Three years ago a secret Pentagon propaganda program that would have disseminated disinformation to the world as part of America’s “defense” strategy was supposed to have been killed. But now it’s back, and Pentagon strategists are agonizing over how to lie and mislead to “influence opinion abroad” while supposedly keeping the record straight for the folks at home who are picking up the tab. I suppose we should be thankful for the Pentagon’s quandary with conscience, but it’s hard to see why they are so conflicted given the Bush administration’s record of deceiving the American populace with no apparent consequence.
The Pentagon’s foray into weapons of mass deception was given the high-sounding title of the Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence, and was secretly established after the 9/11 attacks. In an ironic break from the administration’s propensity for antithetical labels, the office of disinformation’s goal was exactly as stated: to produce and circulate information intended to influence perceptions of what the U.S. military was, or was not, doing. That the information would be fictional and aimed at specific strategic target audiences was all part of the game.
Indeed, confusing one’s enemies on the battlefield through feints and deception has long been an accepted part of warfare. In his preface to Sun Tzu’s 2,000-year-old classic, The Art of War, translator Samuel B. Griffith, a retired Marine brigadier general, sums it up succinctly: “In Sun Tzu’s view, the army was the instrument which delivered the coup de grace to an enemy previously made vulnerable. Prior to hostilities, secret agents separated the enemy’s allies from him and conducted a variety of clandestine subversive activities. Among their missions were to spread false rumors and misleading information, to corrupt and subvert officials, to create and exacerbate internal discord, and to nurture Fifth Columns.”
In modern warfare, these efforts to confuse and mislead are referred to as “psychological operations,” more commonly known as “psy-ops.” One recent such effort occurred prior to the invasion on Fallujah, when a Marine spokesman on CNN intimated that the invasion had begun. In truth, the invasion had not begun, but the Marines were hoping to convince the Iraqi fighters in Fallujah that it had so they could observe their movements and preparations and use the knowledge to their benefit when the bullets started flying for real.
The only problem with the idea is that CNN does not report news only to Iraqi fighters, but is generally regarded as a viable source of trustworthy information by Americans here at home and citizens and governments abroad. While the Marines may have accomplished their limited goal of gaining intelligence by deceiving the Fallujah fighters, they also deliberately deceived the entire CNN audience—and there’s the rub.
What’s now at stake is the credibility of a “news” network, the U.S. military, and in the greater scope of things, the U.S. government. If we and the population of the world are now simply to be used as tools for U.S. military operations abroad, how will we, or the rest of the world, ever know when we’re getting the unvarnished “truth” from the U.S. government? Obviously, we can’t, nor can our enemies, nor can our allies.
You don’t have to be a military strategist to understand how difficult it is to conduct affairs if the truth is an uncertain quantity at best. The first thing we teach our kids is to tell the truth. We expect the truth when we ask about purchases, such as “was this grown organically?” We expect the truth from our newspapers and televisions as well. Otherwise, it’s all just fiction—and no one can possibly make good, informed decisions based on lies.
It is interesting that the Bush administration, which pounds its chest as sole possessor of the nation’s moral high ground, is arguably the single greatest disseminator of disinformation in our history. The most egregious example of military misinformation was starting the war in Iraq based on the phony information that Saddam Hussein had threatening weapons of mass destruction.
But the political disinformation campaign is far broader. The Healthy Forests Initiative hides increased logging, including old growth, on the nation’s public lands. Clear Skies, which the White House intends to push through Congress, will bypass former pollution-control requirements when power plants are upgraded, postpone control of smog, fine-particle soot, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide until 2015. Does that sound like a plan to achieve Clear Skies to you?
And don’t think the propensity to use disinformation for political purposes stops at the White House. Last week Gov. Judy Martz held her final press conference, at which she lauded the establishment of the Office of Economic Development as one of her administration’s primary achievements. This week, however, a report by the legislative auditor, which is independent of the executive branch, concluded the Office of Economic Development should either be abolished or rebuilt because it has been in “a perpetual planning mode” that, unless changed, “risks, at the very least, wasting time and resources in the development of plans and policy initiatives with minimal long-term impacts.” Would Martz, another elected official who can’t separate church and state, lie? Or were her statements merely “psy-ops” meant to influence public opinion, and perhaps the historical record, in regard to her term in office?
It’s tough to discern the reasons behind the increasing amount of disinformation being peddled by public figures. But one thing seems certain: The longer this goes on, the less likely it is that the public will ever believe what our government is telling us. Social security is fine…or is it in crisis? Freedom is on the march in Iraq…or is it a no-win quagmire? We’re not spying on our own citizens…or are we?
Unfortunately, by the time we figure out the truth, it may be far too late to do anything about the consequences wrought by the “psy-ops” that now seem so popular with our political and military Pinocchios.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.