Stretching the truth to confuse the enemy - and us

There is a debate going on in the upper ranks of the government over how this country ought to present its image abroad.

This particular debate has gone back and forth ever since the days of the Voice of America (VOA) in World War II. On the one hand is the school that says: Present a full and fair picture, the blemishes along with the bright spots. On the other hand is the school that argues: Don't say anything negative.

The first is symbolized in what Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D) of Arkansas (1945-74) called "the higher patriotism" - criticizing your country to make it better, as he did during the Vietnam War. The second school sees criticism as disloyal or unpatriotic. That was exemplified by Sen. Homer E. Capehart (R) of Indiana (1945-63), who stressed the importance of distributing "positive news."

The full and fair picture, which the VOA has followed most of the time, is flexible enough for most days; but some days the White House - or Defense or State - wants to make a point so badly that it is tempted to stretch the truth or even (here comes the dangerous part) to make it up. This happened in the cold war, and it could happen again in the war on terror if we are not careful.

For example: During various periods, the CIA paid foreign journalists to write editorials or to slant news stories for prominent foreign newspapers or magazines. Among other matters, these articles promoted anticommunist labor unions in France and the Christian democratic political parties in Italy and Chile. This sometimes gave rise to what is called "blowback" - a story inspired by the CIA in a foreign newspaper and then picked up by an American news service as an example of foreign public opinion.

An even more egregious example of US government manipulation of opinion arose in Libya. The Reagan administration identified Libyan agents as having bombed a West Berlin nightclub in April 1986, killing two US servicemen. Later that month, US Navy planes bombed Libya in retaliation. In addition, President Reagan called for a disinformation campaign designed to increase pressure on the Libyan Army, which in turn, it was hoped, would be driven to overthrow Libyan dictator Gen. Muammar Qaddafi.

Somewhat later, the Reagan administration leaked to The Wall Street Journal that the White House was completing plans for "a new and larger bombing of Libya." A story was published on Aug. 25, 1986. The White House called the story authoritative, but as more questions were asked, it turned out to have been made up. Worse, neither the president nor then-Secretary of State George Shultz was at least remorseful.

Mr. Shultz said, "If I were a private citizen ... and I read that my government was trying to confuse somebody who was conducting terrorist acts and murdering Americans, I'd say, 'Gee, I hope it's true.' "

Now, 16 years later, although we do not want to fight our current war on terror under Marquess of Queensberry rules, neither do we want to condone government deception of its own people.

This brings us back, in turn, to the atmosphere of the cold war as reflected in a 1954 report by a committee on intelligence headed by the leader of the 1942 raid on Tokyo, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle:

"It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable rules of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, longstanding American concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services, and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people become acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."

The same terms could be used by the Bush White House to describe our present situation. Why resist the enemy if we are going to become like him?

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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