We don't need Pentagon to use press as a weapon

February 22, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is feeling heat again over its efforts to manage the news in time of war, only this time with a twist. A new brainchild called, believe it or not, the Office of Strategic Influence has a mission to dispense information through the foreign press that is designed to support the American war objectives.

So far, so good.

The wrinkle is that the new office may be doing its strategic influencing in ways that might not pass the smell test. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, gave an example of "a strategic or tactical deception": passing word that an attack on an al-Qaida stronghold would be coming from the north when it really would be coming from the east.

He compared that white lie to the Normandy invasion in World War II. Before the invasion, he recalled, "General Eisenhower had a great deal of activity that led the Germans to believe they were actually going to land at Calais. Now they didn't land at Calais, but they never lied to the world and said they were going to land at Calais."

This rather benign explanation, however, does not deal with reports that the new office may be throwing out more serious deceptions through the foreign press that could bounce back and misinform the American people.

Mr. Rumsfeld said flatly that "the Pentagon is not issuing disinformation to the foreign press or any other press" and won't be doing so.

But a high-ranking deputy pointedly sloughed off questions about the Defense Department's hiring of a private public-relations firm to dispense information abroad for it without indicating that the source is the Pentagon. In wartime, one man's "information" is often another's propaganda, distorting or straying far from the truth.

Up to now, it has been a function of the CIA to employ "strategic or tactical deception" to throw curves at real or prospective enemies abroad. Just why the Pentagon now needs to work the same side of the street is not clear. Certainly it's not to preserve its good name as a truth-teller. Pentagon correspondents and other members of the press are too often given bum information about what's going on in the terrorism war or no information at all about key aspects of American actions.

The military and the news business have been in conflict for years over what is and isn't put out by the Pentagon. Forty years ago, when I covered the place during the Cuban missile crisis, an assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Arthur Sylvester, caused an uproar when he reportedly said, "The inherent right of the government to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster is basic."

Mr. Sylvester, a former Washington correspondent, denied using those precise words. But he did acknowledge saying that news management was "part of the arsenal of weaponry" available to an administration in crisis. "In the kind of world we live in," he said, "the generation of news by ... government becomes one weapon in a strained situation" that is justified by results achieved.

Mr. Sylvester accompanied his remarks by ordering that no interviews be granted to reporters unless a government press officer was present. In practice, these "monitors" often injected themselves into such triangles, advising the officials being interviewed what to say or not say, rendering them almost valueless. The Pentagon is not known as "the Puzzle Palace on the Potomac" for nothing.

In the Vietnam War as well, the Pentagon sought to make the press corps "part of the arsenal of weaponry" when it could, feeding correspondents in Saigon self-serving information and disinformation. But at least then the correspondents could go into the field to see for themselves. Once, when the Saigon press corps was reporting that the war wasn't going well, members of the Pentagon press corps were flown to Vietnam to get an "unbiased" view that turned out to be much the same.

Again in the Persian Gulf war, correspondents at American bases were largely confined there and spoon-fed information as "part of the arsenal of weaponry."

This latest step of creating a new Pentagon office to manipulate the foreign press, even in the noble cause of countering enemy propaganda and lies, is misplaced. The job should be left to the black hats of the CIA, not the U.S. military, if it is to be done at all.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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