The Federation of American Scientists has pointed to a startling revelation by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that mainstream media have missed: In remarks during a recent press briefing, Rumsfeld suggested that though the controversial Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) no longer exists in name, its programs are still being carried out.
The OSI came under scrutiny last February, when The New York Times reported that the new Pentagon group was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations.” The news was met with outrage, and within a week the Pentagon had closed down the OSI, saying that negative attention had damaged the office’s reputation so much “that it could not operate effectively.”
The plan was troubling for many reasons: It was profoundly undemocratic; it would have put journalists’ lives at risk by involving them in Pentagon disinformation; and it’s almost certain that any large-scale disinformation campaign directed at the foreign press would have led, sooner or later, to a falsified story being picked up by U.S. media.
At the time, Rumsfeld claimed that he had “never even seen the charter for the office,” but according to The New York Times, Thomas Timmes, the OSI’s assistant for operations, said that Rumsfeld had been briefed on its goals “at least twice” and had “given his general support.”
Now, in remarks made at a Nov. 18 media briefing, Rumsfeld has suggested that though the exposure of OSI’s plans forced the Pentagon to close the office, they certainly haven’t given up on its work. According to a transcript on the Department of Defense website, Rumsfeld told reporters:
“And then there was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that. And ‘oh my goodness gracious isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny the sky is going to fall.’ 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.”
A search of the Nexis database indicates that no major U.S. media outlets – no national broadcast television news shows, no major U.S. newspapers, no wire services or major magazines – have reported Rumsfeld’s remarks.
Rumsfeld’s comments seem all the more alarming in light of analysis presented by William Arkin in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion column, in which he argues that Rumsfeld is redesigning the U.S. military to make “information warfare” central to its functions.
This new policy, says Arkin, increasingly “blurs or even erases the boundaries between factual information and news, on the one hand, and public relations, propaganda and psychological warfare, on the other.” Arkin adds that “while the policy ostensibly targets foreign enemies, its most likely victim will be the American electorate.”
It is essential that media follow up this story, particularly now, as the country faces a possible war with Iraq and reporters rely even more heavily than usual on Pentagon information.
Rachel Coen is a media analyst with FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org