The Los Angeles Times revealed this week (12/1/04) that the U.S. military lied to CNN in the course of executing psychological warfare operations, or PSYOPS, in advance of the recent attack on Fallujah. This incident raises serious questions about government disinformation and journalistic credibility, but recent discussions of the government’s propaganda plans have excluded some valuable context.
In an October 14 on-air interview, Marine Lt. Lyle Gilbert told CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre that a U.S. military assault on Fallujah had begun. In fact, the offensive would not actually begin for another three weeks. The goal of the psychological operation, according to the Times, was to deceive Iraqi insurgents into revealing what they would do in the event of an actual offensive.
This operation raises obvious questions about the government’s use of media to broadcast disinformation at home and abroad– not to mention questions about journalistic gullibility and reluctance to question official claims. But the CNN story has received little pick-up so far from other news outlets– and when it is covered, it’s treated like an isolated episode, even though recent history shows that U.S. government plans to deceive journalists and the public are widespread and systematic, not aberrational.
Shortly before the launch of the “war on terror,” an unnamed Pentagon war planner seemed to warn journalists everywhere when he told Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz: “This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine… We’re going to lie about things.” (9/24/01)
In February 2002, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations” in an effort “to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
The story got widespread attention, and the Pentagon announced that the office would be eliminated. But considerably less media attention was paid when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later said that, while the OSI had been closed, its mission would be taken up by other agencies.
As Rumsfeld put it, “I went down that next day and said ‘Fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine– I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.'” (FAIR Media Advisory, 11/27/02) So the revelation that a misinformation campaign bearing a striking resemblance to the description of the OSI was actually being carried out ought not to come as a total surprise.
Earlier this year, another Los Angeles Times scoop (6/3/04) revealed that one of the most enduring images of the war– the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad square on April 9, 2003– was a U.S. Army psychological warfare operation staged to look like a spontaneous Iraqi action:
“As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel– not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images — who decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking.”
CNN’s history of voluntary cooperation with PSYOPS troops is also worth considering. In March 2000, FAIR and international news organizations revealed that CNN had allowed military propaganda specialists from an Army PSYOPS unit to work as interns in the news division of its Atlanta headquarters.
As FAIR reported at the time (3/27/00), some PSYOPS officers were eager to find ways to use media power to their advantage. One officer explained at a PSYOPS conference that the military needed to find ways to “gain control” over commercial news satellites to help bring down an “informational cone of silence” over regions where special operations were taking place.
And a 1996 unofficial strategy paper written by an Army officer and published by the U.S. Naval War College (“Military Operations in the CNN World: Using the Media as a Force Multiplier”) urged military commanders to find ways to “leverage the vast resources of the fourth estate” for the purposes of “communicating the [mission’s] objective and endstate, boosting friendly morale, executing more effective psychological operations, playing a major role in deception of the enemy, and enhancing intelligence collection.”
Of course, the full extent of these programs is not yet known. But the fact that the U.S. government is intentionally lying to journalists, and by extension to the public, should be big news. Unfortunately, the L.A. Times report is generating little mainstream media attention. CNN’s Aaron Brown reported the story (12/1/04), admitting that “none of us are particularly comfortable when we’re talking about things, about ourselves if you will.”
Brown also made another, even more revealing comment:
“There is an important and explicit bargain between the press and the Pentagon in a time of war. We don’t do anything to endanger the troops or operations. They don’t lie to us. Each is essential in a free society and each is made more complicated by the information age, but it seems that sometimes in an effort to mislead the enemy the military has come close, very close, to crossing the line and misleading you.”
Of course, in this case the military did not come “very close” to misleading the public; they did mislead the public. And while Brown may have confidence that such a “bargain” exists between the press and the military, it would appear that the Pentagon does not agree. If journalists were more willing to accept the old adage that “all governments lie,” we might all be better served.