Welcome to the Information War
The question on the mind of every responsible journalist as of late (indeed, on the mind of every responsible individual, period) is: Has the media officially become the public relations arm of the United States government? And: Have we lost freedom of the press?
Why does our daily news come from some Pentagon briefing room or from some White House spokesperson - fully spun, packaged and pre-interpreted? And more importantly, why does no one care, either professional journalists or average citizens, or worse yet, even notice?
Has it been going on too long? Have Americans become incredibly gullible and apathetic, paralyzed by luxury and convenience to the point of self-destruction? Have we lost the capacity for individual thought accompanied by the awe we feel towards "experts," who treat us like children incapable of analysis? Have we grown to distrust ourselves and lost confidence in our own intellectual capacity? These are all reasons.
When the "war on terrorism" began in early October, the U.S. government severely restricted journalists from entering Afghanistan to cover first-hand the events taking place there in the field. Instead they opted for frequent, well-organized press conferences, only to be attended by journalists of choice, where people like General Tommy Franks, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeam, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made sure that the reporters got it right.
This was euphemized as being a service to the press, a manifestation of an informationally advanced and enlightened world, or, the next generation in war reporting. No more reporters nervously whispering into their dicta-phones about the horrors of war, or its thrills, while being led around on the front lines.
The apparent reason for this tyrannical information control is really that of public opinion control. Information that makes the U.S. look bad or reveals mistakes (civilian deaths, bombing of Red Cross facilities, oratory blunders, conflicting reports, etc.), whether by the president himself or that of a lone bombing mission, is transformed so as not to resemble its former self or is, quite simply, omitted.
Information that makes the U.S. look good (supports their efforts) is magnified and overemphasized. Statistical information is etched in stone and written in blood if released by the Pentagon, but not "independently verified" if released by a non-Pentagon source and hence thrown out as hysterical anti-American propaganda contrived by people who hate freedom.
Whatever happened to on-the-spot reporting and investigative journalism whose primary aims were to serve the public interest by providing "the story"? Whatever happened to tough questions? Now all we have are staged Q&A sessions designed to provide zero information about anything actually relevant. More ass kissing goes on than questioning.
A reporter might even get thrown out of a press conference or fired for asking "inappropriate" questions - as happened to a reporter who happened to ask George H.W. Bush a tough question several years back.
One only has to turn to their daily newspaper to see the painful truth. A recent article in the Boston Globe (2/20/02) highlights this ever-popular phenomenon quite well. In an article entitled "A tattered al-Qaeda seen with new tentacles" by Anthony Shadid, almost all of the fifteen paragraphs are direct quotes from, or paraphrases of, some government official, usually "speaking on condition of anonymity."
In fact, only three paragraphs aren't directly attributed to government sources and only once is an actual, traceable, human being named with regard to this information - Peter Chalk, terrorism analyst, in paragraph fifteen. In addition, the article contains the sketchiest of information, bordering on being comical at points, and completely fails to convey any kind of new, interesting, or valuable information to a knowledgeable reader beyond the speculation of anonymous "officials."
In the first paragraph we're told: "Al-Qaeda will probably fracture into far-flung networks that operate on their own and blend into murky underworlds that make them more difficult to track " Obviously, al-Qaeda is now fractured (or could become fractured) following the massive bombardment of Afghanistan.
"[F]ar flung networks" is resoundingly vague. "[M]urky underworlds" is straight out of a bad Hollywood script. (Where exactly are the non-murky underworlds?) And we can assume that al-Qaeda is "difficult to track" based upon the success of September 11 and that they will become "more difficult to track" since they are now the focus of the world's most extensive man hunt ever by the United States. One might imagine they'd lay low for a while. To top it all off, this non-insightful vagueness is preceded by "probably," as if to emphasize the statement's complete meaninglessness.
We then learn in paragraph two that: " they [al-Qaeda] will still pose a danger, a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity." Wow! This person really goes out on a limb here. I hope they don't get fired for that comment. It was probably a good idea that they kept their identity a secret. Scandalous!
In paragraph three, more cute obscurities: " 'It's going to be more of a franchise-type thing.' "
Paragraph four reads, "Already, there are signs that networks are still viable and possess the logical know-how for attacks, the official added." Why wouldn't networks still be viable - that would imply that they were completely destroyed or destroyed to the point of being inoperative or no longer dangerous? Not all "cells" were in Afghanistan anyway. And why would these long-time, extensively trained groups fueled by religious and nationalist zealotry no longer "possess the logical know-how for attacks" just because some of their members were killed or captured in Afghanistan and a few other places? Maybe they've forgotten what a bomb is or how to use it?
In the next paragraph, though the source is an Arabic-language news agency, the information is still hilariously simple. We read: " groups within the al-Qaeda network are trying to reconstitute themselves after the Afghanistan campaign." That's funny, I thought al-Qaeda was just going to give up, roll over and die. Have they suddenly stopped hating America? Again, individuals risking it all with their bold predictions.
The article concludes with more speculation: "The trails [al-Qaeda's] may prove more difficult for law enforcement to track, as well, he said - a point echoed by other analysts." So we have anonymous analysts echoing another anonymous analyst about the fact that a "terrorist mastermind" and his "cells," who have eluded police, military, and intelligence agencies from multiple countries for decades, while pulling off intricate terrorist attacks all over the planet, are difficult to track and may become even more difficult to track. I thought they were easy to track. I thought that's why the U.S. government and its various intelligence agencies thwarted the September 11 attacks so easily. What's worse is that this is the second time in the article this empty and obvious statement is made.
Upon finishing the article one realizes that the entire text was a string of completely obvious and meaningless statements, attributed almost exclusively to anonymous government officials and analysts that make no attempt whatsoever to actually relay valuable information concerning a certain subject. There' no real flow or chronology to the article, as it seems more accurately like a collection of "safe" generalizations about al-Qaeda and the likelihood of their continued existence.
In another Globe article, from March 4th, entitled "Six Nations join U.S. in fierce offensive," fourteen out of the nineteen paragraphs are quotes or paraphrased quotes from military officials. In this case several of the sources are Afghan - albeit friendly forces fighting alongside coalition troops. This article also affords us the luxury of actually citing individuals or agencies attributed to the various information. (This I thought was standard procedure in journalism.)
Among "U.S. and Afghan officials," "U.S. Central Command," "officials," "Afghan officials," and "Afghan commanders" we actually hear from real people in the form of Central Command spokesman Major Ralph Mills, Abdul Matin (an Afghan commander), Wazir Khan (spokesman for an Afghan commander), and Raza Khan (an Afghan fighter). So this article is a little better. Less direct quoting from Pentagon sources along with greater diversity of sources.
At this point it must be emphasized that these two examples are on the highly inexcusable end of the scale of bad journalism (in terms of percentage of paragraphs that are direct quotes and identification of sources). However, they do represent trends in the corporate media with regard to war reporting. This said, most articles do approach these bleak statistics - reflecting the media's servitude to government. If one begins studying the news with this amount of scrutiny, similar statistics will be found almost across the board, whether it be in the Globe, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.
This kind of reporting raises many obvious concerns: who are our sources and what is their relationship to the reported event (Will they benefit from what is/isn't included? Are they financially affected by what's reported?); how many different sources are used or called upon to create both a thorough and objective report (Are all sides being represented?); does the diversity of sources reflect the availability of sources or simply what the reporter has chosen to include or omit; how speculative is the article (one need not turn to national news agencies for vague and obvious predictions); and is the information being provided, and subsequently reported, actually information, in the sense of new, detailed or semi-detailed data, that could not be accessed elsewhere being presented for the first time?
Said questions when combined with the above analysis should be cause for alarm considering that the very agency who is so often the source of our information is potentially a conglomerate of professional liars. Please consider the following information as provided by the New York Times ("Pentagon Readies Efforts To Sway Sentiment Abroad" 2/19/02):
The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said.
The plans, which have not received final approval from the Bush administration, have stirred opposition among some Pentagon officials who say they might undermine the credibility of information that is openly distributed by the Defense Departments public affairs officers.
The military has long engaged in information warfare against hostile nations - for instance, by dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages into Afghanistan when it was still under Taliban rule.
But it recently created the Office of Strategic Influence, which is proposing to broaden that mission into allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe.
This indicates that the Pentagon is in the process of creating the so-called Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), whose job it will be to, as the headline puts it, "sway sentiment abroad" through an information campaign possibly including false news (disinformation), otherwise known as lies. This campaign would not only be carried out in enemy countries, but also in friendly ones. Perhaps even as friendly as Western Europe. The article goes on to say that,
Little information is available about the Office of Strategic Influence, and even many senior Pentagon officials and Congressional military aides say they know almost nothing about its purpose and plans. Its multimillion dollar budget, drawn from a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget authorized by Congress in October, has not been disclosed.
One of the office's proposals calls for planting news items with foreign media organizations through outside concerns that might not have obvious ties to the Pentagon, officials familiar with the proposals said."
While its not surprising to read that "little information is available about the [OSI]," it's somewhat comforting to know that even "senior Pentagon officials know almost nothing " considering that the taxpayers know nothing. Or is it? Maybe that's a sign as to its super secrecy? Or are they lying? Or what the hell is really going on? One would not necessarily expect Joe American to know the details about the OSI, but one would surely expect top military people to know.
The article concludes on this note: "O.S.I. still thinks the way to go is start [sic] a Defense Department Voice of America," a senior military official said. "When I get their briefings, it's scary."
Luckily, amidst a wave of criticism from all angles the Pentagon decided to scrap the idea, evidently to remain credible. But what's to say the plan has been scrapped at all? What if that's just the first piece of disinformation?
What's "scary" about this near unbelievable report is the fact that the government agency that has complete control over all information as relevant to any aspect of the war, as well as being the only source of such information for the domestic corporate press, was/is attempting to create an office whose main purpose will be to convince foreigners that America's way is the right way (even at times when it's obviously the wrong way) through extensive propaganda and disinformation.
Many obvious and legitimate questions instantly arise. Although the report only mentions foreign sentiment, surely domestic sentiment is just as important for the continued support of U.S. imperialist efforts? (Though thankfully the American press and public still have enough decency left to make the idea of publicly announcing the intent to "sway domestic sentiment" wholly unacceptable.) Has the Pentagon lied in the past? Will they lie in the future and to what extent?
Moreover, if the Administration's efforts are noble, righteous and just why the need for disinformation - especially in Western Europe? Wouldn't disinformation "planted" abroad eventually make it back home by slowly seeping in unmonitored via the congested information-rich Internet? Is there really a difference between information that's planted abroad and of that planted at home? How could the press or the citizenry distinguish between information and disinformation? Would reporters ask before a press conference what kind it was going to be? When does fact end and fiction begin? What's real anymore in today's age of the information war?
To highlight one of the above questions - if the war on terrorism is just, naturally flowing from all moral, ethical, and humanitarian touchstones, then why the need for an elaborate $10 billion office of lies and propaganda to convince people of this?
The answer, obviously, is that it's not just and that there's plenty of evidence out there that suggests this; since responsible human beings may feel compelled to report and explore this, the Pentagon feels the need to crush those efforts. Therefore, as time has gone on and the U.S. comes under considerable domestic and foreign criticism for its handling of the war, the Pentagon feels the need to influence people with lies because the truth is no longer strong enough. The complicity of the press is all but outrageous with regard to such a threat to the very foundation of journalism and objective reporting.
Isn't this actually what the Enron debacle is about? They manipulated a situation to the benefit of themselves and to the detriment of others. They fabricated and/or omitted accounting information relative to the company's financial strength (which needs to be portrayed accurately to inform investors and Wall Street) to create an environment in which individuals (investors and employees) would gobble up the company's stocks and employees would feel comfortable with having their retirement plans' well-being shackled to the success or failure of the company itself.
Since the factual information regarding the financial strength of the company was such that investors would be cautious and employees would be concerned about depending so much on Enron stock for their 401(k)s the company simply planted disinformation to sway sentiment in their favor. It's ironic and fairly telling that the techniques recently espoused by the Pentagon have already seen extensive use by Enron.
Wouldn't it be great if you or I could apply that same logic to our own lives? Imagine if because we did poorly in college or because we lacked certain job experience that disinformation could be planted on our resume to strategically influence our potential employer? Wouldn't it be great if we could plant disinformation on our credit report so as to sway banking sentiment to give us that big loan that we don't really deserve?
When we get pulled over for speeding we could tell the police officer that our mother is dying at a nearby hospital and maybe we wouldn't get a ticket. What if anytime we couldn't get what we wanted we simply lied so that we could - just like governments and businesses do? Well, most likely, as well as becoming rather despicable human beings, we'd also be arrested and then thrown in jail by a fairly incredulous judge who may even ask how we thought we'd get away with such nonsense, all this lying and all.
So to summarize - instead of having a governmental system displaying clear divisions between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches with a corresponding and effective checks and balances tool, we now have a system featuring blurry distinctions between the governmental branch (perpetuator of war), the media branch (supporter of war), and the big business branch (profiteer of war), accompanied by zero checks and balances. In addition to the fact that this "government" operates in what might as well be complete secrecy, they've now publicly admitted that they're willing to lie to the world to achieve their primary goal of keeping the war machine rolling.
Matthew Riemer studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. In addition to being a columnist for YellowTimes.org, he's also maintains RottenInDenmark. He encourages your comments: mriemer@YellowTimes.org.