Published on Monday, March 4, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Preparing for Perpetual War
by Ruth Rosen
THE UPROAR lasted less than a week. Just days after the New York Times
disclosed a Pentagon plan to spread disinformation to foreign media through
the Office of Strategic Influence, top administration officials closed the
office and supposedly scrapped the idea.
A lingering question is: Why did the Pentagon even bother to admit its intention to spread disinformation? After all, the United States routinely disseminated propaganda and disinformation throughout the Cold War. So why not just do it?
We could, of course, simply blame bureaucratic bumbling. Perhaps the White House was blindsided by the Pentagon's disclosure.
But I think the answer is more complicated. The Bush administration is trying to prepare us for a war without end. The Office of Strategic Influence, created last fall, was supposed to spread propaganda to help topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. Proposing its continued use, like the president's declaration of an axis of evil, was a way of signaling that this country, for the foreseeable future, will remain in a constant state of war.
Those who've read Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" will recall that perpetual war is precisely what justified Big Brother's official repression, as well as the disappearance of civil liberties.
No, we're not living in a totalitarian state. But the declaration of endless war has justified extraordinary government surveillance, as well as a crackdown on public records. The USA PATRIOT Act, for example, allows federal agents to gain access to stored voice mail and to intercept information from Internet traffic. Attorney General John Ashcroft has discouraged federal agencies from granting Freedom of Information Act requests. President Bush, through an executive order, has given himself the power to seal past presidential papers. He has also excluded his gubernatorial papers from public access by depositing them among his father's presidential papers.
Nearly all Americans support the legitimate national effort to defend ourselves against al Qaeda terrorists. But that is different from the president's more elusive "war on terrorism," which appears to include multiple battlefronts and pre-emptive military strikes against any country that may develop weapons of mass destruction, or threaten our control over oil resources. It may even include pre-emptive, covert sabotage of domestic or foreign political activists, who are redefined as terrorists.
The political impetus for creating a state of perpetual war can't be ignored. George W. Bush has never forgotten his father's precipitous fall after the Persian Gulf War. Despite his currently high approval ratings, Bush also knows that a majority of Americans still favor the Democrats' domestic policies.
Congressional outrage and scathing media commentary caused the demise of the Office of Strategic Influence. But realists know that its propaganda functions will be folded into some other agency, perhaps the newly funded Information Awareness Office, which John M. Poindexter (Ollie North's partner in the Iran-Contra scam) will now head.
Meanwhile, the prospect of perpetual war justifies an orgy of military spending, deeper cuts in civilian services and further encroachments on our civil liberties.
Angered by the media's relentless criticism of disinformation, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld impatiently asked a group of reporters, "What do you want, blood?" No, Mr. Secretary, we want the truth, not a growing credibility gap -- which, in case you've forgotten, always returns to haunt those in high office.
Ruth Rosen is a Chronicle editorial writer.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle