- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

On Media

Hubbub has ensued over the Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence as friends and foes line up to laud or criticize it.

Dramatic news reports this week implied that the Department of Defense had created a "shadowy" office of propaganda with espionage trimmings and a taste for deceit. Talk of "white papers" and "black papers" surfaced, along with implications that the well-funded organization was already rife with turmoil.

"Why is the Pentagon getting into an area it has no competency in?" asked George Friedman of Stratfor, a Texas-based provider of global intelligence forecasts. "If those agencies which publicize the American image or plant disinformation aren't doing their jobs, they should be fixed. We don't need to create a new [agency] to duplicate their efforts."

Yesterday, the White House also announced it would create a permanent office of "global diplomacy," joining a version at the State Department already intent on defining America as a positive "brand name" around the world, according to Advertising Age.

Meanwhile, the new Pentagon office already has its own image problem. One MSNBC analyst said it belonged in the "damn stupid ideas" file while the Boston Globe said the effort would "further erode the Pentagon's already shaky credibility with the press."

ABC and CNN deemed it "controversial" while the Radio-Television News Directors Association called for "further consideration to the mission of this new office and to separate the more surreptitious activities from the work of the public affairs people, on whom journalists rely for firsthand, truthful information."

Media organizations "unwittingly used as propaganda mouthpieces" also could be damaged, the group said.

Though news accounts would have it seem otherwise, there is little new material here. In October, the Pentagon acknowledged it had hired the Rendon Group themselves veterans of a 1991 media campaign against Saddam Hussein to "help us communicate to a range of groups around the world."

The buzz phrase "strategic influence" proved as alluring to journalists as the long-lost "Infinite Justice," coined with much ado as an anti-terrorist code name by the Pentagon last fall but abandoned after 24 hours because it offended Muslims.

Ironically, "strategic influence" has long been an expression used by consulting and crisis-management firms. At least two, in fact, claim to have trademarked the phrase itself.

Top DOD officials have been on damage control the past two days, however, assuring press and public alike that the new Pentagon office would not lie to Americans, though it might dump leaflets over enemy territory or obfuscate battle plans on occasion.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pronounced it the "Office of Strategic Mendacity," condemning the American government should it "hide the truth, delay facts or peddle phony stories."

Fellow commentator Andrew Sullivan criticized Miss Dowd in turn, wondering if she also would fault Winston Churchill or "FDR" for using propaganda against the Nazis during World War II.

"No doubt Maureen would have found reason to ridicule both Churchill and Roosevelt. But they understood what war actually is. She still hasn't got a clue," Mr. Sullivan observed, adding that he had no problem with selective misinformation campaigns that could help ensure successful military strikes overseas.

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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