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The Ministry of Truth

22 February 2002

We here in the information business are breathing a lot easier today. I can tell you, there were a few tense moments when we heard that the Pentagon's terror-fighting tyros were planning to make up stories and plant them in the global media. But now, after hearing U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pledge to "tell the American people and the people of the world the truth," we're positively serene.

It seems the current plan is to reserve the right to use "tactical deception" with the enemy, but refrain from lying to Americans and the global public. I figure most of us admirers of Tom Paine and Woody Guthrie and Eleanor Roosevelt -- not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- can reasonably claim to be considered America's friends. So naturally, from here on in, we expect to be immune from tactical deception. As for Saddam Hussein, if the new Office of Strategic Influence can convince him that cream pies are better weapons than nerve gas, who could possibly complain?

Mind you, Mr. Rumsfeld's clarification might have come just a tad late. Quite frankly, some weird stuff has been popping up for quite a while now, and I think some of those OSI guys may have been jumping the gun. Listen up and tell me if you don't think these episodes have "strategic influence" written all over them.

First off, there was the story that ran on the leading Mongolian newscast about the threat posed by Islamic militancy to the thriving Central Asian cashmere trade. Little noticed at the time, it had all the hallmarks of a classic psychological-operations exercise. Nude newsreaders are currently prohibited in Mongolia, but there's no law against animals on the set. This one featured a braying goat wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, and a grizzled goatherd explaining in heart-rending detail how Osama bin Laden had brought him to the brink of ruin.

You could put it down to cutthroat competition for market share among fiercely independent Mongolian media barons. (I hear these guys make Izzy Asper look like the coin club's recording secretary.) But I detect the fine hand of the Pentagon here, and through freedom-of-information requests for travel records and sweater purchases, I hope soon to be able to blow the lid off what appears to be a blatant attempt to mislead the Mongolian masses.

Then, of course, there was the little-noticed discovery of a mysterious tower on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, apparently designed to beam incredibly high frequency (IHF) emissions to locations across Canada. It's a little-known fact that, unlike those of us who are fond of Ralph Nader and Barbara Ehrenreich and are therefore obviously friends of America, there are some Canadians who refuse to fall in line. Equally obscure but explosive research shows that properly calibrated IHF waves can produce changes in what psychologists call the "country preferences" of targeted individuals. If that's not blatant tactical deception, I don't know what is.

Finally, I've been wondering whether the OSI wasn't behind that sensational but little-noticed yarn in al-Abama, the obscure monthly published somewhere southwest of Chattanooga that has a wide readership in the Middle East. It was an amazing account of George W. Bush's secret conversion to Islam during the mid-1990s. It had Cat Stevens, the trip to Mecca, the whole nine yards.

At the time, it sounded like just another conspiracy theory, maybe somehow linked to those other stories you hear about Dubya helping Big Oil get its hooks into Central Asian gas. But knowing what we know now, doesn't it make more sense as Pentagon propaganda, aimed at winning skeptical Muslims over to America's side? I mean, if the President's on the Prophet's team, why bother with bin Laden? Blatant stuff, wouldn't you say?

Yes sir, the world changed on Sept. 11. Before, if someone in the U.S. government such as Richard Nixon or Ollie North told you something, you'd pretty well know it was true. Now it turns out you have to ask some serious questions of yourself before you know you aren't going to be the victim of tactical you-know-what.

Such as, whose side are you on, anyway? Because, as Mr. Bush says, you're either with America or against it. (I think he swiped that line from Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther who said you're either part of the problem or part of the solution, and then ended up a Republican just like George.) And according to Mr. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon won't fib to its friends. So if you really want to know where the truth sits, look deep inside yourself. Remember, as long as you're America's pal, you won't be tactically deceived.

Even so, perhaps it's best to remember some old-fashioned advice: Don't believe everything you read.

Paul Knox
Published in the Toronto Globe & Mail © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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