Defining propaganda, illegal deception

Rumsfeld denies reports of Pentagon plan to spread disinformation to foreign media.

In the mid-1990s, the US military in Bosnia-Herzegovina was looking for a way to break into the domestic television market in order to promote the NATO-led peacekeeping effort among the local population.

The solution: A Trojan Horse in the form of NBA broadcasting and the bikini-laden show Bay Watch. The popular programming was sandwiched with military messages in support of peacekeeping troops.

Over the past decade, the use of such "information operations" to sway opinion and deceive adversaries has become an integral part of virtually all US military actions around the world, as strategists increasingly view "information superiority" as the key to keeping peace and winning wars.

Such operations run the gamut - from "white" media campaigns based strictly on truth to "grey" disinformation where sources are left unclear to "black" deception efforts aimed at fooling an enemy.

In the buildup to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, the military floated bottles stuffed with leaflets showing Marine emblems and Harrier jets onto the coast of northern Kuwait.The bottles were part of a psychological operation, or "psyop" linked with military exercises - widely reported on - aimed at fooling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein into believing that the US would attack to the north.

Ethics of info-warfare

Yet the priority the US military places on shaping opinion as a crucial tool of 21st century warfare has raised ethical questions over how it fights the battle for "hearts and minds" -- and whom it targets.

Meanwhile, the military's own ongoing debate over exactly how to define "information operations" - which could include a vast range of actions - creates a risk that lines between legitimate propaganda and illegal deception could be blurred.

This week, a controversy erupted over reports that the Pentagon's new Office of Strategic Influence planned to spread false information to foreign media and officials as part of a broader propaganda effort to support the war on terrorism.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately denied that the office, created in November and headed by Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, would deliberately spread lies.

"The Pentagon is not issuing disinformation to the foreign press or any other press," he said Wednesday. A Pentagon statement reiterated that according to defense department policy: "Under no circumstances will the office [OSI] or its contractors knowingly or deliberately disseminate false information to the American or foreign media or publics."

Experts in military information campaigns agreed that lying - unless it is to deceive an enemy - is unwise and carries the risk of backfiring and undermining US military credibility.

"It's safer if you tell the truth," says Col. Charles Borchini (Ret.), a veteran Army PSYOPS commander now at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. "Telling the truth is very advantageous to you, because ... you don't want to get into a situation where people don't believe you."

The debate over OSI, both inside and outside the Pentagon, reflects the difficulties the military bureaucracy is having in crafting a clear policy for information operations in a rapidly changing, high-tech world, experts say.

Bigger, faster ideas

"We have a machine-age bureaucracy trying to deal with information-age problems and it is just not flexible enough to do it," says Chuck de Caro, the author of a book series on cyberwar who lectures at the National Defense University.

"You need bigger, better, faster ideas," he says. "You don't have to lie or be deceitful, you just have to do it better than the other guy."

The Pentagon admits that OSI is itself a fledgling organization.

"The role of OSI has not been defined yet," says Cmdr. Randy Sandoz, a Pentagon spokesman. "It's basically a work in progress." He adds that OSI staff are "trying to find out what they want to do."

Still, military experts say that the aim of "information operations" - to prevent wars and save lives - is a valid one.

"The larger strategic impact of the 'information revolution' has driven the creation of the Office of Strategic Influence," says Dan Kuehl of the National Defense University's School of Information Warfare. "It's not just changing the way armies fight, but also how states or political groups interact with each other - if you use it effectively, maybe you won't have to fight."

Since the onset of the war on terrorism, the Pentagon has warned of the need to counter the growing problem of enemy disinformation.

"Disinformation is an ugly, difficult word, because no one likes to be fooled," a senior Pentagon official said last October. "But it's something that is a weapon in the arsenal of our adversary, and it is used with deliberate intent to plant information, again, with the hope of achieving either a political or diplomatic or morale effect, or a military effect. And again, now with the Internet, it can be very difficult to track and detect."

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