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
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
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
Ruth Rosen is a Chronicle editorial writer.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle