Office of Strategic Lying?

"Johnson, get in here."

"Yes, Secretary Rumsfeld."

"Can you please explain how there came to be a leak on the front-page of The New York Times saying that we're going to plant false stories in the foreign media to influence public opinion overseas?"

"No, sir. I'm in strategic deception, not strategic leaks. That's a different office."

"I know, but you're with our new Office of Strategic Influence. And it's a P.R. nightmare. What's the point of telling the whole world we're going to lie to them? After all, if we do want to spread lies, wouldn't revealing that make lying ineffective?"

"Not necessarily, sir."

"What do you mean?"

"Simple, sir. If no one at a given moment knows whether you are telling the truth or not, they also don't know whether you are lying or not."

"But I just held a briefing and said that the U.S. Special Forces who killed more than a dozen innocent Afghans in the raid at Hazar Qadam only fired after they were fired upon. Won't people think I'm tossing out false information to cover up a horrendously botched operation?"

"They would have no way of knowing, sir -- one way or the other."

"But in this instance, we want our version accepted. There was this know-it-all journalist at the briefing who kept correcting me, claiming locals had said they heard Afghans shouting, 'Don't shoot, we're friends,' when our story is that those Afghan troops shot at our guys first. Why should people assume I'm being honest, when we've got stories out there saying the Pentagon is spending millions of dollars on an office that plans to generate disinformation?"

"Sir, in the field of strategic deception, you have to take the long view. Any one statement is not what counts."

"But don't we want people to believe we're telling the truth?"

"Not always, sir. Let's say we don't know have any idea where Osama bin Laden is, it might not serve our purposes to say so and be believed."

"I see."

"Or we may want people to assume that we do now where he is, even if we say we don't. Let them believe that we're hiding the fact we know where he is, even if we're not."

"Okay..."

"And if we do know where he is, we might not want to reveal that we possess such information, either. Why warn him?"

"Or raise expectations. You're right there."

"So the goal is to maintain a level of doubt regarding all Pentagon statements. It confuses the enemy."

"Doesn't it confuse the American people?"

"We're not at war with the American people, sir."

"Okay, okay, after that first story, we've been out there saying that our intent is not to lie to the public but only to engage in tactical deception to give us an advantage on the battlefield. Get the enemy thinking we're coming from the west when we're really coming from the north."

"That's all part of the plan, sir."

"But does al Qaeda really read foreign press accounts looking to suss out our intentions and plans? Can this really give us much of an edge, if we're a major military power now up against a ragtag force of several thousand at best spread out over 60 countries?"

"Can't hurt."

"But who's going to take this explanation seriously after the first leak?"

"Again, that serves our purposes. The enemy can't be certain. Are you lying on the battlefield or lying off the battlefield. It makes the battlefield a very iffy place for them."

"Which battlefield?"

"Any battlefield, sir."

"Have you ever read Catch 22?"

"They don't teach that at the Point, sir."

"In the past few days, there have been many questions about this new office. In the newspapers, they're saying members of Congress and top military officials don't really know what this office is doing. Should we release more information about it? Open it up to public view? Go on Larry King?"

"What would be the point, sir?"

"To prove we're not going to be disseminating disinformation."

"Who's going to believe that, sir?"

"There, you see. That's what I'm getting at. Oh, skip it. Now, the critics keep saying the issue is that if we plant bad information overseas it can drift back here and end up misleading the American media and American citizens. They call it blowback -- a way to get around those laws and regulations prohibiting propaganda operations aimed at the American public."

"And the problem, sir?"

"Listen, I go out before the television cameras every day and say that we're going to give it straight to the American public, that our guys are hitting their targets not civilians, that the raid at Hazar Qadam was not a 'mistake.' I say that our investigators tell me nothing went wrong on that mission, that, contrary to eyewitness accounts, we did not shoot people who tried to surrender, that we did not physically abuse the Afghans we captured and held for two weeks. And that's why I don't have to discipline a single person for an operation that was supposed to be a strike against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and ended up killing Afghans loyal to our friends in Kabul."

"May I ask a question, sir?"

"Shoot."

"How do you know your investigators are telling you the truth?"

"Well, I just assumed -- Hey, how far does your office reach, Johnson?"

"We interface with all relevant DoD components, sir."

"And you wouldn't do anything you were not authorized to do, right?"

"Of course, sir."

"And you wouldn't lie about that, either?"

"No, sir, that would be wrong."

David Corn is the Washington Editor of The Nation.

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