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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Thursday | April 03, 2003

Lies, Damned Lies and the Office of Strategic Influence

By now I think it’s become pretty obvious that the Pentagon is taking a very, um, creative view of the media’s role in Gulf War II.

Actually, pro-active may be the better word for it. By saying (or at least implying) things to reporters that aren’t true, Rummy and the gang appear to hope they can make them come true – thus controlling the future by controlling the present.

To be sure, that’s a step down from Orwell’s slogan about controlling the future by controlling the past. But it’s a start. Ministries of Truth can’t be built in a day – or even a war.

Still, peering through the last two weeks of strategically blown smoke, we see:

* Republican Guard commanders who were negotiating their surrender on the very first night of the war – but who nevertheless have ended up fighting like cornered rats in the suburbs of Baghdad.

* The bloody carcass of Saddam Hussein, last seen being loaded into an ambulance in the streets of Baghdad, which somehow has managed to force his evil henchmen to fight to the last ditch. (Imagine what they’d be doing if he were still alive!)

* The port of Umm Qasr, which apparently the Coalition enjoyed capturing so much they did it over again – at least four or five times.

* The pathetic, harmless Iraqi People’s Militia, which over the space of about two days morphed into the Terrorist Baby-Raping Squads of Death -- without the benefit of steroids.

* A monstrously important Chemical Weapons Factory of Death that ended up being defended by about a platoon of Iraqi conscripts, who surrendered as soon as the first GIs turned up.

I could go on (and on and on and on and on) but you get my point. Hope, as the generals like to say, isn’t a plan. But lying can be -- particularly if your underlying assumption is that the enemy is at the point of collapse before the war even kicks off. Tell an Iraqi conscript the war is already lost, and he might believe you. Tell a Republican Guard commander his colleagues are getting ready to cut and run, and maybe he’ll decide to get the jump on them.

Strategic deception is as old as warfare. But what’s increasingly clear is that the Pentagon now regards the media as just another instrument of that deception – like dropping leaflets over enemy lines, only more cost effective.

And there’s absolutely no reason to be surprised by this. Because they all but told us they were going to do it, more than a year ago.

The New York Times broke the story: “Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad,” February 19, 2002. The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said.

To this end, the Pentagon created something called The Office of Strategic Influence (Orwell: “Why didn’t I think of that?) to coordinate both “white” operations – writing letters to the editor, assigning off-duty Army officers to post comments on blogs, etc. – and “black” operations – deliberately leaking fabricated materials to the foreign press.

Note the use of the word foreign. The Pentagon specifically denied it any intention – any intention – of telling lies to the US press. This was the operation’s fig leaf, designed to cover the naughty bits left flapping in the wind by the CIA back during the Vietnam Era, when it was caught planting bogus stories in both the foreign and the US media.

Well, the shit hit the fan – in a limited sort of way – after the Times story appeared. Various DoD bureaucrats hustled to assure reporters the Pentagon would remain true to that proud tradition of honesty it displayed so well during the Vietnam War. . . or whatever.

Doug Feith: “We're going to preserve our credibility and we're going to preserve the purity of the statements that defense officials make to the public. We're also going to preserve our option to mislead the enemy about our operations. And those are not inconsistent."

And people wonder why Rumsfeld hired a lawyer for that job.

But enough people had enough lingering doubts that Rummy was forced to back down. Why, even Karen Hughes was offended (“White House Angered at Plan For Pentagon Disinformation, Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2002). I mean, lying about a drunk driving conviction is one thing, but lying about something as trivial as a war is clearly too far over the line.

So the Office of Strategic Influence was killed. Finito. Terminated, with extreme prejudice. True, a few pesky reporters wondered whether, in classic DoD fashion, OSI’s “black” functions might not be tucked quietly under another box on the organizational flow chart. But Rummy, snarling in defeat, denied it. (“Rumsfeld Kills Pentagon Propaganda Unit,” Washington Post, February 27.) “What do you want,” the Defense Secretary snapped, “blood?”

In hindsight, somebody should have made it very, very clear to Rumsfeld that no, we really didn’t want blood.

So that was the end of the matter. Of course it was. Because our government never lies. And controversial, but public, defense programs are never turned into controversial, but covert, defense programs.

Which is why the New York Times reported just a few months ago that: The Defense Department is considering issuing a secret directive to the American military to conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policy makers in friendly and neutral countries, senior Pentagon and administration officials say. (“Pentagon May Push Propaganda in Allied Nations,” December 16, 2002.)

So it appears we actually do still have an Office of Strategic Influence, only now it's on double secret probation.

At this point the skeptical Freeper will pounce: “Don’t that story still say only furrin countries is gonna be lied to? It don’t say nuthin about lying to any of them American commie liberal reporters, now does it? Hah. Gotcha!

Well, I could question whether it’s even possible in this wired world to draw a line between “foreign” and “US” press. I mean, go take a look at The Agonist. Then come back and tell me where that line is.

I could also question whether, having authorized a covert program to deceive foreigners, after specifically promising they wouldn’t do it (“Whaddya want, blood?”) Secretary Rumsfeld and his boss can be trusted not to authorize a covert program to deceive Americans.

But I know our government would never lie to us. Honest.


Posted April 03, 2003 03:15 PM | Comments (27)


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