Pentagon blurs line between information, tactics

Reporting false `news' undermines credibility of U.S. forces, critics say

December 01, 2004|By Mark Mazzetti | Mark Mazzetti,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - On the evening of Oct. 14, a young Marine spokesman near Fallujah appeared on CNN and made a dramatic announcement.

"Troops crossed the line of departure," 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert declared, using a common military expression signaling the start of a major campaign. "It's going to be a long night."

CNN, which had been alerted to expect a major news development, reported that the long-awaited offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah had begun.

In fact, the Fallujah offensive would not kick off for another three weeks. Gilbert's carefully worded announcement was an elaborate psychological operation - or "psy-op" - intended to dupe insurgents in Fallujah and allow U.S. commanders to see how guerrillas would react when they believed U.S. troops were entering the city, according to several Pentagon officials.

In the hours after the initial report, CNN's Pentagon reporters were able to determine that the Fallujah operation had not, in fact, begun.

"As the story developed, we quickly made it clear to our viewers exactly what was going on in and around Fallujah," CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said.

Officials at the Pentagon and other U.S. national security agencies said the CNN incident was not just an isolated feint - the type used throughout history by armies to deceive their enemies - but part of a broad effort under way within the Bush administration to use information to its advantage in the war on terrorism.

The Pentagon in 2002 was forced to shut its controversial Office of Strategic Influence, 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 officials say that much of OSI's mission - using information as a tool of war - has been assumed by other offices in the U.S. government.

Although most of the work remains classified, officials say that some of the continuing efforts include having U.S. military spokesmen play a greater role in psychological operations in Iraq, as well as planting information with sources used by Arabic TV channels such as Al-Jazeera to help influence the portrayal of the United States.

Other specific examples were not known, although U.S. national security officials said an emphasis had been on influencing how foreign media depict the United States.

These efforts have set off a fight inside the Pentagon over the proper use of information in wartime.

Several top officials see a danger of blurring what are supposed to be well-defined lines between the stated mission of military public affairs - disseminating truthful, accurate information to the media and the American public - and psychological and information operations, the use of often misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle.

Several of the officials who oppose the use of misleading information spoke out against it on the condition of anonymity.

"The movement of information has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world," said one senior defense official. "What's at stake is the credibility of people in uniform."

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said he recognized the concern of many inside the Defense Department, but "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."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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