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.
The sites are run by U.S. military troops trained in "information warfare,"
a specialty than 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
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.