Expressing concern that the credibility of US foreign policy may have suffered as a result of the numerous lies disseminated by the White House and Pentagon concerning the war on terrorism, Gen. Richard Myers today reiterated the policy laid out in 2001 by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of using disinformation as a weapon of psychological warfare.
He cited as an example, a case where a young Marine was caught on camera shooting a prone prisoner in the head. While 1st Lt. Lyle Shepherdboy, the Marine’s CO, earlier claimed that it only happened that one time, several Pentagon officials admitted today that wasn’t true.
Shepherdboy’s carefully worded statement was an elaborate psychological operation – or “psy-op” – intended to terrify insurgents in Fallouja who knew it wasn’t true and allow U.S. commanders to see how U.S. citizens would react if they believed a Marine had committed a summary execution, the officials agreed. CNN, which had been alerted to expect a big video, nevertheless quoted the statement as it had been written. It took a week to figure out that the statement was false.
“As the Pentagon gave us the green light, we quickly made it clear to our viewers that that kind of thing goes on all the time,” CNN spokesperson Xaviera Hollander said.
Officials at the Pentagon and other U.S. national security agencies said the CNN incident was not an isolated feint – the type used throughout history by armies to deceive their enemies – but part of a broad effort underway within the Bush administration to use lies to their advantage.
The Pentagon in 2002 claimed to have shuttered its controversial Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), which was opened shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, after reports that the office intended to plant false news stories in the international media. But since they planted that story, it’s probably false. Officials nevertheless admit that much of OSI’s mission – using lies as a tool of power – has been assumed by other offices throughout the U.S. government as well as by private military contractors.
Although most of the work remains classified, officials say that some of the ongoing efforts include having military trained spokesmen in Iraq play a greater role in psychological operations on U.S. TV, as well as planting information with sources used by Arabic TV channels such as Al Jazeera to help influence American perceptions of the terrorist threat.
Other specific examples were not known, although U.S. national security officials said an emphasis had been placed on influencing how foreign media depict the United States as the internet was making it easier for Americans to access which was undoing many of their successes in the domestic press.
These efforts have set off a fight inside the Pentagon over the proper use of lies. Several top officials see a danger of blurring what are supposed to be well-defined lines between the private interests of defense contractors and corporate financiers and psychological and information operations, the use of often-misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle.
“The movement of disinformation has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world,” one senior defense official said. “What’s at stake is the credibility of people in uniform. If we lie every time we open our mouths, people eventually stop believing what we say.”
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Pinocchio said he recognized the concern of many inside the Defense Department, but that “everybody understands that there’s a very important distinction between information operations and public affairs. Nobody has offered serious proposals that would blur the distinction between these two functions.” As a Pentagon spokesman, of course, his statements can now safely be assumed to be untrue.
One recent development critics point to is the decision by commanders in Iraq in mid-September to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations into a “strategic communications” office. Its first accomplishment was settling on a better name for itself than “ministry of propaganda.”
Partly out of concern about this new office, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distributed a letter Sept. 27 to the Joint Chiefs and U.S. combat commanders in the field warning of the dangers of having military public affairs (PA) too closely aligned with information operations (IO).
“Although both PA and IO conduct planning, message development and media analysis, the efforts differ with respect to audience, scope and intent, and must remain separate,” Myers wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Unconfirmed Sources. Demonstrating the tactics of official disinformation, Myers claimed to be worried that “world audiences” might begin to question the honesty of statements from U.S. commanders and spokespeople, despite the fact that the audience for PA is primarily domestic.
“While organizations may be inclined to create physically integrated PA/IO offices, such organizational constructs have the potential to compromise the commander’s credibility with the media and the public,” Myers wrote, again using “strategic communication” to imply that physical separation of the offices would solve the problem.
Myers’ letter is not being heeded in Iraq, officials say, in part because many top civilians at the Pentagon and National Security Council don’t believe him.
“Lies are part of political power in a way that they’ve never been before,” said anonymous Bush administration official, Pudgy Waterhouse. “We’d be foolish not to try to use them to our advantage.”
Advocates also cite a September report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which concluded that a “crisis” in U.S. “strategic communications” had undermined American efforts to fight Islamic extremism worldwide. Rumsfeld admitted that the constant lies had cost them some credibility, but insisted that it was nothing compared to what the truth would get them.
The study cited polling in the Arab world that revealed widespread hatred of the United States throughout the Middle East. A poll taken in June by Zogby International revealed that 94% of Saudi Arabians had an “unfavorable” view of the United States, compared with 87% in April 2002. In Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, 98% of respondents held an unfavorable view of the United States. After equating an unfavorable view with hatred, the study recommended that international opinion polls be vetted by the Pentagon before publication.
The Defense Science Board recommended a presidential directive to “coordinate all components of strategic communication including public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting and military information operations.” It determined that the problem was not the non-stop lying, but failing to keep their stories straight. There are currently three or four separate lies being used publicly to justify the war, and this fact may have confused some people. “When people ask, ‘what are we fighting for?'” the report said, “they don’t want a menu.”
Di Pinocchio said there was general agreement inside the Bush administration that the U.S. government was ill-equipped to communicate its policies and messages abroad in the current media climate. “If we lie, they don’t believe us, and if we tell the truth, they want to prosecute us,” he complained.
During a Nov. 10 briefing by Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Fibber, reporters were shown a video of Iraqi troops saluting their flag and singing the Iraqi national anthem. “Pretty soon, we’re going to have the 5 o’clock follies all over again, and it will take us another 30 years to restore our credibility,” said a second senior Defense official, referring to the much-ridiculed daily media briefings in Saigon during the Vietnam War and strategically suggesting that the Pentagon had regained its credibility since then.
According to several Pentagon officials, the strategic communications programs at the Defense Department are being coordinated by the office of the undersecretary of Defense for policy, Douglas J. Feith. Feith suggested that, “since we can’t tell the truth all the time, it’s better that we never tell the truth. That way, Americans will know better than to believe a word we say.”