Blowback and More Danny Pearls?

By: Alicia Mundy

Commentary

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced this week that there would be no new disinformation campaign at the Pentagon, the first question from many in the media was, “Is Rummy’s denial part of the new disinformation campaign?”

What to believe? The New York Times breaks a story on Feb. 19. It takes over the talk shows for 24 hours; every Brahmin of journalism is jockeying for air on cable news channels; even aging military leaders totter out to denounce the move — if not as un-American, then at least as truly stupid. On Feb. 20, Rumsfeld suddenly says, “Never mind.”

That may have worked for Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, but not for the secretary of defense. Somebody still has some explaining to do.

The Times scoop said that the Pentagon’s mysterious Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was pondering a disinformation mission, targeting foreign media and the Internet. The plan was to mix truthful press releases with disinfo drops to press connections in key countries, including friendly ones.

In her Feb. 20 column on this Pravda rehash (“Office of Strategic Mendacity”), the Times‘ Maureen Dowd was nearly giddy. An editor at Agence France-Presse was nearly apoplectic. And almost all in the press were outraged — once they could overcome their initial stunned reaction. “Well, I hardly know where to begin,” said Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Here we are trying to encourage the formation of a free press in some of these emerging democracies, and now we’re going to make the press untrustworthy?” He added, “We’ve done damage to our credibility just by considering this.”

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, ticked off a list of problems created by the propaganda proposal: First, blowback. The American press often gets leads from foreign stories; some of this will end up in our living rooms. Second, McMasters pointed out, we have a State Department to do public diplomacy. This is not a job for the military. Third, the government frequently asks the press to avoid publishing news that could endanger U.S. agents or military on assignment. This move by the Pentagon will probably endanger American reporters working overseas. “Even our allies sometimes allege that our press and our government are in cahoots,” said McMasters. This could result in more cases like that of the slain Danny Pearl.

Most important, this idea compromises the American public’s ability to participate in the public discourse, said McMasters. There’s no way to judge, to support or dissent from public policy issues, if government information can’t be trusted.

Leading up to this, we’ve had the White House telling the media how to cover Osama Bin Laden’s videotaped diatribes; how to cover the war; and warning countries like Qatar to watch out for the network Al-Jazeera. At present, the U.S. military is currently fighting off embarrassing allegations that U.S. soldiers beat captured Afghans. The Pentagon’s defense has been: Trust us, we wouldn’t lie. Hey, guys, timing is everything.

By Washington standards, the Times story read like a treasure hunt map. It was obvious by the jump that this idea was probably the love child of the anti-Iraq and anti-Colin Powell cliques. They’d had it with those cookie pushers at the State Department and Powell’s refusal to embrace a war with Iraq. With their own well-funded office, they could do an end run around State. Further intriguing clues were found in references to the OSI’s contract with The Rendon Group, a quiet PR firm known to the Washington defense establishment. Their last appearance was an attempt to boost the image of the Iraqi National Congress, Saddam Hussein’s “opposition.” They ended up as part of the CIA Inspector General’s investigation into how $23 million from the U.S. government was spent, while the Iraqi opposition disappeared, according to Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

It’s not enough that Rummy has renounced the OSI’s insanity. When OSI was created last fall, the press was willing to stand back and accept the necessity for secrecy. Now it’s time for Congress and the media to ask for and get information. What’s OSI doing? What are its goals? And why is the Rendon Group, with its interesting track record, on contract? Are there no firms with less Iraqi baggage available?

A few weeks ago, a disgruntled group of veteran Peace Corps volunteers told me they could not understand why they’d been ignored in the “sell America” campaign. Some vintage videos of the Corps’ successes in villages around the world — bringing literacy, medicine, food, water systems, hospitals — might say more about America than a lecture on our Democratic ideals. VOA and other outlets might even point out that many Arab nations ban the Peace Corps — its results pose a threat to closed societies and anti-American radicals. Why isn’t there more debate in Congress and the media over a legitimate American propaganda campaign based on the truth, via legitimate government offices?

The media has given the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon a wide berth since Sept. 11, and has let a lot slide in the name of “national security.” It was appropriate. But now that a bozo scheme like this has been floated, it’s time to switch back into watchdog mode.

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