WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said.
The plans, which have not received final approval from the Bush administration, have stirred opposition among some Pentagon officials who say they might undermine the credibility of information that is openly distributed by the Defense Department's public affairs officers.
General Worden envisions a broad mission ranging from "black" campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to "white" public affairs that rely on truthful news releases.
The military has long engaged in information warfare against hostile nations — for instance, by dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages into Afghanistan when it was still under Taliban rule.
But it recently created the Office of Strategic Influence, which is proposing to broaden that mission into allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe. The office would assume a role traditionally led by civilian agencies, mainly the State Department.
The small but well-financed Pentagon office, which was established shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was a response to concerns in the administration that the United States was losing public support overseas for its war on terrorism, particularly in Islamic countries.
As part of the effort to counter the pronouncements of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and their supporters, the State Department has already hired a former advertising executive to run its public diplomacy office, and the White House has created a public information "war room" to coordinate the administration's daily message domestically and abroad.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, while broadly supportive of the new office, has not approved its specific proposals and has asked the Pentagon's top lawyer, William J. Haynes, to review them, senior Pentagon officials said.
Little information is available about the Office of Strategic Influence, and even many senior Pentagon officials and Congressional military aides say they know almost nothing about its purpose and plans. Its multimillion dollar budget, drawn from a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget authorized by Congress in October, has not been disclosed.
Headed by Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden of the Air Force, the new office has begun circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations.
The new office "rolls up all the instruments within D.O.D. to influence foreign audiences," its assistant for operations, Thomas A. Timmes, a former Army colonel and psychological operations officer, said at a recent conference, referring to the Department of Defense. "D.O.D. has not traditionally done these things."
One of the office's proposals calls for planting news items with foreign media organizations through outside concerns that might not have obvious ties to the Pentagon, officials familiar with the proposal said.
General Worden envisions a broad mission ranging from "black" campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to "white" public affairs that rely on truthful news releases, Pentagon officials said.
"It goes from the blackest of black programs to the whitest of white," a senior Pentagon official said.
Another proposal involves sending journalists, civic leaders and foreign leaders e-mail messages that promote American views or attack unfriendly governments, officials said.
Asked if such e-mail would be identified as coming from the American military, a senior Pentagon official said that "the return address will probably be a dot-com, not a dot- mil," a reference to the military's Internet designation.
To help the new office, the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm run by John W. Rendon Jr., a former campaign aide to President Jimmy Carter. The firm, which is being paid about $100,000 a month, has done extensive work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Kuwaiti royal family and the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group seeking to oust President Saddam Hussein.
Officials at the Rendon Group say terms of their contract forbid them to talk about their Pentagon work. But the firm is well known for running propaganda campaigns in Arab countries, including one denouncing atrocities by Iraq during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The firm has been hired as the Bush administration appears to have united around the goal of ousting Mr. Hussein. "Saddam Hussein has a charm offensive going on, and we haven't done anything to counteract it," a senior military official said.
Proponents say the new Pentagon office will bring much-needed coordination to the military's efforts to influence views of the United States overseas, particularly as Washington broadens the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan.
But the new office has also stirred a sharp debate in the Pentagon, where several senior officials have questioned whether its mission is too broad and possibly even illegal.
Those critics say they are disturbed that a single office might be authorized to use not only covert operations like computer network attacks, psychological activities and deception, but also the instruments and staff of the military's globe- spanning public affairs apparatus.
Mingling the more surreptitious activities with the work of traditional public affairs would undermine the Pentagon's credibility with the media, the public and governments around the world, critics argue.
"This breaks down the boundaries almost completely," a senior Pentagon official said.
Moreover, critics say, disinformation planted in foreign media organizations, like Reuters or Agence France-Presse, could end up being published or broadcast by American news organizations.
The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States. In the mid-1970's, it was disclosed that some C.I.A. programs to plant false information in the foreign press had resulted in articles published by American news organizations.
Critics of the new Pentagon office also argue that governments allied with the United States are likely to object strongly to any attempts by the American military to influence media within their borders.
"Everybody understands using information operations to go after nonfriendlies," another senior Pentagon official said. "When people get uncomfortable is when people use the same tools and tactics on friendlies."
Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public information, declined to discuss details of the new office. But she acknowledged that its mission was being carefully reviewed by the Pentagon.
"Clearly the U.S. needs to be as effective as possible in all our communications," she said. "What we're trying to do now is make clear the distinction and appropriateness of who does what."
General Worden, an astrophysicist who has specialized in space operations in his 27-year Air Force career, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
General Worden has close ties to his new boss, Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, that date back to the Reagan administration, military officials said. The general's staff of about 15 people reports to the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, which is under Mr. Feith.
The Office for Strategic Influence also coordinates its work with the White House's new counterterrorism office, run by Wayne A. Downing, a retired general who was head of the Special Operations command, which oversees the military's covert information operations.
Many administration officials worried that the United States was losing support in the Islamic world after American warplanes began bombing Afghanistan in October. Those concerns spurred the creation of the Office of Strategic Influence.
In an interview in November, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the Pentagon's desire to broaden its efforts to influence foreign audiences, saying:
"Perhaps the most challenging piece of this is putting together what we call a strategic influence campaign quickly and with the right emphasis. That's everything from psychological operations to the public affairs piece to coordinating partners in this effort with us."
One of the military units assigned to carry out the policies of the Office of Strategic Influence is the Army's Psychological Operations Command. The command was involved in dropping millions of fliers and broadcasting scores of radio programs into Afghanistan encouraging Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers to surrender.
In the 1980's, Army "psyop" units, as they are known, broadcast radio and television programs into Nicaragua intended to undermine the Sandinista government. In the 1990's, they tried to encourage public support for American peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.
The Office of Strategic Influence will also oversee private companies that will be hired to help develop information programs and evaluate their effectiveness using the same techniques as American political campaigns, including scientific polling and focus groups, officials said.
"O.S.I. still thinks the way to go is start a Defense Department Voice of America," a senior military official said. "When I get their briefings, it's scary."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company