WASHINGTON – White House officials said on Thursday they "were very concerned" about reports that the U.S. military paid to run stories in the Iraqi media though the Pentagon has yet to confirm or deny the reports.
"We are seeking more information from the Pentagon," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
McClellan said that he learned from Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that "it was news to him as well."
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, in an exclusive interview with FOX News, wouldn't comment about the reports, saying he needs more information and details.
"I have asked to find out what the program is and what has been done. I don't have a report yet so I'm reluctant to comment on it," Khalilzad said from Baghdad.
"It would be improper to comment before finding out whether this was money to buy advertising or was money to build the infrastructure for free media or something else," he said.
The Los Angeles Times broke the story in Wednesday editions. The newspaper reported that dozens of stories are translated and placed by a defense contractor, the Washington, D.C.-based Lincoln Group. The stories are allegedly written by "U.S. military information operations" troops. It says the stories are "basically factual" but only tell the positive side of the story from the U.S. perspective.
Defense Department officials say the military gives stories to newspapers to counter what commanders call misinformation by terrorists but Pentagon officials have not yet responded about reports of payments for placements.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was "aware of the issue," Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Rumsfeld has asked the top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, to provide him with the facts.
Di Rita said that for much of the past year, the Pentagon's inspector general has been looking into the ways in which the military disseminates information, both overtly through public relations channels or through "information operations" aimed at influencing the enemy.
Whitman said he could neither confirm nor deny that the U.S. military has covertly paid Iraqi journalists to publish and broadcast news items written by the U.S. military without revealing the source.
"I'm still trying to get some more information," Whitman said. "I'm trying to still obtain a better understanding of what this operation involves. I don't have a lot of facts at all."
Attending a White House ceremony commemorating a statue of Rosa Parks to be placed in the U.S. Capitol, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said paying for stories in Iraqi newspapers undermines America's credibility.
"What we need are Iraqis who really believe what they are saying and say it for themselves, and the sooner that happens, the sooner we begin that shift of responsibility," he said.
The U.S. government has a history of sponsoring pro-American news. The Voice of America was founded in 1942 in an effort to get news, information, educational and cultural programming to more than 100 million people worldwide who otherwise may not hear anything but state-run media in their own countries.
The United States also backs the Virginia-based Al-Hurra news, a satellite news channel meant to counter misinformation heard on other Arab networks. Al-Hurra, which airs in 22 countries, is reportedly being investigated by the State Department for procurement and contracting irregularities. Al-Hurra management denies any improprieties. Congress is also looking into whether the network inflates its viewership numbers.
In February, a journalist who helped Iraq form a new broadcast network in 2003 told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that the Iraqi Media Network had turned into a "public diplomacy network" on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority rather than a public broadcasting service aimed at giving Iraqis news essential to their benefit.
Retired Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, of the U.S. Marines and a FOX News contributor, said the United States needs to do more to get positive coverage in the face of massive propaganda against it.
"We, the U.S. and the coalition forces, have not done a good job not only in Iraq but throughout the Arab world of getting the other side of the story out. We're butting up against Al-Jazeera, which certainly has parochial interests, and the idea that there's something wrong with trying to make sure that good stories get in the Iraqi or Middle East media is preposterous," he said.
"We continue to let the bad guys have their say about anything and everything and never get to stand up against that all. We're just not out there really to win this war in my judgment."
After a speech Thursday at the National Defense University, Pace said that the military hasn't articulated progress well enough and that troops need to talk to the media and people in their communities to share their experiences.
"When they come home, we should be encouraging them, inside their local communities, to take the opportunity to talk to the local newspapers, the local chamber of commerce, just to be able to answer our fellow citizens' questions," Pace said.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad told FOX News that the issue is being reviewed as the military-run program continues.
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.
FOX News' Bret Baier, Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.