WASHINGTON -- Demands from the White House and Congress for details were building yesterday over a US military program whose multimillion-dollar contracts include money for paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to plant favorable stories about the war and rebuilding effort.
Citing increasing concerns about the matter, the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned Defense Department officials to Capitol Hill for a briefing today.
''I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy," said Committee Chairman John Warner, Republican of Virgina, adding that he has no information to confirm or refute the reports. ''A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media."
Defense Department officials in Baghdad continued to defend the program, saying it is a necessary tool to provide factual information to the Iraqi people.
One of the companies involved -- the Washington-based Lincoln Group -- has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One, for $6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, according to a document.
The other Lincoln contract, which is with the Special Operations Command, is worth up to $100 million over five years for media operations with video, print and Web-based products. That contract is not related to the controversy over propaganda and was not for services in Iraq, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.
The program came to light just as President Bush released his strategy for victory in Iraq, which includes the need to support a ''free, independent and responsible Iraqi media" and a vow to help the Iraqi government communicate in a ''professional, effective and open manner."
''We're very concerned," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. ''We are seeking more information from the Pentagon."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, slammed the program as a devious scheme that ''speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap. If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, as he did a day earlier in response to inquiries, that he was seeking details from US military officials in Baghdad.