" ... The news sites are part of a Pentagon initiative to expand "Information Operations" on the Internet. ... "
By Peter Eisler
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is setting up a global network of foreign-language news websites, including an Arabic site for Iraqis, and hiring local journalists to write current events stories and other content that promote U.S. interests and counter insurgent messages.
The news sites are part of a Pentagon initiative to expand "Information Operations" on the Internet. Neither the initiative nor the Iraqi site, www.Mawtani.com, has been disclosed publicly.
At first glance, Mawtani.com looks like a conventional news website. Only the "about" link at the bottom of the site takes readers to a page that discloses the Pentagon sponsorship. The site, which has operated since October, is modeled on two long-established Pentagon-sponsored sites that offer native-language news for people in the Balkans and North Africa.
Journalism groups say the sites are deceptive and easily could be mistaken for independent news.
"This is about trying to control the message, either by bypassing the media or putting your version of the message out before others (and) … there's a heavy responsibility to let people know where you're coming from," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. A disclosure on a separate page "isn't something most people coming to the site are likely to see."
Pentagon officials say the sites are a legitimate and necessary way to promote U.S. policy goals and counter the messages of political and religious extremists. They also note that the United States and its allies have been outgunned in the battle to get information to audiences in Iraq and elsewhere.
"It's important to … engage these foreign audiences and inform," says Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of Defense in charge of special operations and stabilization efforts. "Our adversaries use the Internet to great advantage, so we have the responsibility of countering (their messages) with accurate, truthful information, and these websites are a good vehicle."
The Mawtani site is named for the Iraqi national anthem and means "my homeland." It is available in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu — but not in English — and is supervised by the Pentagon's Iraq command.
The U.S. Southern Command is building a similar site for Latin American audiences. The Pacific Command, which covers Asia, is interested in setting up a news site, says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a spokeswoman. ...