Apr 1 2002

Behind the Pentagon’s Propaganda Plan

On February 19, the New York Times reported that a new group within the Pentagon, the Office of Strategic Influence, was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations.” The revelation was met with outrage, and within a week the Pentagon had closed down the OSI, saying that negative media attention had damaged the office’s reputation so much “that it could not operate effectively” (AP, 2/26/02).

The Bush administration moved swiftly to disavow the use of disinformation and tried, unconvincingly, to distance itself from the OSI. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed that he had “never even seen the charter for the office,” but the OSI’s assistant for operations said that Rumsfeld had been briefed on its goals “at least twice” and had “given his general support” (New York Times, 2/25/02).

When Douglas Feith, the official who oversaw OSI, was asked whether the Pentagon might “secretly enlist” a non-government third party “to spread false or misleading information to the news media,” he did not rule it out. “We are going to preserve our ability to undertake operations that may, for tactical purposes, mislead an enemy,” said Feith (AP, 2/20/02), “but we are not going to blow our credibility as an institution in our public pronouncements.” The Pentagon might lie, he seemed to be saying, but won’t announce that it’s doing so.

Created shortly after September 11 to generate support for the U.S.’s “war on terror,” the OSI had a multi-million-dollar budget and a mandate to propagandize throughout the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe. Yet “even many senior Pentagon officials and congressional military aides” said they knew “almost nothing about its purpose and plans” (New York Times, 2/19/02).

That this shadowy agency contemplated misinforming foreign media is troubling for many reasons: It’s profoundly undemocratic, it would have put journalists’ lives at risk by involving them in Pentagon disinformation, and it might have been illegal, too. The government is barred by law from propagandizing within the U.S., but it’s almost certain that any large-scale disinformation campaign directed at the foreign press would have led, sooner or later, to a falsified story being picked up by U.S. media.

Such “accidental” fallout would be bad enough, but there’s reason for concern about intentional domestic propaganda as well. According to the New York Times, “one of the military units assigned to carry out the policies of the Office of Strategic Influence” was the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations Command (PSYOPS). Several officers from the 4th PSYOPS Group, starting in the final days of the Kosovo War, had worked in the news division at CNN‘s Atlanta headquarters as part of an “internship” program (Extra! Update, 6/00).

Coverage of this disturbing story was scarce, but after FAIR issued an Action Alert on the story (3/27/00), CNN stated that it had already terminated the “inappropriate” program. Even if PSYOPS operatives did not directly influence news reporting, the question remains of whether the military may have been conducting an intelligence-gathering mission against CNN itself.

The 4th PSYOPS group also staffed the National Security Council’s now-notorious Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which in the 1980s planted stories in major U.S. media outlets supporting the Reagan administration’s Central America policies (Extra!, 9-10/01). Described by a senior U.S. official as a “vast psychological warfare operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in enemy territory” (Miami Herald, 7/19/87), the OPD was shut down after the Iran-Contra investigations. George W. Bush’s recent recess appointment of former OPD head Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs suggests, at best, a troubling indifference to the OPD’s deception of the American people.

Indeed, as the Federation of American Scientists points out (Secrecy News, 2/18/02), “the Bush administration’s insistent efforts to expand the scope of official secrecy have now been widely noted as a defining characteristic of the Bush presidency.” Dick Cheney’s refusal to disclose Enron-related information to the General Accounting Office is perhaps the most widely publicized of these, but other moves, like Attorney General John Ashcroft’s October 12 memo urging federal agencies to resist Freedom Of Information Act requests, may be even more damaging.

The administration’s secrecy has shaped the Pentagon’s press policies, too, which recently became not just restrictive, but violent. U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan reportedly threatened to shoot Washington Post correspondent Doug Struck if he attempted to investigate a site where civilians may have been killed (CBS‘s Early Show, 2/13/02).

The OSI has been shut down, but the fact remains that a secretive, high-level office in the Pentagon was designed to manipulate the public by waging information warfare against the media. Given the sordid history of Pentagon propaganda and the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy, it’s crucial that journalists follow up on this story.