WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the Pentagon is reviewing its practice of paying to plant stories in the Iraqi news media, withdrawing his earlier claim that it had been stopped.
Rumsfeld told reporters he was mistaken in the earlier assertion.
"I don't have knowledge as to whether it's been stopped. I do have knowledge it was put under review. I was correctly informed. And I just misstated the facts," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing.
Rumsfeld had said in a speech in New York last Friday and in a television interview the same day that the controversial practice had been stopped.
He said that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was reviewing the practice. Previously, Casey has said he saw no reason to stop it.
Rumsfeld saluted members of the U.S. military participating in relief efforts in devastating mudslides in the Philippines.
"These efforts are an indication of the organizational talents of the United States military," Rumsfeld said.
Some 5,000 U.S. military members were in the Philippines at the time, most of them on training exercises, said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rumsfeld also addressed mixed signals coming from Iraqi leaders over the type of government they'd like to eventually see take shape in Iraq.
"Iraqis are going through a political process," Rumsfeld said. "Until they agree on who their new leadership should be, you're going to see a lot of public statements by a lot of people ... reflecting a lot of different views."
Iraqi political parties have run into major obstacles in talks on a new national unity government. Any major delay would be a setback to U.S. hopes for a significant reduction in troop levels this year.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said earlier Tuesday in Baghdad that the results of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections showed the Iraqi people want a "broad government of national unity" to bring together "all the different elements" of Iraqi society.
He spoke after meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other Iraqi leaders.
Al-Jaafari has said formation of the government was more complicated "because this time the Arab Sunnis are participating in the political process."
Rumsfeld also said he had no problems with a deal permitting a United Arab Emirates company to take over operations at six major U.S. seaports, a plan that has encountered stiff political opposition in Congress.
He called the UAE a good military partner in the war on terror.
"Nothing changes with respect to security under the contract. The Coast Guard is in charge of security, not the corporation," Rumsfeld said.
Earlier Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Rumsfeld had been incorrect in saying on Friday that the practice of paying for positive stories in the Iraqi media had been halted in the wake of negative publicity in the United States.
An official inquiry into the program by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk has been completed but its results have not been publicly released.
In his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign-policy think tank, Rumsfeld raised the issue as an example of the U.S. military command in Baghdad seeking "nontraditional means" to get its message to the Iraqi people in the face of a disinformation campaign by the insurgents.
"Yet this has been portrayed as inappropriate — for example, the allegations of someone in the military hiring a contractor and the contractor allegedly paying someone to print a story — a true story — but paying to print a story," he said during his speech.
"The resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything — all activity, all initiative — to stop, just frozen," he added.
In an appearance Friday on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," Rumsfeld said he had not known about the practice of paying for news stories before it became a subject of critical publicity in the United States.
"When we heard about it we said, 'Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing,' and told the people down there," he said.
Although "it wasn't anything terrible that happened," Pentagon officials ordered a halt to the practice and "they stopped doing it," he added, according to a transcript provided by the show.