WASHINGTON, March 21 — An inquiry has found that an American public relations firm did not violate military policy by paying Iraqi news outlets to print positive articles, military officials said Tuesday. The finding leaves to the Defense Department the decision on whether new rules are needed to govern such activities.
The inquiry, which has not yet been made public, was ordered by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, after it was disclosed in November that the military had used the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, to plant articles written by American troops in Iraqi newspapers while hiding the source of the articles.
The final report was described by officials in Washington and Iraq who have read or been briefed on it and were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was considering new policies for regional commanders to clarify existing doctrine and rules on military communications and information operations.
Officials at the Pentagon and in Iraq said the Lincoln Group's contract remained fully in effect. The group's work, under a contract estimated at several million dollars, has included paying friendly Iraqi journalists stipends for favorable treatment.
Commanders in Iraq have said the group's efforts may continue unless a new policy to restrict or halt the practice is issued in Iraq or from the Pentagon. Those officials said the review acknowledged the "gray area" in which military communications and information operations are conducted in the battle zone, but found that no legal violations had been committed by the Lincoln Group in planting the stories.
The results of the investigation have been awaited with apprehension across the military and within the Bush administration, where officials have been struggling to find a way to improve the American image around the globe in the face of particular hostility in the Muslim world.
The findings are narrow in focus, and conclude that the Lincoln Group committed no legal violations because its actions in paying to place American-written articles without attribution were not expressly prohibited by its contract or military rules.
Officials who have read or been briefed on the review said the delay in its public release reflected discomfort in the Pentagon about the actions by the Lincoln Group and about the lack of clarity in broader Defense Department policy.
After disclosure of the secret effort to plant articles, angry members of Congress summoned Pentagon officials to a closed-door session to explain the program, saying it was not in keeping with democratic principles, and even White House officials voiced deep concern.
Mr. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's civilian and military leaders were able to deflect direct criticism at the time because the contract had been signed by the military command in Baghdad. But the inquiry now leaves them to address whether new guidelines are needed to balance American values of a free press against the needs of commanders in the fight against insurgents in Iraq.
Paige Craig, a Lincoln Group executive vice president, said by telephone on Tuesday that his organization had not been informed of the review's findings. He cited client confidentiality in declining to discuss the organization's contract with the military, its work and its payments.
Officials familiar with the review said it did not deal deeply with how the Lincoln Group had received the contract, or with whether the organization had established sufficient expertise or experience to carry out the contract effectively.
General Casey has given no timetable for release of the official findings, and last commented on the investigation on March 3, when he said at a news conference, "By and large, it found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities." He said then that he had not ordered any halt to the practices because findings of the review, conducted by Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, were still being evaluated.
Lawrence Di Rita, co-director of a Pentagon panel studying communications questions for the Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released last month, said Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior officials were now considering new policies for regional combat commanders.
He declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation but acknowledged that the issues arising from the Lincoln controversy — and the more sweeping question of how the Defense Department should communicate about its actions and policies overseas — demanded more analysis inside the Pentagon.
"The big issue in our world is whether our doctrine and our policy are up to date," said Mr. Di Rita, a senior adviser to Mr. Rumsfeld. "We owe more thinking to the combatant commanders. What are the things that should be balanced when you look at information and communications issues?"
Across the Bush administration, officials are wrestling with how to counter radical anti-American messages that resonate throughout huge parts of the world. With the pace of technology, and against the backdrop of American counterterrorism efforts around the world, the role of information has been given greater prominence in Pentagon planning.
The question for the Pentagon is its proper role in shaping perceptions abroad. Particularly in a modern world connected by satellite television and the Internet, misleading information and lies could easily migrate into American news outlets, as could the perception that false information is being spread by the Pentagon.