The `disinformation' explosion

``One of the key elements is that it [the proposed strategy against Qaddafi] combines real and illusionary events -- through a disinformation program.'' -- From a memorandum by Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, national security adviser, as leaked to the Washington Post. AFTER all these years of mea-culpa writhing over Vietnam and Watergate, has the American conscience lapsed back into a tolerant cynicism about public morality?

Nobody has denied the facts: that last August a ``disinformation program'' was drawn up with the approval of the White House, designed to suggest that Qaddafi was planning a series of terrorist attacks and that, under these circumstances, the United States might engage in another preemptive strike. At the least, it was argued by the strategists, the false rumor would put pressure on a supposedly paranoid Qaddafi and possibly lead to a coup against him.

Caught in the act of doing something that only totalitarian countries are expected to do, the administration has responded curiously to its exposure. First of all, it has set the FBI to finding out who leaked the memorandum, as if this were the truly immoral act. Then it has issued a rather lame denial that the ``disinformation program'' was intended to deceive the American press -- only fool everybody else in the world!

The chief regret is that White House ``credibility'' will suffer -- never mind whether it deserves to suffer. Operating on a policy of never apologize, never explain, the damage-control spokesmen have relied upon the much abused assumption that any act is justified if one can classify it as ``a matter of national security.'' Who is so naive as to believe that this country can survive in a dirty tricks world without a few dirty tricks of her own now and then? The main thing is, our cause is just and so our heart remains pure -- or does it?

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of the whole episode is the general assumption that it is not an episode at all. ``The only thing different,'' one veteran reporter of four administrations has observed, is that in this case the proposal to ``disinform'' got written down. ``In the old days,'' he recalled, ``Henry Kissinger or Lyndon Johnson would just make things up on the spot.''

According to such a pseudo-sophisticated view of history, Vietnam was a war of ``disinformation,'' followed by Watergate -- ``disinformation'' as the norm of peacetime.

Call it ``disinformation.'' Call it PR with a spin. What else do we gullible souls think ``shaping public opinion'' has always been about? How else does anything get done?

Yet when Americans go in for playing hardball -- another euphemism -- not only is the spectacle repellent because maximum sneakiness combines with maximum self-righteousness. But also, perhaps because of the tears of virtue misting our shifty eyes, we never seem to be very good at the game. The preemptive strike against Libya proved to be of less than ``surgical precision,'' and now this covert operation has been bungled. In both instances the question must be asked: Had the most powerful nation on earth exhausted all other alternatives before some overwhelming necessity of history forced it to resort to an elephant gun to attack a gnat?

It is not at all clear that an effective blow has been struck against terrorism -- quite the contrary. And in all this realpolitik there has been, in fact, great naivet'e.

If we must practice ``disinformation'' as a commonplace of foreign policy, let's at least not ``disinform'' ourselves -- let's call it by its right name: lying. Then we can ask ourselves if we want to become habitual liars, not defensively, not under duress but as a free choice, a matter of initiative: a way of life. And finally, as realists rather than moralists, we ought to assess the cost of the strategy even if it succeeds. What does it cost us in the opinion of others? What does it cost us in the opinion of ourselves?

As a realist rather than a moralist, the psychologist Leslie Farber confessed, ``It is in our nature to lie.'' But he added: ``It is also in our nature not to lie. Lying, however natural to us, is also, in another sense, a treachery against ourselves. A lie is a desecration.''

It is a measure of the price paid in sheer confusion that we have to remind ourselves of something so elementary -- and so hardheaded -- as the old banality: ``Honesty is the best policy.'' A Wednesday and Friday column

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