ANKARA, Turkey – The top U.S. military commander called Thursday for a formal Pentagon review of the policies that led to defense officials paying the Iraqi media to place favorable stories in their newspapers.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for more transparency in the system and said people need to know whether they are reading an article by an independent reporter or one written by someone who was paid by the government.
"They need to know that, so they can make their own judgment about what they believe and don't believe in the article," said Pace in an interview on board a military aircraft heading for Turkey. "The worst thing you can have is people feeling like somehow they've been snookered."
Pace did not have details of how this review should be structured. But he said he would push for a full review by Pentagon staff.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, ordered an initial review of the program which found that the Lincoln Group — which was handling the program in Iraq — did not violate its contract with the military.
But left unanswered was the broader question of whether the Pentagon should be actively paying journalists or media outlets to publish positive stories.
Pentagon officials have defended the program as a necessary tool in the war on terror, saying it is critical to get the accurate message out to the Iraqis about what the U.S. is doing in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the military must use "nontraditional means" to get its message out in the face of widespread disinformation campaigns by the insurgency in Iraq.
But Pace said the policy should be reviewed because, "at the end of the day we want the United States to be seen for what it is, an open society that supports free press not only at home but overseas. To the extent that our operations bring that into question, we should review how we're doing it."
On Thursday, as he left Riyadh, Pace said in his meetings with them Saudi King Abdulla and others in the royal family made it clear that they "want our long-term commitment to the region and welcome it — not in large numbers of forces but in our commitment to the stability of the region."
He said the Saudi royals are looking to modernize their military equipment, including helicopters and fighter jets. He would not be specific, saying the two governments have not yet decided on what they are going to buy or sell.
Rachel Bronson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Commission on Foreign Relations, said the Saudis want to understand what the U.S. plans are in Iraq, and whether the U.S. plans to establish any bases there. Saudis are worried, she said, that the sectarian violence in Iraq will seep into Saudi Arabia.
The U.S., meanwhile, wants to see the Saudis continue to try to shut down the flow of funding to extremists — money that is ultimately ending up in Iraq terror cells, she said. The Saudis helped during the Iraq war by allowing the U.S. to launch aircraft from their country.
Pace also said the Saudis talked about their concerns about Iran, but he would not detail the conversation.
"Their real concern is Iran in Iraq," said Bronson, who has just written a book on the Saudi-U.S. relationship. "They're very worried about the nuclear program. It's important because there has always been a nuclear-free Middle East."
Pace, who visited Pakistan and Saudi Arabia earlier this week, is scheduled to meet with military and civilian leaders in Turkey.