By: Sally Buzbee, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that a Pentagon campaign to influence global opinion will not include lies to the public, but might employ “tactical” deception to confuse an enemy for battlefield advantage.
“Government officials, the Department of Defense, this secretary, and the people that work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth,” Rumsfeld said while meeting with troops providing security at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Responding to reports that the new Office of Strategic Influence has proposed placing news items — false if necessary — with foreign news organizations, Rumsfeld said the office will instead mostly oversee longtime Pentagon activities like dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages during wartime.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon also might engage in strategic or tactical deception, as it has in the past. For example, if U.S. troops were about to launch an attack from the west, they might “very well do things” that would make the enemy believe an attack was instead coming from the north, Rumsfeld said. “That would be characterized as tactical deception,” the secretary said.
However, the defense secretary also made clear the new office’s mandate is still under discussion. Asked if the office would do anything the Pentagon has not done in previous wars, Rumsfeld said: “We do have to think of it in a different way” because of the unique nature of the war on terrorism. “How it will play out over time, I don’t know,” Rumsfeld said.
Earlier Wednesday, the senior Pentagon official who oversees the new office also ruled out using the news media for deception efforts.
“Despite some of the reports about the Office of Strategic Influence that I’ve read over the last day or two, Defense Department officials don’t lie to the public,” said Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. “We are confident that the truth serves our interests in the broader sense of our national security and specifically in this war” against terrorism, he said in a breakfast interview with a group of Pentagon reporters.
“We have an enormous stake in our credibility and we’re going to preserve it,” he said.
Feith said the main reason for creating the new office was to provide civilian oversight of information policy in military operations. He cited as examples a need to oversee the use of leaflets dropped in Afghanistan by Air Force planes and the use of airborne broadcasts in Afghanistan that encourage people to work with anti-Taliban elements and alert them to U.S. reward money.
Critics worry that any planting of false information abroad could result in those lies getting back to Americans.
“Anything they spread overseas will come back here, because information travels so quickly,” said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “Our own population will then hear it and believe it. It will affect our decisions.”
But the Bush administration also worries that the United States lacks strong public support overseas, especially among Muslims who believe the United States is hostile toward Islam.
The new office also is considering having an outside organization distribute any information so it would not be apparent it came from the Defense Department, one defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the same time, President Bush has decided to turn the administration’s temporary wartime communications office into a permanent office to convey the nation’s diplomacy efforts around the globe. That office would not be connected to the Strategic Influence office and would coordinate the public statements of the State and Defense Departments.
Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf war, said the United States considered spreading false propaganda in the early stages of the Gulf War but quickly dismissed the idea. “At that time, we said ‘No,'” Schwarzkopf said during a speech Tuesday in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Not that much has changed from then until now.”
The government has used covert tactics — including disinformation — to undermine foreign governments in the past, but mostly in super-secret CIA operations against enemies such as Iraq and Cuba.
Such CIA covert action requires presidential authority and cannot be conducted against Americans.
Critics warn that any Pentagon campaign including deliberate lies could undermine U.S. credibility overseas.
While the Bush administration has a legitimate desire to confuse enemies with disinformation, “lies have a nasty way of being found out,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “We’re already viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. If we’re caught in blatant lies, that hostility will increase.”