Commentary: The dangers of disinformation in the war on terrorism

'We actually put out a false message to mislead people.'

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"In wartime," Winston Churchill once said, "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld evoked Churchill’s words when asked for assurances that neither he nor his lieutenants would lie to the media as the United States pursued the war on terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan. Though Rumsfeld quickly added that he could not envision a situation in which lying would be necessary, this is indeed a "different kind of war," and the always-present risk of disinformation is heightened precisely because of that.

For reporters covering this war, the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield—a long and mostly losing struggle in the past—but in discerning between information and disinformation. That is made all the more difficult by a 24-hour news cycle, advanced technology, and the military’s growing fondness for a discipline it calls “Information Operations.” IO, as it is known, groups together information functions ranging from public affairs (PA, the military spokespersons corps) to military deception and psychological operations, or PSYOP. What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.

At the core of a civilian-controlled military and a free press, these blurred roles are fueling an intense debate within the uniformed ranks. “It’s one of the biggest issues now that has to be resolved,” said one military spokesman. “The reason public affairs has been so successful is because reporters trust us. You destroy our credibility and you take away our usefulness.”

“The idea was the battlefield can be shaped by information, so it’s necessary to conduct robust information operations in support of the battlefield,” said another military official familiar with the IO doctrine. The problem, he added, is that “everyone has a different idea of what it means. We have created a sort of a monster.”

In August 1996, the U.S. Army issued field manual 100-6, outlining its vision of Information Operations. “Information and the knowledge that flows from it empower soldiers and their leaders. When transformed into capabilities, information is the currency of victory,” the manual said. It noted that “the Army has shown considerable strength in applying both PSYOP and deception to military operations,” adding that “PSYOP elements must work closely with other [command and control warfare] elements and PA strategists to maximize the advantage of IO.” The manual stated that IO “does not sanction in any way actions intended to mislead or manipulate media coverage of military operations.” But that risk is precisely what worries those familiar with this doctrine.

In peacetime, public affairs and PSYOP both deal in the truth, military spokesmen insist. “There is no black information,” the military official said, referring to deception. “But in a war situation, it’s different.” In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, Pentagon officials leaked word that a U.S. aircraft carrier would be delayed in departing for the Persian Gulf. In reality, it headed to the region immediately.

“We actually put out a false message to mislead people,” Jay Coupe, former spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained to The Washington Post in a September 24 article. “The idea was not to give information about the movement of our carrier. We were trying to confuse people.” In a letter to the editor four days later, Coupe sought to clarify that “no public affairs personnel were involved in the message’s preparation or release. It was a strictly internal message put out within military operational circles with the expectation that it might be leaked. And that is exactly what happened.” In his experience, military public affairs officials “never lied to journalists,” Coupe wrote. “That distinction is important, and I am confident it will remain the military’s policy.”

The shift in U.S. military policy on information can be traced to the “information— control techniques” employed by the British military during the 1982 Falklands War, according to a 1991 study of U.S. military media restrictions from Grenada to the Persian Gulf by Jacqueline Sharkey and the Center for Public Integrity. The British model— influenced by the Pentagon’s experience with media coverage of Vietnam— was based on the premise of “pre-censorship,” whereby media access to military operations and information was restricted, the study said.

Ten years later, during the wars in former Yugoslavia—where a previously entrenched international press corps made access restrictions nearly impossible —the British military sought to manage the message, truthful or otherwise, in support of the United Nations and NATO mission. Put simply, they routinely lied to reporters and did so with vigor and the conviction that the importance of an accurate and independent press was subordinate to military strategy and success.

That the United States and Britain are now the two major executors of the war on terrorism further raises the risk that reporters will be subjected to disinformation. This is worrisome enough, but it becomes even more so with advanced technology and the voracious 24-hour news cycle.

In the summer of 1997, a group of senior Pentagon officers and military reporters gathered for a retreat aimed at improving their often rocky relationship. The Pentagon was 18 months into a successful Bosnian peacekeeping deployment, and reporters were getting good access to the troops. The mood was upbeat, and it appeared, for a while, that historic tensions might have eased. That is until talk turned to psychological operations, disinformation and public affairs.

One of the guest speakers at the conference showed how video images could be created and/or altered electronically, and without detection, unless the creator inserted an electronic watermark to indicate it was a fabrication. But if the creator’s intent was to misinform, the presenter said, then there would be no watermark, and the doctored image would be indistinguishable from reality.

With the Pentagon’s fleet of EC-130 “Commando Solo” aircraft—capable of inserting radio and TV programming into national broadcast systems—the implications of such electronic wizardry were obvious. First, journalists monitoring local media in a war zone would need to question constantly whether what they were receiving was U.S. military disinformation. Assuming they asked, would the military take the reporters into its confidence to spare them from spreading the disinformation? The officers at the retreat responded that they would not.

If Information Operations is a battlefield strategy, then information is the weapon. Rumsfeld has publicly warned Pentagon staffers against discussing military operations with the media, saying those who did so would be breaking federal criminal law “and should be in jail.” His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, issued a memo urging staffers to “exercise great caution in discussing information related to DOD (Department of Defense) work, regardless of their duties,” making no distinction between classified and unclassified information. And Victoria Clarke, a former public relations executive who is Rumsfeld’s spokeswoman, is focusing on “message development” in dealing with the press.

Controlling the message in a 24- hour news cycle is a key element of Information Operations. While not necessarily disinformation, nonetheless it is a media management technique employed by the military that results in limiting critical reporting, especially in crises, when news departments that have cut defense beats rush inexperienced reporters to the front.

This technique was used to great effect in NATO’s air campaign over Kosovo in 1999, an operation in which “spin doctors” from Washington and London agreed on “the message” and then through a series of sequential briefings at Alliance headquarters in Brussels and in London and Washington fed the 24-hour news machine. “They would gorge the media with information,” said one spokesman. “When you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story.”

In the war on terrorism, Washington and London have established 24- hour information centers at the White House and 10 Downing Street, with a third center in Pakistan, in a similar model of across-time-zone briefings to keep the message on point.

Major Gary Pounder, the chief of intelligence plans and presentations at the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education at Maxwell Air Force Base, has noted the “cultural gap between the public affairs officer and the ‘information warrior’” But, in an article in Aerospace Power Journal, he concluded that “despite reservations about lost credibility, PA must play a central role in future IO efforts—the public information battle space is simply too important to ignore.” Pounder went on to observe that “IO practitionersmust recognize that much of the information war will be waged in the public media, necessitating the need for PA participation. PA specialistsneed to become full partners in the IO planning and execution process, developing the skills and expertise required to win the media war.”

So the war on terrorism is also an information war, and the implications of that for the media are daunting. “Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or—if you really want to be blunt—propaganda,” former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a message meister when he was special envoy to Bosnia, wrote in the October 28 issue of The Washington Post. Arguing that the United States had to better define the war on terrorism for the Muslim world, Holbrooke called for, among other things, the creation of a special White House office to “direct” public affairs activities at state, defense, justice, the CIA, and Agency for International Development. “The battle of ideasis as important as any other aspect of the struggle we are now engaged in. It must be won.”

One can only hope that the truth will win, too.

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