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The Office of Strategic Deception

By Caitlin Hall
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday Feb. 27, 2002

When the United States first began contemplating military action in Afghanistan, it quickly became apparent that we had a challenge ahead of us and not just that of ousting the Taliban. Despite Bush's assurances that ours was not a war against the Muslim world, American support in Islamic countries quickly began to falter as the first bombs fell.

Thus, shortly after the American military was mobilized, the equally vast American-PR machine was called into service alongside it. Media access had to be controlled and carefully shaped, opinion in Islamic countries had to be swayed and foreign policy had to be redirected. And so it was that in the fog of war a new tool of public opinion manipulation was forged, in the form of the Office of Strategic Influence.

At first, OSI's mission was relatively simple and concrete: to mold public perception of the war at home and abroad. Along those lines, it was responsible for such well-publicized efforts as the coordinated drop of millions of pro-democratic leaflets into Afghanistan and the incessant broadcast of messages encouraging Taliban soldiers to surrender.

It was never really clear what the office's role would be once the war - or at least that phase - was over. Most assumed it would be temporary. However, Bush recently moved to make it a permanent fixture of the Department of Defense.

That alone is not enough to warrant concern. However, the self-professed aims of the office - which have nothing to do with the original pretext for its establishment - are.

What are these aims, you ask? In the eyes of General Simon P. Worden, the man in charge of the new office, they include using "a mix of truthful news releases, phony stories and e-mails from disguised addresses to encourage the kind of news coverage abroad that the Pentagon considers advantageous, while using clandestine activities, including computer network attacks, to disrupt coverage it opposes."

In short, the new office will be in charge of intensely manipulating public opinion of the United States in both friendly and hostile nations, often by means of questionable legality.

The plan's problems, however, aren't restricted to the law.

As has already been stated, the office will be in charge of disseminating both "white" and "black" information - the military's terms, not mine - to both our allies and our enemies. Many difficulties arise as a result of such a broad use of power by one department.

For one, it will increase the already-intense strain between the United States and its allies. If we have any intention of appeasing them, we'll have to be more discriminating in our foreign policy. The principles of OSI make it appear that we are unable to draw key distinctions between nations.

However, even if there are assurances that we won't be distributing false information in friendly nations - and there have not been thus far - relations with such countries would be better served by maintaining the system under which foreign relations currently operate. It speaks ill of our intentions to move the authority of foreign affairs from a civilian agency - the State Department - to a military one, the Department of Defense.

There is an even larger question raised by this line of policy. If we mean to spread truth and democracy around the world, as we claim, these practices are counterproductive - even self-destructive. They violate the very principles under whose name they are advanced.

Any agency involved in such "1984"-esque information suppression - especially when it's so well publicized - can expect to be viewed as having little legitimacy. If that agency is also in charge of foreign affairs and the distribution of valid information on behalf of the United States abroad, it severely cripples the authority of the entire government.

Furthermore, it undermines domestic support. Many Americans are already beginning to tire of the super-secretive policies of the Bush administration. Adding a new element of deception to the mix won't do much to reverse this trend. After all, if our leaders are confirmed liars in certain spheres, what cause would we have for trusting them in others? How can we be sure that the same misinformation doesn't make its way into our own media?

This latest step by the administration is in the wrong direction. If it wishes to reassure allied nations abroad - as well as the citizens of this country - of its noble intentions, it should reconsider.


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