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Lies the Pentagon Told Us: America Still Has an Office of Disinformation. It's Called the Pentagon

11 March 2002

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's abrupt abortion of the Office of Strategic Lying (a.k.a. the Office of Strategic Influence) - in response to critics who feared for Washington's stellar reputation for honesty - deserves to be ranked as one of the great propaganda coups of modern times.

Mr. Rumsfeld sounded upset, I know, but that was just another aspect of his public relations brilliance. Reading the literal-minded, largely positive reaction to his announcement, I realized that a good many citizens must have inferred that the Pentagon and the White House have been routinely telling the truth over the past few decades.

In all frankness, the only thing more dishonest than an Office of Strategic Influence aimed at deceiving foreigners is the suggestion that the Bush administration, or any other since the Second World War, likes to tell Americans the truth.

"The office is done," a seemingly hurt, aggrieved Mr. Rumsfeld told a press conference. "It's over. What do you want, blood?" Thus, with three short phrases and a touch of martyrdom, the former drug company chief executive officer swept away the Pentagon Papers, the Church Committee hearings and the collected works of journalist Seymour Hersh, all of which speak to the vast array of lies perpetrated by the US government since the world's greatest superpower took center stage, at Hiroshima in 1945.

The Washington Post reported Mr. Rumsfeld's retreat as a "victory for the military public affairs community," which "had worried that the new office would blur the line between their work of dealing with the media and the public and the 'black' world of covert operations, which sometimes involves disseminating false information." When was the line ever clear?

Of course, it hardly seems to matter anymore whether the government lies or conceals, now that the war on terrorism justifies almost anything. The Bush administration set the tone immediately after the commencement of bombing with a strict military censorship policy that forbids reporters from covering US troops engaged in what was initially dubbed "Operation Infinite Justice" (unless they work for Hollywood producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertram van Munster, who are making a Pentagon-approved "reality TV series" for ABC).

Technically, this is a secrecy policy, not censorship. But it permits lying at a far more effective level. Censorship rules can always be broken by eyewitnesses, but it's harder to report what you can't see. If the government says such-and-such a target was surgically bombed and so many al-Qaeda members were killed, you can repeat it in the newspaper, but you can't refute or corroborate it.

Lately, the military has gotten annoyed with pesky reporters concerned that the "military public affairs community" might be lying about its selection of military targets in Afghanistan - and how it is that so many civilians have been killed and wounded when bombing has been likened to a delicate medical procedure. Last month, Washington Post reporter Doug Struck went to investigate some corpses in a village and was held at gunpoint by a US Army officer who told him, perhaps truthfully, "Don't move or we'll shoot."

In the lexicon of government-lying, there are specific lies, big, overarching lies, and there is propaganda. A specific lie is the Eisenhower administration saying that above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada posed no danger to the soldiers who were asked to witness it. A specific lie is the Johnson administration's version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which North Vietnamese gunboats were said to have fired, without provocation, on American vessels, this in order to justify a massive military buildup without having to resort to a straightforward declaration of war.

A specific lie is the Kuwaiti/White House/Hill and Knowlton invention of the baby-incubator atrocity, allegedly committed by Nazi-like Iraqi soldiers, which whipped up popular support for liberating freedom-loving, tolerant Kuwait from the iron grip of tyranny. (All of these lies were disseminated through "regular" channels and "subcontractors," a practice that Mr. Rumsfeld said will continue.)

A big, overarching lie is the assertion that the US can impose a government on Afghanistan and that Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has anything like genuine control over his countrymen. And then there's the lie, ably distributed by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, that the Saudi royal family really wants peace in the Middle East and a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli bloodletting.

My own Israeli source, a diplomat based in New York, tells me that the Saudi government helped subvert the Clinton-Barak peace proposal, before the latest Palestinian uprising, by spreading the word among the Islamic faithful that Yasser Arafat had no authority to negotiate the future of Jerusalem because of its "holy sites." The Saudis and the US foreign policy establishment prefer a measure of instability in the Middle East because it distracts attention from the vast corruption of the Saudi elite and the complicity of its oil-craving US backers.

Propaganda sometimes involves smaller lies or lies by implication. In early January, we learned that the US military was dropping leaflets on Afghanistan that accused "Usama Bin Laden" [sic] of faithlessness to his Afghan hosts and al-Qaeda henchmen: ". . . the murderer and the coward has abandoned you and run away. Give yourself up and do not die needlessly . . ."

On the front of the leaflet, the warning photograph of a corpse seemed genuine enough, but on the back an obviously fabricated picture of Mr. bin Laden - smiling, beardless and attired in Western business clothes - gave the lie to this shabby little promotion. Around the same time, the State Department placed ads in US newspapers under the headline, "What can you do?" [to stop terrorists]. . . . Bad enough that the ad copy said Mohammed Atta was "interested in crop dusting" when he never said any such thing at his Florida flying school.

Worse still that the ad (along with another headlined "Can a woman stop terrorism?") implied that ordinary citizens were to blame for Sept. 11 by not being vigilant enough - "If someone had called us, his [Mr. Atta's] picture wouldn't be spotted in this ad." Surely the government bore no responsibility.

But perhaps the biggest lie is that Mr. Rumsfeld is peeved by the latest sniping about Pentagon disinformation. I still remember him in great good humor last fall, mocking the Pentagon beat-reporters who wanted more regular and truthful briefings: "Let's hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be."

John R. MacArthur
Published in the Toronto Globe & Mail © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.

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