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U.S.: Pentagon Considers Disinformation In Media Campaign

  • Andrew Tully

A prominent American newspaper says the U.S. Defense Department may be considering using disinformation -- in other words, information that is intentionally misleading -- in its effort to gain foreign support for the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Disinformation is nothing new, but the policy would mark a departure in the Pentagon's practice of speaking factually to the news media. RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke to analysts who say the new policy, if true, could backfire.

Washington, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Defense Department is reported to be setting up an office to help improve foreign perceptions of American military policy. One published report says it may even resort to disinformation to achieve this goal.

Observers say it would be a mistake for the Pentagon -- or any other part of the U.S. government -- to stoop to lying, if only because the truth eventually may become known, to the embarrassment of the government and the American people.

Governments have long made special efforts to put their policies and actions in the best possible public light. They have even sought to "manage" the news -- using various techniques that would lead the news media to give prominence to stories reflecting well on them.

One often-used technique is known as a "leak" -- having a senior official give information to a reporter about a government's plans. Once the initial story is published, with an air of exclusivity, competing reporters then rush to match the story, ensuring wide coverage.

The use of disinformation is not new. It's been used in the past by both dictatorial regimes -- such as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union -- and by democratic governments on occasion.

One example of how disinformation can be used is when a government is considering a policy but is unsure how it would be received by the public. The government then "leaks" this information to a prominent journalist, who then publishes a story saying the government is considering such a policy, and attributing the story to anonymous government officials.

If public reaction -- letters to the editor, calls to the legislature -- is positive, the government implements the policy. If reaction is negative, the government simply says the published report was wrong. This tactic is known as a "trial balloon."

Now, the U.S. Defense Department is reportedly setting up an Office of Strategic Influence to provide stories to news media in friendly and unfriendly countries alike in an effort to influence the policies of their governments and the opinions of their peoples.

Disinformation became a focus of public attention in America on 19 February when a prominent newspaper, "The New York Times," published a report, attributed to anonymous military officials, saying the new Pentagon office might distribute disinformation to further its goals. The newspaper reported that the project has not yet been approved.

Foreign policy analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say it is important for the United States to make sure its foreign policy goals are not misunderstood, especially in predominantly Muslim countries, as it pursues its military campaign against terrorism. But they say Washington will lose its moral authority if it stoops to lying.

One such analyst is Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent Washington policy center that specializes in the promotion of democracy. Carothers says the Pentagon has so far taken pains to speak factually to the news media during the war against terrorism.

"I think the United States, like the British government and other Western governments, have prided themselves in their coverage -- you know, things that they issue about their military activities or about U.S. foreign policy are true, as far as we know," Carothers says. "So if we get away from that standard, that's troublesome."

Carothers says he hopes that reports about disinformation are wrong, because otherwise he applauds the Defense Department's effort to disseminate the word about its policy goals.

"There's a big difference between strategically thinking about how they want to be covered in other countries and how they can influence that, versus issuing statements that are false and distorting news and lying. So I'm not sure, you know, how clear the line's going to be," Carothers says.

Roger Pilon, the director for constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, tells RFE/RL that if the U.S. government decides to distribute disinformation to the foreign media, it runs a risk of backfiring.

"Insofar as the [U.S.] government is speaking for the American people to the rest of the world, it has a responsibility -- indeed, a duty -- to put forward as best it can the American side of any controversy," Pilon says. "How it does that is another matter. If it does so by engaging in disinformation, then clearly it could blow up in the government's face and in the face, ultimately, of the American people."

Pilon says Washington has made this mistake previously, particularly when lying about its relationship with the Shah of Iran during the 1970s, when many Iranians found his government repressive. The result in this case, Pilon says, was disastrous for both the Shah and the U.S.

"[The U.S.] in the past engaged in actions and in representations about those actions that have subsequently embarrassed us and undermined those undertakings," Pilon says.

On 19 February, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about the veracity of his agency's statements in light of reports that the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence might resort to disinformation. Boucher's response was terse.

"We provide information. We provide accurate and truthful information," Boucher said.

But Boucher does not speak for the Pentagon and therefore cannot say whether the U.S. military may use disinformation to further the American agenda.

But then, "The New York Times" article also may have been part of the Pentagon's publicity strategy. Perhaps the report that the Defense Department is considering disinformation is itself a "trial balloon."