Disinformation Follies

Joel Bleifuss

Back in the 80s, the Reagan administration established an elaborate and illegal domestic propaganda apparatus known as the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Its covert mission: Sell Congress, the media and the American people on the administrations war against leftists in Central America. The stated objective: Convince Americans that the Contras are fighters for freedom in the American tradition and that the FSLN [Sandinistas] are evil.

When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, the Office of Public Diplomacy was dismantled and its unit of Psychological Operations (Psyops) agents sent home to their U.S. Army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. 

Three administrationsand several enemieslater, Army Psyops agents were again deployed in Washington, again fighting evil, but this time from the Pentagons new Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). The covert mission: Target foreign media organizations in the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe with disinformation campaigns. The objective: Convince foreign leaders and citizens to support U.S. policy.

The difference this time around is that conscientious Pentagon officials leaked OSIs plans to the New York Times. A senior Pentagon official put it this way, Everybody understands using information operations to go after non-friendlies. When people get uncomfortable is when people use the same tools and tactics on friendlies.

The resulting media furor led Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to close the program on February 26. The office is done, he told reporters. What do you want, blood?

How about some honest information?

A good place to start would be the administrations fiscal year 2003 defense budget. Bush says increased spending is necessary because the nation is at war. Rumsfeld has explained that he inherited a military that was overused and underfunded.

On February 12, Lawrence Korb (who wrote our April 2, 2001 cover story, Pentagon Spending Spree) testified before the House Budget Committee. The former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, who now works with Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, pointed out that should the Bush budget be approved:

Defense spending will have risen by $88.2 billion, or 30 percent, since fiscal year 2001.

The United States alone will consume about 40 percent of the worlds total military expenditures.

The United States will spend more on defense than the next 15 countries in the world combined.

Korb refuted Bushs justifications for the increase. Weve already budgeted for the militarys role in the war against terrorism, he said. The Defense Department received a $20 billion supplement, about what the administration calculates the war will cost. 

As for the allegedly sorry state of U.S. preparedness, Korb noted the militarys magnificent performance in Afghanistan and that Bill Clinton left Donald Rumsfeld with a defense budget that in real terms was $25 billion higher than the one President Ford bequeathed to him in his first term as secretary of defense in 1975.

Indeed, Korb testified, the administrations massive military budget increase can only be explained as a failure of Bush to carry out his campaign promise to transform the military. Rumsfeld simply layered his new programs on top of the Clinton programs he inherited, unwilling to exert the political will needed to cut redundant, unnecessary and, in some cases, unworkable weapons systems, said Korb. (In fact, fewer U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan than were killed in Osprey aircraft crashes since Dick Cheney tried to cancel the program as defense secretary in 1989.

The mainstream media rightly condemnedand to great effectthe administrations plans to deploy Psyops agents worldwide in a covert operation to subvert media organizations. Perhaps editors and journalists could now take off their red, white and blue blinders, and focus some of that righteous indignation at Bushs overt operation to enrich Pentagon defense contractors at the expense of programs that serve human needs.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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