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Pentagon boosts PR arsenal

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon has begun a new "rapid response" operation to quickly respond to news media stories critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq, as well as other stories the Defense Department leadership doesn't like.

The operation is similar to those used in political campaigns, but officials say the new organization was not started specifically because of rising criticism of the war.

Defense Department Press Secretary Eric Ruff could not immediately provide statistics regarding the cost of the new operation or the number of people involved. He confirmed, however, that it is expected some of the new staff members will be political appointees or contractors.

"We are staffing up considerably," Ruff told reporters.

He described the new operation specifically as "rapid response" so that the Pentagon could "get inside the news cycle" of 24/7 operations.

"Al Qaeda has demonstrated time and again how to use the Internet and time and again how to use video effectively," Ruff said.

Rumsfeld has criticized the media for focusing on what he characterizes as the negative news coming out of Iraq.

The new operation will have four branches, according to an Oct. 3 memo from Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. In each case, the plan is to have these units respond rapidly to critics or offer "information products" developed by the staff.

The branches, according to the memo, are:

  • New Media: "Creating products and distributing information" for the Internet, podcasting, DVDs and Web sites, including You Tube.
  • Rapid Response: "Develop messages and products for the 24/7 media cycle," including letters to the editor. In recent weeks, there has been an increase in Pentagon-written letters to the editors of dozens of news organizations. Those are now posted on the Defense Department's Web site, including letters that news organizations have declined to publish, and letters asking for corrections in editorials.
  • TV and Radio Booking: "Enhance effort to provide civilian and military guests for cable network and radio programs."
  • Surrogates: "Provide information and visibility to the surrogate community." Those are mainly analysts who speak publicly, often on behalf of the Pentagon.
  • Smith said the plan will result in "more timely responses to breaking news" as well as "more briefings" and "greater press access to DoD officials." However, Smith himself has never publicly briefed the press corps and has said he will not do so.

    The new operation is beginning to take shape physically as well. On Friday, about half the press office was walled off so the new hires could sit out of public view.

    U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has complained that the media focus on bad news.


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