Pentagon is arming with words
Office would plant news, true or false, in foreign media
by James Dao and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, 20 Feb 2002
WASHINGTON The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policymakers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said.
The plans, which have not received final approval from the Bush administration, have stirred opposition among some Pentagon officials who say they might undermine the credibility of information that is openly distributed by the Defense Department's public affairs officers.
The military has long engaged in information warfare against hostile nations - for instance, by dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages into Afghanistan when it was still under Taliban rule.
But it recently created the Office of Strategic Influence, which is proposing to broaden that mission into allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe. The office would assume a role traditionally led by civilian agencies, mainly the State Department.
The small but well-financed Pentagon office, which was established shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was a response to concerns in the administration that the United States was losing public support overseas for its war on terrorism, particularly in Islamic countries.
As part of the effort to counter the pronouncements of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and their supporters, the State Department has already hired a former advertising executive to run its public diplomacy office, and the White House has created a public information "war room" to coordinate the administration's daily message domestically and abroad. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, while broadly supportive of the new office, has not approved its specific proposals and has asked the Pentagon's top lawyer, William Haynes, to review them, senior Pentagon officials said.
Little information is available about the Office of Strategic Influence, and even many senior Pentagon officials and congressional military aides say they know almost nothing about its purpose and plans.
Its multimillion-dollar budget, drawn from a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget authorized by Congress in October, has not been disclosed.
Headed by Brigadier General Simon Worden of the air force, the new office has begun circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use, not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations.
The new office "rolls up all the instruments within DOD to influence foreign audiences," its assistant for operations, Thomas Timmes, a former army colonel and psychological operations officer, said at a recent conference, referring to the Department of Defense. "DOD has not traditionally done these things."
One of the office's proposals calls for planting news items with foreign media organizations through outside concerns that might not have obvious ties to the Pentagon, officials familiar with the proposal said.
Worden envisions a broad mission ranging from "black" campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to "white" public affairs that rely on truthful news releases, Pentagon officials said.
"It goes from the blackest of black programs to the whitest of white," a senior Pentagon official said.
Another proposal involves sending journalists, civic leaders and foreign leaders e-mail messages that promote American views or attack unfriendly governments, officials said.
Asked if such e-mail would be identified as coming from the American military, a senior Pentagon official said that "the return address will probably be a dot-com, not a dot-mil," a reference to the military's Internet designation.
To help the new office, the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm run by John Rendon Jr., a former campaign aide to President Jimmy Carter. The firm, which is being paid about $100,000 a month, has done extensive work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Kuwaiti royal family and the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group seeking to depose President Saddam Hussein.
Officials at the Rendon Group say terms of their contract forbid them to talk about their Pentagon work.
But the firm is well known for running propaganda campaigns in Arab countries, including one denouncing atrocities by Iraq during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The firm has been hired as the Bush administration appears to have united around the goal of removing Saddam. "Saddam Hussein has a charm offensive going on, and we haven't done anything to counteract it," a senior military official said.
Proponents say the new Pentagon office will bring much-needed coordination to the military's efforts to influence views of the United States overseas, particularly as Washington broadens the war on terrorism.
But the new office has also stirred a sharp debate in the Pentagon, where several senior officials have questioned whether its mission is too broad and possibly even illegal. Those critics say they are disturbed that a single office might be authorized to use not only covert operations like computer network attacks, psychological activities and deception, but also the instruments and staff of the military's globe-spanning public affairs apparatus.
Mingling the more surreptitious activities with the work of traditional public affairs would undermine the Pentagon's credibility with the media, the public and governments around the world, critics argue.
"This breaks down the boundaries almost completely," a senior Pentagon official said.
Moreover, critics say, disinformation planted in foreign media organizations could end up being published or broadcast by American news organizations.
The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States.
Critics of the new Pentagon office also argue that governments allied with the United States are likely to object to attempts by the American military to influence media within their borders.
© 2002 International Herald Tribune
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.