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Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad
Tue Feb 19, 9:00 AM ET
By JAMES DAO and ERIC SCHMITT The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."