In recent days, the prospects of the war for the free world have been buffeted by hysterical reactions to reports that the U.S. military has been secretly paying to place stories in the Iraqi press. The dust-up has caused panic in some circles, with congressmen demanding investigations and officials scurrying for cover. The result, for the moment at least, is an American rout in the war of ideas.
This debacle evidently came about because an unidentified military public-affairs officer in Iraq decided to leak to the Los Angeles Times classified information about a sensitive, but highly effective, political-warfare program. It seems that the Lincoln Group, an American company specializing in strategic communications, had been contracted by the Pentagon to ensure that the Iraqi people could obtain information about progress being made in their country–not just be fed a steady diet of demoralizing reports prompted by lethal enemy attacks.
Evidently the public-affairs officer objected to the fact that this program did not advertise the provenance of articles that helped provide a more balanced perspective on the struggle in Iraq. Another objection was that Iraqi journalists received American money to get such information into print. The leak precipitated howls of righteous indignation from Western journalists and other critics of the Bush policy in Iraq. The suggestion was that the government was covertly dis-informing news organizations and their audiences for its political purposes.
Recent History Repeats Itself
The present brouhaha is an all-too-familiar one. In fact, it appears to reprise an earlier effort by Pentagon public-affairs personnel to use highly prejudicial leaks to shut down information operations and other “political warfare” activities outside their purview and control.
As documented in my new book, War Footing: Ten Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World , a fledgling program to counter Iranian government propaganda in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s propaganda throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and disinformation from radical Islamist clerics was launched by Donald Rumsfeld in October 2001. It was to be run by a new Defense Department organization called the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI).
OSI was meant to be a component of a broader, government-wide strategic communications campaign, with the mission of assisting government agencies
in crafting policy regarding the military aspects of information operations. The new office planned to establish access to information for those in regions dominated by enemy propaganda, such as the jihadist schools of Pakistan–the most fertile recruiting fields for terrorism. Its concept of operations included unique and innovative approaches, developed both internally and with outside experts whose creativity was unhampered by the stifling constraints of bureaucracy.
Then as now, some in the Pentagon’s civilian and uniformed hierarchy felt threatened by the sort of wide-ranging mandate, out-of-the-box thinking, and bureaucratic agility Secretary Rumsfeld had wisely seen fit to encourage in the Strategic Influence team. On February 13, 2002, an OSI official reported to a senior official in the Pentagon chief ’s office:
We’ve had considerable resistance to our plans from the staff within the Pentagon itself. There is an inability to recognize influence campaigns directed at the terrorist’s support and recruitment as a legitimate military function. The most resistance comes from Public Affairs and the General Counsel, who seem to have forgotten that five months ago an airliner crashed into our building killing nearly 200 people! I would characterize their objections as looking for reasons not to do something instead of helping us to proceed. [Emphasis in original.]
In that instance, the bureaucrats succeeded in strangling the incipient OSI in the crib. In particular, then-Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, who had opposed the Office of Strategic Influence from its inception, succeeded in sabotaging the project by informing the New York Times (incorrectly) that OSI planned to plant lies in the foreign media. American journalists seized upon the Times’s report to suggest that the effect, whether intended or not, would be to dis-inform this country’s press as well.
Clarke then compounded the damage done by her false allegations by telling, in her capacity as the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, OSI officials not to try to set the record straight, thus ensuring that all the news coverage and commentary would be one-sided and negative.
Within days, the organization’s reputation had been so badly compromised in the press that it had to be shut down. Worse still, the episode made this vital mission so politically radioactive that no comparable institutionalized effort has subsequently been launched to perform it.
Penetrating the Iron Curtain
Now, those who would deny the United States any capacity for political warfare have evidently set their sights on the Lincoln Group and its efforts in Iraq. They cavil that it violates the principles of a free press for U.S.-prepared material to be disseminated without a Made-in-America label on it.
Evidently, they have forgotten that the last time we waged political warfare effectively against a totalitarian ideology bent on our destruction–namely, during the Cold War–this country spent many millions of dollars over decades operating surrogate broadcasting operations, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Like Lincoln’s products today, those organizations disseminated the truth to people behind the Iron Curtain, without acknowledging that it was made possible by the American taxpayer. While there are, to be sure, far more independent media outlets in Iraq today than were permitted in the Soviet bloc, the dangers associated with publishing or broadcasting the truth are no less real.
In that connection, it is worth noting that the monies secretly paid to Iraqi journalists courageous enough in the face of terrorist death threats to bring factual information to their countrymen are not bribes. These payments make it possible for the journalists to provide security and death benefits for their families in the event they are killed–something none of their foreign colleagues reporting in-country would dream of doing without.
The absurdity–not to say strategic folly–of denying the United States such well-established and effective tools to help protect and promote freedom is all the more apparent in light of fresh evidence of our enemies’ use of political warfare against us.
On Monday, the controversial Saudi billionaire and royal, Prince al-Walid bin Talal, made a stunning revelation during a panel discussion at a conference in Dubai on “the Arab and World Media.” According to Middle East Online, after criticizing the “pro-Israel” bias of the U.S. media, the Prince “accused Arabs of not being pro-active in fighting the allegedly slanted media.”
Prince al-Walid then proceeded to reveal an example of the sort of pro-activity he has in mind. He recently purchased roughly 5 percent of the voting stock of NewsCorp, the parent company of Fox News. As Middle Ease Online reported:
During last month’s street protests in France, the U.S. television network Fox–owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in which Al-Walid himself has shares–ran a banner saying: “Muslim riots.”
“I picked up the phone and called Murdoch.. . . . (and told him) these are not Muslim riots, these are riots out of poverty,” [the Prince] said. “Within 30 minutes, the title was changed from Muslim riots to civil riots.”
The fact that millions of dollars are being invested by a Saudi royal for the purpose of waging political warfare against this country–in this case, by his own admission, to effect news coverage that could potentially be negative for Muslims–helpfully clarifies our present situation: We should honor, not excoriate, those who are seeking to wield political-warfare instruments effectively on our behalf–a job made all the more important by our foes’ effective use of these instruments against us.
In the final analysis, the future of Iraq will be determined by the people of that country. Their willingness to take risks to deny their country to those who would destroy them and us will depend critically upon their assessment of the evidence that progress is being made in that direction.
Similarly, the American people must understand the nature of the enemies we face–and the totalitarian ideology that largely animates them. This will require all of us to do a better job of recognizing–and countering–their use of political-warfare instruments against the free world.