Shaky start for Rumsfeld's propaganda machine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2002, 12:00am

WOULD YOU TRUST Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? That is the question some in Washington are asking after a bruising week for the Pentagon.

It fell to Mr Rumsfeld to explain revelations in the New York Times that the Defence Department was planning to plant lies in the foreign media through its new Office of Strategic Influence.

The Orwellian-titled body is being created far from the prying eyes of much of his own administration, as well as the US Congress, and is drawing on the US$10 billion (HK$78 billion) emergency kitty created following September 11.

Part of its yet-to-be-approved charter seeks to further US interests through straight-forward press releases. Other plans involve 'black propaganda' across the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe, attacking unfriendly governments or movements with false information. Some of it may be created and routed through means that could make its origins opaque at best.

At the office's core is a private Washington-based firm, the Rendon Group, a consultancy with a long but shadowy record of work with the CIA and the Kuwaiti royal family. Mr Rumsfeld was quick to point out that the office's charter is still being created. Even before he finalises it, he insists no lies will be told.

Laws exist to prevent the US Government lying to its own press. What it does internationally is another matter - but not if it rebounds domestically through an increasingly globalised media market.

'Government officials, the Department of Defence, this secretary and the people who work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth,' Mr Rumsfeld said. 'Consistent with Defence Department policy, under no circumstances will the office or its contractors knowingly or deliberately disseminate false information to the American or foreign media or public.'

For Mr Rumsfeld and his senior staff, the damage may have already been done. A certain pall is likely to be cast over the Pentagon's publicity activities, open and otherwise, in the months ahead, even if it acts with the purest of motives. Some of the greatest fears come from within the Pentagon itself.

'This whole episode is a small disaster actually,' one senior Pentagon official said. 'We might as well fold up this damned office now . . . if we are not really careful, it's going to drag us all down. It is a pretty bad omen for a propaganda machine when it finds itself in the middle of an international publicity storm before it is even up and running.'

Other US government officials - ever wary of the Pentagon - expressed similar anger. 'Even if Mr Rumsfeld is telling the truth, it has created unnecessary suspicion internationally - just when we need to be impressing people,' a State Department official said.

One of the problems is the military's natural secrecy and constant use of euphemism. Even if it stops short of fiction, as Mr Rumsfeld insists it will, the nature of war means it cannot tell the whole truth all the time. In their public comments, senior officials tend to hide behind phrases such as 'collateral damage' for civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Then there is the problem of history. America's intelligence apparatus, chiefly the CIA, has a long-standing track record of propaganda excesses, both during and after the Cold War. Virtually every recent US conflict, from Vietnam to the Gulf War to the invasion of Panama, has been accompanied by official attempts at manipulation and falsehood to help the cause.

Against that background, if Mr Rumsfeld can create the office and still keep a level of international faith, he will have pulled off the biggest publicity coup of all.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent