The Real Price of Propaganda; Exporting a Bunch of Budding Jayson Blairs Simply Feeds the Unhelpful Image of Americans as Inept and Hypocritical Puppetmasters

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CORRECTION: Correction: In "The Real Price of Propaganda" (Dec. 12, 2005), Jonathan Alter cites reporting by author James Bamford in Rolling Stone that suggested the Rendon Group set up interviews for Judith Miller with sources who disseminated false information. There is no evidence that the Rendon Group did so.

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Byline: Jonathan Alter

If you wander into a venerable Washington men's club and glimpse the distinguished older man in the corner, trying to avoid spilling soup on his Brooks Brothers suit, chances are reasonably good that he was in the CIA back in the 1940s and '50s. And if you inquired what he actually did for the CIA during the cold war, and he was inclined to tell you, the answer would likely be that he planted pro-American stories in the foreign press, often with the intention of making sure that elections in places like Greece and Turkey and Indonesia didn't end up with a victory for the communists. Until the mid-1970s, when all of this was exposed, these covert press operations were viewed within the government as a modest plus in the battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.

Is the same true in today's Iraq? Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon was using U.S. troops to write positive articles about Iraq (for instance, heralding the opening of a school), hiring Washington-based contractors to translate the articles into Arabic, then secretly planting them in the Iraqi press with bribes. As long as the stories are accurate, says Mary Matalin, the former aide to Vice President Cheney who often speaks for the Bush administration, they are "absolutely appropriate" in the war of images.

This outsourcing of covert propaganda (everything is outsourced these days) tells us a lot about the two biggest stories around--the venality of Republican Washington and the colossal failure in Iraq--and how they're connected by a shadowy world of global public relations. We got into the war with the help of something called the Rendon Group, a secretive firm that won a huge government contract to "create the conditions for the removal of [Saddam] Hussein from power." (According to an article by James Bamford in last week's Rolling Stone, Rendon invented the "Iraqi National Congress" and put Judith Miller and other reporters in touch with their bum sources on WMD.) Now the PR pork scandal is moving to a different level. This year, the Pentagon granted three contractors $300 million over five years to offer "creative ideas" for psychological operations aimed at what the PR experts call "international perception management. …