The New York Times reported today that the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence is “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations” in an effort “to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
The OSI was created shortly after September 11 to publicize the U.S. government’s perspective in Islamic countries and to generate support for the U.S.’s “war on terror.” This latest announcement raises grave concerns that far from being an honest effort to explain U.S. policy, the OSI may be a profoundly undemocratic program devoted to spreading disinformation and misleading the public, both at home and abroad. At the same time, involving reporters in Pentagon disinformation puts the lives of working journalists at risk.
Despite the OSI’s multi-million-dollar budget and its mandate to propagandize throughout the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe, “even many senior Pentagon officials and Congressional military aides say they know almost nothing about its purpose and plans,” according to the Times. The Times reported that the OSI’s latest announcement has generated opposition within the Pentagon among those who fear that it will undermine the Defense Department’s credibility.
Tarnished credibility may be the least of the problems created by the OSI’s new plan to manipulate media-the plan may compromise the free flow of information that democracy relies on. The government is barred by law from propagandizing within the U.S., but the OSI’s new plan will likely lead to disinformation planted in a foreign news report being picked up by U.S. news outlets. The war in Afghanistan has shown that the 24-hour news cycle, combined with cuts in the foreign news budgets across the U.S., make overseas outlets like Al-Jazeera and Reuters key resources for U.S. reporters.
Any “accidental” propaganda fallout from the OSI’s efforts is troubling enough, but given the U.S. government’s track record on domestic propaganda, U.S. media should be pushing especially hard for more information about the operation’s other, intentional policies.
According to the New York Times, “one of the military units assigned to carry out the policies of the Office of Strategic Influence” is the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations Command (PSYOPS). The Times doesn’t mention, however, that PSYOPS has been accused of operating domestically as recently as the Kosovo war.
In February 2000, reports in Dutch and French newspapers revealed that several officers from the 4th PSYOPS Group had worked in the news division at CNN's Atlanta headquarters as part of an “internship” program starting in the final days of the Kosovo War. Coverage of this disturbing story was scarce (see FAIR’s “Why Were Government Propaganda Experts Working on News at CNN?” 3/27/00), but after FAIR issued an Action Alert on the story, CNN stated that it had already terminated the program and acknowledged that it was “inappropriate.”
Even if the PSYOPS officers working in the newsroom did not directly influence news reporting, the question remains of whether CNN may have allowed the military to conduct an intelligence-gathering mission against the network itself. The idea isn’t far-fetched-- according to Intelligence Newsletter (2/17/00), a rear admiral from the Special Operations Command told a PSYOPS conference that the military needed to find ways to "gain control" over commercial news satellites to help bring down an "informational cone of silence" over regions where special operations were taking place. One of CNN’s PSYOPS “interns” worked in the network’s satellite division. (During the Afghanistan war the Pentagon found a very direct way to “gain control”-- it simply bought up all commercial satellite images of Afghanistan, in order to prevent media from accessing them.)
It’s worth noting that the 4th PSYOPS group is the same group that staffed the National Security Council's now notorious Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which planted stories in the U.S. media supporting the Reagan Administration's Central America policies during the 1980s. 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, but not before influencing coverage in major outlets including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post (Extra!, 9-10/01).
The OPD may be gone, but the Bush administration’s recent recess appointment of former OPD head Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs is not reassuring. It suggests, at best, a troubling indifference to Reich’s role in orchestrating the OPD’s deception of the American people.
Indeed, as the Federation of American Scientists points out, “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” (Secrecy News, 2/18/02). The administration’s refusal to disclose Enron-related information to the General Accounting Office is perhaps the most publicized of these efforts; another is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s October 12 memo urging federal agencies to resist Freedom Of Information Act requests.
In addition, the Pentagon’s restrictive press policies throughout the war in Afghanistan have been an ongoing problem. Most recently, Washington Post reporter Doug Struck claims that U.S. soldiers threatened to shoot him if he proceeded with an attempt to investigate a site where civilians had been killed; Struck has stated that for him, the central question raised by the incident is whether the Pentagon is trying to “cover up” its actions and why it won’t “allow access by reporters to determine what they're doing here in Afghanistan” (CBS, The Early Show, 2/13/02).
Taken together, these incidents and policies should raise alarm bells for media throughout the country. Democracy doesn’t work if the public does not have access to full and accurate information about its government.