Published on Wednesday, February 20, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
War of the Words
by Stephanie Salter
This is the part of the column that is not made up -- or in Defense
Department-speak, it is "white" information:
The Pentagon has created (and is funding with millions of taxpayers' bucks) the Office of Strategic Influence whose mission it is to crank out extra special U.S. war propaganda. As the New York Times, which broke this story Tuesday, described it, the office plans to expand its scope to "provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policymakers in both friendly and unfriendly countries . . ."
The Office of Strategic Influence is headed by Brig. Gen. Simon Worden, an astrophysicist and 27-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
War-words wars -- or propaganda -- are nothing new. From Voice of America broadcasts to the carpet-bombing-by-pamphlet of Afghanistan, the United States has recognized a key military tenet: information, true or fabricated, can be a powerful part of a fight. For the past 30 years, however, we've pretty much confined the dissemination of untrue verbiage -- "black" information in DOD- speak -- to our enemies.
Why? Well, believe it or not, it's actually illegal for such entities as the CIA and the Pentagon to propagandize in the United States. But technology has turned the planet into a global village, so it's no longer possible to keep a false story that's been fed to some foreign news agency or government official from being picked up and used by U.S. news outlets. Care must be taken.
If the Bush administration OKs the expansion plans of the Office of Strategic Influence (and who imagines it won't?), distinctions disappear. "Friendlies" as well as "unfriendlies" (more DOD-speak) will be fair game for true or false info.
Already the Pentagon has hired a private ad firm that specializes in propaganda for the Middle East. According to Pentagon officials quoted in the N.Y. Times, the OSI also would hire other companies to "help develop information programs and evaluate their effectiveness using the same techniques as American political campaigns, including scientific polling and focus groups . . ."
So, this is the part of the column that (so far) is made up:
"Good morning, Gen. Worden. You wanted to see me?"
Yes, lieutenant. I'm not too happy with your brief on our latest campaign.
"Which part, sir? The Afghan focus group, the fake news story in Iraq or the polling in Somalia?"
All three. Take this focus group feedback: "I really don't like it when your bombs accidentally wipe out half my village." Or, "Could someone please explain again the difference between collateral damage and just plain killing?" Didn't anybody have anything positive to say?
"Well, they all liked the free food, sir. Especially the sushi."
(Expletive.) Never mind. What's the problem in Iraq?
"It looks like nobody's buying that e-mail blitz we did as the 'Concerned Citizens for a Saddam-less Iraq.' Not one radio station or newspaper picked up on it. Two guys from a Dutch cable channel showed up at the Baghdad protest rally, but it turns out they were making a travelogue."
And the polling in Somalia? What's the excuse there?
"We're doing the best we can, sir, to see how limited air strikes might be received. But, as you may recall, about 80 percent of Somalis have no phones, so we can't exactly get to them during dinner. We're sending teams door-to- door but, again, given all the wars, a lot of Somalis don't have doors either."
This is ridiculous. We've got to call in the experts or we'll lose this propaganda war for sure. Find out right now who does those ads for Mercedes- Benz and get them on the payroll.
Yes, lieutenant, they speak our language: Perception is not always reality.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle