Published on Thursday, December 19, 2002 by the Chicago Tribune
The Offensive Art of Secrets and Lies
Lying wouldn't be prudent
by Molly Ivins
AUSTIN -- It is hard to kill a bad idea. And this one is so rank that if Osama bin Laden had come up with it, we'd be forced to admit it was a stroke of genius: how to infuriate our allies, cause an explosion of anti-American paranoia and encourage terrorism, all in one swell "foop," as one of our old Texas pols used to say. Unfortunately, this idea is Donald Rumsfeld's.
The concept of a Pentagon disinformation office is back. "The Defense Department is considering issuing a secret directive to American military to conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policymakers in friendly and neutral nations," reports The New York Times. "The proposal has ignited a fierce battle throughout the Bush administration over whether the military should carry out secret propaganda missions in friendly nations like Germany. ..." This is the same stupid idea that was beaten back last February when the Pentagon had to disband its Office of Strategic Influence when it was pointed out that the thing was guaranteed to backfire.
Let's do that simple old thing where we put the shoe on the other foot and see how it feels, substituting "China" for "United States" and using the exact plan outlined by the Times: "The Chinese government is considering a secret propaganda program that would include, for example, efforts to discredit and undermine evangelical Christian churches and religious schools that have become breeding grounds for militant anti-Chinese sentiment because of China's abortion policies and human-rights issues. It might even include setting up schools with secret Chinese financing to teach a more moderate Christianity, laced with sympathetic depictions of how the religion is practiced in China. The plan also includes secret Chinese payments to American journalists to write articles favorable to China, and paying citizens' groups to organize rallies in support of Chinese policies."
No, not a good idea. This country already has a credibility problem around the world--why set up an official propaganda office to tell lies, when the truth works much better?
It is both unnecessary and counterproductive to have a secret propaganda campaign. The most effective weapon in any information campaign is a reputation for telling the truth. And the only way to get that reputation is to earn it. The BBC is listened to worldwide precisely because it does not spin the news.
When the "Office of Strategic Lies" was killed off earlier this years, Rumsfeld was quite testy at the press conference. "The office is done," he snapped. "It's over. What do you want, blood?" No, we want it to be over.
President Bush promised at the time, "We'll tell the American people the truth." Then last week, the administration leaked a painfully obvious fake story about how Saddam Hussein had given chemical weapons to Al Qaeda. That one was shot down so fast--from inside the government--if you blinked, you missed it. What's next? Iraqi soldiers tossing babies out of Kuwaiti incubators again? Rape of the Belgian nuns?
This administration has such a problem with obsessive secrecy, such a compulsion to control information and such a low regard for the public's right to know what is being done in their name, with their money and with their children's lives that it's seriously alarming. The administration is clearly stocked with people who regard the press as a pain to be manipulated and public opinion as something that needs to be shaped by the government.
To review the record:
Out of room and barely started.
Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor," about the secret lives of CIA agents, quotes the British scholar F.M. Cornford: "Propaganda is that branch of the art of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies."
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune