High goals for disinformation?

Posted: Feb 25, 2002 12:00 AM
That was a pretty bad egg the Pentagon laid when word was spoken of a projected Department of Disinformation. There is always a problem when the need arises to speak of operations that presuppose an enemy out there. There are structural ambiguities in what you say and what you don't say when you are dealing with an enemy. The trouble arises in dealings with Congress and the press, which are, among other things, instruments of mediation.

The Pentagon (let us say) lets word out that North Korea is developing a biological weapon. Congress looks into the question, but some of the briefings done for Congress are shrouded in secrecy, and Congress acknowledges the need to maintain that secrecy. The press then comes into the picture. The press is, for professional reasons, skeptical. Quite rightly so, because history is larded with examples of government deceit intended to generate the desired reactions.

And of course, North Korean forces get into the picture. That country, and countries that are on the North Korean side of things -- perhaps for strategic or cultural reasons, perhaps because they gravitate to anti-American constructions -- deny the biological-weapon story, or construe it as an attempt to cure measles. So what then flows down to the citizen is a third or fourth version of what actually is going on in North Korea.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likes concrete imagery, so when questioned on Thursday, he began by describing the need for a Department of Defense agency that dealt with public information. The first example he gave was the Taliban description of food parcels being dropped by the U.S. Air Force as containing a terrible poison. Well, obviously we had to use every means possible of denying these charges.

But in that example, of course, we were engaged in giving out word of the truth. Then Mr. Rumsfeld eased over into matters of "strategic and tactical deception." Suppose that our military mission was coming in from the north. Isn't it obviously sensible, as when we sent out disinformation in 1944 on the exact point in France where our troops would land, that we should encourage the impression that we were coming in from the east?

Of course, skepticism can become a way of life. It tends to reflect a critic's operative assumptions. What is building is what one might call the let's-call-it-quits element in the West. Those who are progressively opposed to direct action against Iraq are influenced by several factors, one of them a fear of nascent American imperialism; another, a fear of unilateralism; still another, the sense that Saddam Hussein has paid sufficiently for past transgressions. From this camp, we are hearing on the matter of strategic deception.

Ms. Flora Lewis, writing in the International Herald Tribune, says that "the suggestion that reasons and facts can be invented if the real ones aren't good enough is worrisome," which is indeed correct, though Rumsfeld was saying something slightly different. And Ms. Lewis goes on, "... increasingly insistent rumbles from Washington make it sound as if in a few more weeks (we) will be at war with Iraq. If so, a great deal of the reaction depends on how the violence starts, and how the war is conducted. Not much bland tolerance can be expected for some kind of elaborate scenario that would seek to make it look as if Saddam Hussein shot first."

Does the Pentagon have this in mind? What do you call it if the Pentagon advises that, even in the absence of concrete evidence that Baghdad is developing weapons of mass destruction, we should proceed on the assumption that they are doing so? Is that a strategic deception? What do you call it if the commander in chief, informing himself as fully as he can, decides that the strategic national interest warrants going in to Baghdad? What is a legitimate length to which he can describe what we think to be going on in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which is concededly inflammatory in design?

When President Roosevelt thought it strategically wise to move the country in the direction of war against the Nazis, accounts of the implications of a German victory were encouraged. In 1986, we had accounts of the mistreatment of babies in Libya, which proved unfounded. Former defense secretary Bill Cohen and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the Gulf War campaign, have publicly protested any Pentagon effort to spread disinformation.

But what is the right word for focusing attention on credible threats? If a U.N. agency decrees that neither North Korea, nor Iran, nor Iraq is engaged in creating weapons of mass destruction, is that an act of disinformation?