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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of February 27 - March 5, 2002

  Opinion Column

The OSI threatens more than our enemies

Commentary by Adam Tanous 

It is not hard to imagine how France, say, would react to our trying to influence their internal politics and foreign policy, especially if we were to use false information in the cause.

Suddenly covert is cool again. It didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing back after the Iran-Contra shenanigans were exposed. Promises for full disclosure and a new openness in government was a brief flirtation.

For now we have a spectacularly bad idea from the Department of Defense: The Office of Strategic Influence. Even the Orwellian name seems ill-conceived.

This new office—the scope of its duties are still being debated, secretly—is to provide news and information to foreign media groups in both friendly and unfriendly countries. The news and information this office provides may or may not be true. As far as I can tell it is a bizarre conjoining of "Psychological Operations," the latest darling of the Army, and its public affairs division.

Established in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the OSI is directed by Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden of the Air Force. Its budget comes out of a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget that Congress appropriated in October.

It is not unusual for the military to employ information as part of its arsenal during wartime. Leaflets were dropped and radio messages were broadcast over Afghanistan recently. In the Gulf War, the U.S. was very visible in its amphibious training operations, even though it never intended to invade over the beach. Vice President Cheney said in a Fresno, Calif., speech recently that the "Iraqis tied up five or six divisions defending the beach in Kuwait City."

This new office, however, plans to go much beyond these examples by bombarding allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe with strategic information.

The New York Times reported last week on some of the classified proposals. These include:

Outside sources without obvious ties to the Pentagon would be used to leak both news items and disinformation with foreign media organizations.

The office would send journalists, civic leaders and foreign leaders e-mail messages with phony return addresses trumpeting American positions and attacking those of unfriendly governments.

Other efforts would include computer network attacks and radio broadcasts intended to simulate local news programs.

So what’s wrong with all of this?

Primarily, it is a problem of distinctions. In the past we have employed information warfare against our enemies only, whether in World War II or the Gulf War.

The OSI is proposing that the distinctions between friend and foe be considered immaterial. This means, of course, we can plant false information in the Times of London or with Agence France-Presse. We might send propaganda to civic leaders in Israel or Germany in trying to influence policy making.

From a diplomatic standpoint, such a tack would be disastrous. It is not hard to imagine how France, say, would react to our trying to influence their internal politics and foreign policy, especially if we were to use false information in the cause.

Another wrinkle is that distinguishing between friendly nations and unfriendly ones is becoming difficult to do. Now that terrorist organizations have been found to span dozens of countries, friendly and not, how do we deal with the cancerous nature of terrorism? Terrorists don’t stick to national boundaries. It is now known that a number of terrorists worked out of Hamburg, Germany. Should we go to information war with Germany? Do we kill the patient to get the cancerous cells?

What’s even a thornier issue is how to control any misinformation the OSI might disseminate. Again, imagine that the office surreptitiously planted false information in the foreign press. With a lightning-quick and interconnected media network out there, misinformation would surely end up in American media as well. If that were to happen, it would be impossible to know what was true and what was not.

Once there is even the faintest doubt in the minds of readers or viewers about a news organization, the game is lost. Truth and credibility can not exist in a world of degrees.

Then there is the credibility of the government to worry about. With the OSI as an entity of the Pentagon authorized to use both the military’s public affairs resources and to carry out covert and potentially deceptive activities, who’s to know what’s what? Would there ever again be a legitimate Pentagon press briefing? It took more than 30 years for the Pentagon to build up the public’s trust again after they under-reported body counts during the Vietnam War. And credibility in government, or lack thereof, has much greater import than we generally give it credit. Without the public trust, our government has absolutely no leverage on the international stage.

All this talk of the OSI may just be a trial balloon—an idea floated about to test the domestic and international reaction. Maybe that’s how politicians think. Even so, just floating the idea can be a self-fulfilling prophesy in a way. Once the seed is planted that an arm of the government may be in the business of deceiving friends and foes alike, we start to wonder. Skepticism spreads like a virus.

It’s easy to take truth for granted in this country. We have a lot of watchdogs out there—journalists dedicated to the truth, to the point of risking their lives for it. Witness Daniel Pearl.

The historical record survives because thousands of independent journalists verify all that supposedly happens. It is their job to ferret out the difference between fact and fiction. When an entity as big and as coordinated in its efforts as the U.S. government starts to blur the two, our only frame of reference, truth, falls away.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.