February 20, 2002

Office of Strategic Mendacity


WASHINGTON -- We're the white hats, but we're planning a "black" propaganda campaign against the axis and even the allies.

People at the Defense Department and elsewhere are cringing at the news that the Pentagon's shadowy new Office of Strategic Influence is plotting to plant deliberately false stories in the foreign press, with both feral and friendly nations.

Covert disinformation activities have always been the province of the C.I.A. But Brig. Gen. Simon Worden, the head of the O.S.I., envisions a mission of psychological operations, or psyops, that "goes from the blackest of black programs to the whitest of white," as a senior Pentagon official told The Times.

William Cohen, defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said on CNN that "We are talking about deceiving the media and the public in general in foreign countries, and that would be a mistake." Our government shouldn't need to lie to justify its increasingly broad and intricate war against terrorism. Holy Gulf of Tonkin!

Besides, there's enough real bad stuff about the bad guys they're Evildoers, after all. We don't need to make up stuff to pin on them.

But let's look on the sunny side. At least the Bush administration is trying to disseminate information, even if it's fictional. Usually it's trying to suppress information, even if it's consequential.

The Bushes and anyone they allow into the club like to govern and conduct their wars behind closed doors. Dick Cheney is making an effort to get out, popping up at the Council on Foreign Relations and on Jay Leno last night. But he remains so hush-hush on what we really want to know, he's The Man Who Wasn't There.

Karen Hughes and Karl Rove keep a childproof cap on even the most anodyne information.

That's exasperating in normal times. But it's a whole lot more troubling when we're hatching so many schemes around the globe and when Americans may be asked to kill and to die in the service of these objectives.

The Pentagon owes us accurate civilian casualty counts as it targets all the extra-tall men in the mountains of Afghanistan, and the Justice Department needs to let us know who is being rounded up and detained and why.

If the Bush inner circle had a higher regard for journalism, and for the role of truth in public affairs, it would understand how repellent it is for the American government to hide the truth, delay the facts or peddle phony stories to news organizations overseas.

It should immediately nix the Pentagon scams about disinformation. And while it's at it, it should curb all the other ways the White House disses information, like:

Karinformation: Oodles of aggrandized anecdotes about the president, bathed in Ms. Hughes's rosy, alliterative glow, tightly controlled and parceled out to a select few journalists who can be trusted not to challenge the official version.

Karlinformation: "News" from the White House politically gamed to within an inch of its life. Mr. Rove's inclinations became clear when he called top journalists around town the day after 9/11 to explain that the president had not returned to Washington immediately because of a threat to Air Force One. That turned out to have as much merit as his stubborn insistence that the administration's ethics haven't been slicked by Big Oil.

Vice-Information: Information's sorry sibling, as in none at all. Mr. Cheney justifies this vacuum of accountability by spurious qualms about privacy in the West Wing. It is not executive privilege that is in danger of deteriorating, but rather the right of the public to be privy to executive decisions.

Fleischinformation: A dense thicket of seemingly informative prose that, on close inspection, does not have a single verdant shrub in it.

Calling Ari Fleischer "a great evasive bore," Michael Kinsley wrote: "Fleischer speaks a sort of imperial court English, in which any question, no matter how specific, is parried with general assurances that the emperor is keenly aware and deeply concerned and firmly resolved and infallibly right and the people are fully supportive and further information should be sought elsewhere."

Our cause is just. So why not just tell the truth?

Copyright © 2002 New York Times