspapers by a Washington-based consulting company called the Lincoln Group.
Officials of the company declined to comment on Wednesday, but the firm's Web site says it provides "media, communications and business insight" in foreign markets, and helps clients "reach, communicate and win" in communities around the world.
U.S. government efforts to plant stories in the media without proper attribution have created several controversies in recent years. Professor Emeritus Henry Hager at the University of Missouri School of Journalism says if the story is true, the U.S. military is blurring the line between journalism and advertising, and damaging one of the democratic principles the United States is trying to instill in Iraqi society.
"This is one of those alarming things that we find that our government is not telling us what is going on," he said. "And it's a covert activity and one doesn't like it. And you're playing around with, hopefully, one of the really reliable things in our republic, which is the news."
Professor Hager was a U.S. military journalist during and after World War II. He says he understands the temptation to do something unethical to help the war effort, but he says that doesn't make it right.
"We did everything that we could, and if it was a little underhand, so be it," he said. "We had to win that one. So I do understand that argument, and to a degree, I do understand why they did it. It still doesn't make me feel comfortable. No question about it's being an ethical problem."
The Defense Department has promised to report on what it learns about the allegations, and says all military information efforts must be in line with department policy.