Exclusive: Did the U.S. government buy favorable coverage of Iraq’s Anbar Province?

Exclusive: Did the U.S. government buy favorable coverage of Iraq’s Anbar Province?

U.S. taxpayer money that was supposed to be used for emergency purposes in Iraq was spent to buy a special advertising issue for an Anbar businessman in a British trade magazine, a U.S. government investigation has found.

FDI magazine, a bimonthly print publication and website owned by the Financial Times, nearly simultaneously showered Anbar Governor Qasim Abid Muhammad Hammadi Al Fahadawi with positive coverage, praising the dangerous Anbar province as "a hot place to invest in" and giving the businessman an award as "Global Personality of the Year for 2009."

FDI’s award was announced three days before the "Special Report" on Anbar, entitled, "Bridge to the Future," was published on its website. The award was immediately praised by the U.S. military in Iraq, without mention of the U.S. funds spent on the supplement, and the website makes no mention of it having been paid for by the American government. Then again last month, FDI magazine Editor Courtney Fingar handed the governor another award naming Anbar province one of FDI magazine’s "standout regions of the year."

Reached by The Cable, Fingar confirmed the U.S. government had spent "in the neighborhood of $50,000" on the special supplement but denied her magazine’s content had been bought and paid for, calling the report on Anbar "balanced and accurate."

The investigation was disclosed in the October quarterly report of the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR), which is tasked with monitoring U.S. expenditures and projects in Iraq, but has so far not been publicly reported. Sources told The Cable that after the report is submitted to Congress, it’s up to that body to determine if the payment violated funding rules or the law.

The 14-page special advertising edition, the SIGIR report found, was completely paid for by U.S. military money from what’s called the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP).

"CERP was originally designed for urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction," said Deputy Inspector General Ginger Cruz told The Cable. "Over the past six years its use has been greatly expanded and expenditures such as promotional media pieces emphasize the importance of having clear criteria to ensure appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

"It just seems odd at all parts from whatever angle you look at it," said one administration source who requested anonymity because of the sensitive relationship between SIGIR and the military. Another source called the use of emergency funding to advertize for the governor "bizarre."

Defense Department financial regulations define CERP funding as "designed to enable local commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirements within their areas of responsibility by carrying out programs that will immediately assist the indigenous population."

Fingar told The Cable that that while "travelling to Anbar to write the supplement provided an opportunity to become aware of the developments in the province and the work of the Governor," the editorial credibility of the publication was not for sale.

"The decision to grant the award was made after my return from Anbar, based on my experiences there and without consultation with the U.S. government, Anbar governor or any external sources," she said, "The decision is an editorial one alone."

She admitted that the special edition of the publication was paid for by the U.S. government and claimed it had a clearly identified sponsor, but the website version of the supplement made no mention the U.S. government involvement.

"As per standard practice in the [business to business] specialist publishing business, the cost of the report was underwritten by a clearly identified sponsor — in this case the US government — but as per the very strict editorial code of conduct under which we operate at The Financial Times Ltd, reporting and editing were carried out independently and with no interference," said Fingar, who described her reporting as "balanced and accurate.’

"We stand by our coverage," she said.

The Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment.