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U.S.: Proposed Covert Propaganda Plan Called Counterproductive

The U.S. Defense Department is reportedly considering a covert program to spread U.S. propaganda in allied and other friendly nations. The report says one tactic would be to plant false stories in foreign media. Analysts say the plain truth would serve U.S. interests better.

Washington, 19 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say it is only fair for the United States to try to promote its view of international affairs in a volatile world. But they add that it would be wrong and even foolish to try to covertly influence public opinion in allied and other friendly countries.

The observers interviewed by RFE/RL were referring to a recent (16 December) report in the U.S. newspaper "The New York Times" that the U.S. Defense Department was considering such a propaganda plan as it contends with an Arab and Muslim world that often sees America as its enemy.

The program, if approved, would seek to lessen the influence of politically active religious leaders of Muslims overseas and to plant accounts -- sometimes even false accounts -- that are positive about American goals in the media there.

This would be the Pentagon's second attempt in a year to mount such an initiative. The first, called the Office of Strategic Influence, was closed down after being criticized by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

The administration has also been critical of this second attempt.

The day "The New York Times" article was published, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush believes that the best way to communicate America's message is to use facts, not lies. Analysts told RFE/RL that they agree.

One is Jane Hall, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington who also serves as a news media analyst for American television (Fox News). She says that whatever complaints Muslims may have about the United States, they still admire its news media.

"The only thing we have going for us, I believe, is our free press and our credibility. And to give some of these countries the American side of the story is probably a very good idea."

According to Hall, many young people in Arab and Muslim nations enjoy American culture, but disagree with U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. She says Arabs and Muslims especially believe Washington pursues what she calls an "unquestioning" policy toward its ally Israel.

"They have a love-hate relationship with us, and a lot of people in these countries -- the young people -- love our American music, love our American culture, but they see us as cowboys."

Hall says she understands the Bush administration's need to portray America more favorably overseas. She said many people outside the United States -- not only Arabs and Muslims -- are skeptical of Bush. They question why, in his effort to disarm Iraq, for example, he has sought the approval of the United Nations.

"I think a lot of people view our going to the UN as something that looks like a pretext, and we need to explain, if we're going to [go to war] why we're doing what we're doing."

As a result, Hall says, it is understandable, and even admirable, for the United States to try to spread its message of democracy and free markets around the world. But she says to plant false stories in foreign news media would discredit that goal.

James Phillips agrees. He is a specialist in foreign policy and national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that spreading the American message using truth is acceptable, but that lies would backfire.

Phillips cited the murder of American reporter David Pearl of "The Wall Street Journal," who was killed in Pakistan apparently because he was believed to be a spy. He says the same could happen to local reporters if they are believed to be the conduits of false U.S. propaganda.

"As we saw with 'The Wall Street Journal' reporter, it's certainly possible that reporters, especially Western reporters, could be regarded unjustly as spies."

Gordon Adams, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, says using clandestine means to plant false news stories overseas would also tarnish the United States' reputation.

"A covert operation run out of the Pentagon to exercise influence in other countries, especially allied, friendly countries, runs the risk of being counterproductive, it runs the risk of exacerbating the problem instead of influencing the problem."

Adams says the most disturbing aspect of the proposed clandestine program is that it would be clandestine. Nothing, he tells RFE/RL, is likely to remain secret forever.

According to Adams, the best way for the U.S. to broadcast its message and to promote friendly ties overseas would be to act overtly. He says this may not always improve America's reputation abroad, but it would lessen the suspicion and skepticism that tend to arise from covert operations.