Official US deception: Can it be trusted?

"Dezinformatsia" (disinformation) - department D of the KGB since about 1959, and later mimicked by the CIA. Disinformation goes beyond misinformation to planting information, source concealed, that pretends to be truthful.

A classic piece of CIA disinformation was a pornographic movie made in the 1960s with an actor pretending to be President Sukarno of Indonesia. It was meant to undermine Mr. Sukarno with Muslims.

The subject of disinformation is back with a report that it was one of the tools considered by the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence. The office circulated classified proposals for aggressive campaigns using the foreign media to improve America's standing abroad.

History teaches that this kind of "black" propaganda cannot be confined to the foreign media. In 1986, national security adviser John Poindexter wrote for President Reagan a "disinformation program" aimed at destabilizing Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi by false reports in the foreign press about an impending conflict between the two countries.

But the false information reached an American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal - a phenomenon known in the trade as "blowback."

And, with no effort by the White House to steer it away from the phony story, the Journal headlined that Libya and the United States were on a collision course. Soon, the Poindexter memo was revealed in The Washington Post, and in the ensuing flap about a policy of lies, Bernard Kalb resigned as assistant secretary of State.

We have not heard much since then of an information policy based on deliberate deception. With the revolution in communications, blowback to the American media would be a constant problem - if it is considered to be a problem. The Pentagon has a resource in Admiral Poindexter, President Reagan's disinformation specialist, who is back in government as head of the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office.

Last week, in Salt Lake City, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "The Pentagon is not issuing disinformation to the foreign press or any other press," and he gave assurance that "what we tell the public is accurate and correct."

Maybe that rules out disinformation as a policy.

But, then how do we know?

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.

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