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Alleged Iraq Propaganda Probed

President Bush's spokesman said Thursday "we're very concerned" about reports that the U.S. military is paying Iraqi newspapers and journalists to plant favorable stories about the war and the rebuilding effort.

"We are seeking more information from the Pentagon," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said, as he did a day earlier in response to reporters' inquiries about the reports, that he was seeking details from U.S. military officials in Baghdad. "I have very few facts," Whitman said, adding that he would not confirm the essence of the story until he learned more from Baghdad.

"It's certainly an issue that's easy to get emotional about, and we need to understand the facts, and when we do I'll provide you as much information as I can," Whitman said.

The spokesman said that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was "aware of the issue," but he would not say whether Rumsfeld had expressed concern about it or whether the secretary had asked for additional information about it.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin calls it "a covert propaganda operation." The articles are secretly written by U.S. soldiers, translated into Arabic, and placed in Iraqi papers by a go-between, Martin reports.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the reports were troubling.

"I think that the United States of America paying for stories in Iraqi papers undermines America's credibility," Kerry said in the White House driveway after attending a bill-signing ceremony. "What we need are Iraqis who really believe what they're saying and say it for themselves. ... You need to deal with the truth, not with things that you make up or put out there as propaganda."

McClellan noted that Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said on Wednesday that he was not aware of the matter until he read a newspaper account of it that morning. Asked on ABC News' "Nightline" whether he thought the practice was appropriate, Pace replied, "Anything that would be detrimental to the proper functioning of a democracy in Iraq would worry me. I just don't know what the facts are."

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said, "I am not aware of any formal review of the program, although it is constantly being assessed for effectiveness."

In Baghdad on Thursday, a senior military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, was asked whether he thought the program undercuts the credibility of either the American military or the new Iraqi news media. Lynch did not answer directly but quoted a senior al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as having told Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the main terrorist leader in Iraq, "Remember, half the battle is the battlefield of the media."

Lynch said Zarqawi lies to the Iraqi people and he said the American military does not.

"We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public, but everything we do is based on fact not based on fiction," Lynch said.

Details about the program were first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. It marked the second time this year that Pentagon programs have come under scrutiny for reported payments made to journalists for favorable press.

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