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The Military and the Media

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Truth, honor, and integrity have always been the cornerstone of the United States armed force's core values. The Pentagon did the best it could have done to salvage any remaining credibility in the world community by disbanding the newly formed Office of Strategic Influence (OSI).

OSI has been getting a lot of attention lately. It was reported that one of the many tasks of this controversial office would be releasing news items, including false ones, to foreign media. The Pentagon's intention was to influence the small, but growing, opposition to U.S. activities in the war against terrorism. The problem is this disinformation could undermine U.S. credibility abroad and could even make its way back to U.S. shores.

Under scrutiny, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recently announced the campaign to influence world opinion will not include lies to the public, but might employ "tactical" deception to confuse an enemy for battlefield advantage. A later announcement by Secretary Rumsfeld was the nail in the coffin, closing the doors of OSI.

Information warfare has been used by Army psychological operations for years. "Psyops" units fought battles in Vietnam in the 60's and 70's, Nicaragua in the 80's, the Balkans in the 90's and most recently Afghanistan. The difference is, this was the first time the Department of Defense made it clear that one of its intentions was to mislead foreign media through a variety of methods, some very questionable.

Countries including Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iraq, part of President Bush's Axis of Evil, as well as their allies are talented propagandists who have spread misinformation throughout the world. The administration, as well as the Pentagon, would like to repair these falsehoods and get their own message out to foreign audiences quickly and efficiently. But this must be done in a sound, sophisticated and credible way rather than the unscrupulous guise the Pentagon had in mind.

The office was set up after Sept. 11th by the Bush administration as an effort to better reach Islamic populations around the world. The past few months many formerly conventional ways of operating have changed. When I was in the Navy, we had a saying, "rules are written in blood." Meaning, when something tragic happens, change the rules so that it doesn't happen again. But purposely giving false information through Defense Department media outlets to our allies is not the way to approach this.

Radio broadcast and leaflets dropped in foreign ground have always been accepted. But what about possibly using news services such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse to spread their information. What if the information's false? These same stories could end up running in U.S. print and broadcast mediums. Under law, the Pentagon operation can only work outside the United States. Targeting international media is possible, but not U.S. media outlets.

According to a New York Times article, several senior Pentagon officials had questioned whether the mission of the Office of Strategic Influence was too broad or possibly illegal. "This breaks down the boundaries almost completely," a Pentagon official said.
Most agree that the dissemination of "psyop" materials through media outlets is a good way to help sway anti U.S. sentiment. It is a necessity. This is especially true when influencing hostile governments and their people. Although that's still part of the Pentagon's multi pronged plan, don't confuse it with the potential for flat out lying to foreign media and our allies using the military's globe spanning public affairs capabilities.

One way the Pentagon could have avoided this controversial issue altogether would have been to keep the plan confidential. Isn't that what military intelligence and national security officials are supposed to be good at? Announcing it ahead of time does nothing but tell foreign governments and their media to be even more wary of what we say. Rumsfeld's announcement is damage control. But that implies damage was done… it was. Defense Department credibility is damaged in the eyes of the world media at least.

Mixing the clandestine world of espionage and warfare with the work of traditional public affairs undermines the Pentagon's credibility with the media, the public and governments around the world. Yes, the rules have changed, but let's not use that as an excuse to sacrifice our own honor and integrity. If anything, this is a time to strengthen ties throughout the world, not endanger them.

-- Dexter Ingram, a database editor in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy, served as a naval flight officer.

Originally appeared in Townhall.com

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