WASHINGTON - "The first casualty when war comes is truth." So said Sen. Hiram Johnson, a California Republican, in the year 1917.
There is a struggle inside the Pentagon over where to draw the line in conducting so-called information operations or propaganda in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and who will be involved. On one side are the information warfare activists, led by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Assistant Secretary Douglas Feith. On the other are those who believe that telling lies to the media is wrong and military public affairs officers should never be involved in that.
The wrangling has been going on since soon after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when a Pentagon war planner, speaking anonymously, told a Washington Post reporter, "This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine. We're going to lie about things."
Not long afterward the Pentagon opened its controversial Office of Strategic Influence amid reports that its mission included planting false news stories in the international media. A public outcry led to the hasty shuttering of that office, but Rumsfeld served notice that while the office may have been closed, its mission would be continued by other entities.
The defense secretary told reporters on Nov. 18, 2002: "Fine, you want to savage this thing, fine. I'll give you the corpse. There's the name. You can have the name, but I'm going to keep doing every single thing that needs to be done, and I have."
This week the Los Angeles Times reported that CNN had been targeted in an information war operation three weeks before the start of the attack against Fallujah. On Oct. 14 Marine 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a public affairs spokesman, went on camera to declare that "troops crossed the line of departure" - that the Fallujah operation was under way.
It was not. The U.S. commanders obviously hoped that the false news broadcast by CNN would trigger certain moves by the insurgents and foreign terrorists holding the Sunni city - moves that then could be analyzed to gain information on how they would defend Fallujah.
Also this week the Washington Post brought new attention on the friendly-fire killing of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a former NFL football star who gave up the spotlight to become a soldier. For days after the death of Tillman, military commanders and spokesmen both in Afghanistan and at Fort Bragg left out any mention of his having been killed by American bullets as they spun the story of a hero killed in battle.
That incident brought to mind the false stories about the rescue and heroism of Pvt. Jessica Lynch foisted on reporters during the opening days of the attack into Iraq. The official picture painted initially was of a young woman who fought to the last bullet before being wounded and captured. The truth was that Pvt. Lynch was injured when the vehicle in which she was riding crashed and she was knocked unconscious. She never fired a shot.
An investigation of the Tillman death and the information given to the media is presently under way, according to an Army spokesman. Defense Department spokesman Larry DiRita says he has asked his staff for "more information" on how the Oct. 14 Marine incident came to pass.
Critics point to one troubling recent development: the decision by commanders in Iraq in mid-September to combine information operations, psychological operations and public affairs into a single strategic communications office run by an Air Force brigadier general who reports directly to Gen. George Casey, the American commander.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter in late September warning American commanders of the problems of lumping military public affairs in with information operations.
Myers warned that public affairs and information operations must remain separate. But his warning seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Iraq because civilian leaders in the Pentagon and the National Security Council insisted on a blended effort of both public affairs and psy-ops to woo Iraqi and Arab support for America's efforts in Iraq.
In the old days of the Cold War America's propaganda war was fought by the U.S. Information Agency, which was strictly forbidden from distributing any propaganda inside the United States. USIA was first gutted and then folded into the State Department during the mid-1990s.
Everyone involved in this argument would do well to heed Gen. Myers' warning against mixing the liars and the truth-tellers in one pot. That distinction was blurred during the Vietnam War and the image the American public carried away was of the Five O'Clock Follies, the daily official news briefing in Saigon where lies and spin were dispensed along with the facts.
Believe me, we do not want to go there again.
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."
© 2004 Knight-Ridder