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By Richard S. Dunham It all began with a leak to The New York Times: In discussions at the Pentagon, some officials had raised the possibility that the newly created Office of Strategic Influence may -- just may -- disseminate disinformation to aid in the next phase of the war against terrorism. Then, in a chat with reporters on a California campaign swing, Vice-President Dick Cheney waxed on about how it has "historically been important" for the U.S. to engage in tactical deception in past wars.
The White House and Pentagon quickly denied they would ever, ever try to influence world opinion by spreading falsehoods through the media. "The Department of Defense does not now and has no plans to conduct any disinformation campaigns or to promulgate false or inaccurate or misleading information to domestic or foreign audiences," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared at a Feb. 21 briefing. "Any suggestion to the contrary would not be correct."
TACTICAL ADVANTAGE. The Administration had best heed Rumsfeld's words: This whole area of using information in ways to gain a tactical advantage can get murky quickly -- and in ways that can erode American strength. Take President Bush's naming of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address and then his pronouncements in Korea last week that he has no intention of immediately attacking North Korea -- without mentioning about Iraq or Iran.
Look at the two statements together. Now that these comments are out in the public domain, Iraq's Hussein, North Korea's Kim, and the hardline mullahs in Iran can't be 100% sure whether press reports about imminent U.S. action to overthrow or destabilize them is true or if it's disinformation.
Don't misunderstand me: In no way was Bush dissembling. Yet, he was trying to gain tactical advantage through his use of language. That's also the advantage of tactical deception: It throws your enemy off balance.
A NEED TO BELIEVE. There's a sliding scale here, however. Gaining tactical advantage can quickly become tactical deception, and then disinformation. Such games come at a high cost for a nation that boasts of values like truth, justice, and the American Way.
The U.S. is supposed to be better than the thugs and mass murderers who justify their slaughter in the name of God. Disinformation is most often the tool of rogue states and pirates: Remember those bizarre al Qaeda claims that U.S. food shipments to Afghan refugees contained poison?
In the months since the September 11 attacks, Americans have needed to believe, more than ever, that their government is telling them the truth. If the periodic "terrorism alert" warnings from the Justice Dept. are to be taken seriously, Americans must all believe that the government is acting in good faith, not playing propaganda games.
There are better ways to destabilize Saddam Hussein and to spook North Korea into taking steps toward dismantling its missile program and talking about unification with its Cold War enemies in the South. Public diplomacy is always an option. So is covert action.
COLD WAR TACTICS. This isn't to say disinformation is always morally repugnant, either. During World War II, it was vital for the protection of U.S., British, and Canadian troops that the Nazi high command be unsure of the location and timing of the Allied invasion of Europe. Strategic leaks of fictional invasion plans served an important purpose.
Even while Rumsfeld and others were staunchly denying that they would ever countenance the dissemination of disinformation, Vice-President Cheney noted during his political swing through California that the U.S. tried to confuse Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War by practicing amphibious operations. Cheney said this strategic deception forced Hussein to deploy as many as six divisions to defend the beaches in Kuwait City when the real attack came to the west on dry land.
Disinformation was a staple of the Cold War propaganda battle between East and West. The CIA regularly planted false stories with friendly reporters in Europe and Asia, sometimes with journalists who were covertly on the agency's payroll.
The Cold War and the war on terrorism are very different, though. Today's rogue states and stateless terrorists may possess nuclear, chemical, and biological threats, but they don't threaten the American character or way of life. Theirs is not an ideology or lifestyle that would ever be viable in more than a handful of countries.
TOO HIGH A PRICE. A sanctioned disinformation campaign would call into question the veracity of all U.S. officials, from the President's official spokesman to the weapons inspectors in the field. "Lying would not only undermine the credibility of the Defense Department's public affairs office, it also would undermine the credibility of the United States in the world's eyes," wrote Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Assn., in a Feb. 19 letter to Rumsfeld. "The potential for misleading information finding its way back to our citizens and our allies risks damaging the credibility not only of our government, but also the media organizations unwittingly used as propaganda mouthpieces."
Cochran is correct. Disinformation would create too high a price for a victory over terrorists that can be won through truth, justice, and the real American way. Bush officials need to be careful about blurring the line between tactical deception and engaging in a disinformation campaign. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online