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Winning Hearts with Lies

Alarmed by emerging reports of the Pentagon's manipulation of media messages, the writer sounds an alarm for the Fourth Estate.
 
 
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First the Fourth Estate became the Fourth Front in the ongoing and endless war on terror.

Next the warriors got their own cable outlet: The Military Channel.

Now, as details emerge about what a front page New York Times article termed the Pentagon's "bitter, high level debate" over how far it can and should blur the lines between public affairs – disseminating accurate information to the media and the public – and psychological and information operations – using often-misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle – one fact should be apparent to media makers of every stripe.

This means war!

If, as Defense undersecretary Douglas J. Feith recently noted, "America is a strange country. All of its best generals are journalists," then the corollary must also become true: all of America's best journalists must now become generals in another ongoing and endless war.

The war against the media ...

The war against the truth ...

As noted last week – and as amplified recently by both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times – Defense Department credibility, and our own, are both being put to the test by the Bush Administration's increasing use of misleading information as a military tool. In Pentagon-speak this means "Psy-Ops" and "IO" (Information Operations) are merging with "PA" (military Public Affairs) to create a single – and single-minded – "strategic communications operation."

"Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it's never been before," one senior Bush official told the Los Angeles Times . "We'd be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage."

Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita cites "the battle of perception management" as the reason for the shift. "Where the enemy is clearly using the media to help manage the perceptions of the general public, our job is not perception management but to counter the enemy's perception management."

If that explanation sounds like a rationalization for a pre-emptive media strike, well, "perception is everything," as the ads aptly put it.

And what I perceive is a broad and unmistakable effort underway within the Pentagon to deploy managed perceptions, managed information, and, inevitably, managed media, to gain an advantage in the war on terror.

Despite new interest in the subject on the part of mainstream media outlets such as the two Times, the Pentagon's doctrine of deception is not new. Although its controversial Office of Strategic Influence was forced to close nearly three years ago, following reports that it intended to plant false news stories in the international media, much of that office's still-classified mission continues in other offices of the government.

What is new, however, is a secret order, the "Information Operations Roadmap," signed late last year by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Still classified, the order is described as a plan to advance information operations "as a core military competency." What is also new is a recent Pentagon proposal to create a director of central information who will have "authoritative control of messages" across all national security and foreign policy operations.

And what is so new as to remain still relatively unknown is a Pentagon program called Defense Support for Public Diplomacy, managed by Ryan Henry, a policy deputy working for Douglas Feith. "With the pace of technology and such, and with the nature of the global war on terrorism," Henry explains, "Information has become much more a part of strategic victory, and to a certain extent tactical victory, than it ever was in the past."

In a black-and-white world of "good guys and bad guys," who are "either with us or against us," it might seem logical to lie in order to defeat the evildoers. But the ramifications of such a policy are so enormous – not only to the Pentagon, where debate over the issue is said to be swirling, but also to the media that will inevitably be implicated in the lies – that journalists must immediately begin rallying their troops to oppose it in every manner possible. After all, to quote Pentagon spokesman Di Rita in a different context, "Our job is to put out information to the public that is accurate, and to put it out a quickly as we can."

And if we have to battle our own government and military to do so, then so be it – aux barricades, mes generals! Failing to do so, while the government is using our profession to put out strategic lies, threatens not only our own credibility but in fact our lives.

This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.