Read Ed Offley's insightful commentary on this wrong-headed, "Stranglove" paradigm of a Public Relations fiasco. Has anybody seen Captain "Bats" Guano lately?
--Bob McMahon, President, SFTT, rlmcmahon@military.com

Defense Dept. Divided Over Propaganda Plan

By Thomas E. Ricks

A Pentagon plan that would involve the U.S. military in overseas propaganda efforts has divided the Defense Department, officials said yesterday.

At the center of the controversy is a new Office of Strategic Influence, created in recent months to more directly influence foreign public opinion about U.S. military operations. Just what the new office will do remains unclear, and its tentative plans have not been approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said one Pentagon official. "There are some proposals, suggestions and ideas being talked about," he said.

But the official said that even those initial discussions have sparked widespread concern inside the Defense Department among officials who feel that the new office, by seeking to manipulate information and even knowingly dispense false information, could backfire and discredit official Pentagon statements.

Military public affairs officials have expressed concern to top officials that the new office, if it continues on its proposed course, will blur the distinction between intelligence operations and public relations operations, one defense official said. "You could get guys from the black world dealing with issues like what to tell kids in Pakistan," said another official.

But there also is concern in the military that the field of "information operations" is one of the few areas in which the armed forces have had major problems during the Afghan war.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, singled out that area for unusual public criticism. "One area in particular I think we've been slow to get going has been our information operations campaign," he said in November. "Despite our best efforts, we took too much time to put together the team, if you will." The result, he said, was that, "occasionally, we missed the opportunity to send the right message."

Myers did not elaborate on those missed opportunities, but others in the Air Force were surprised that the media placed so much emphasis on civilian casualties caused by bombing mistakes. The military was especially surprised by that emphasis because Air Force planners believed that they were operating under unprecedented constraints designed to minimize civilian injuries. They complained to top commanders that, because of those limits, they frequently missed hitting al Qaeda leaders, especially in the first three weeks of the Afghan campaign, which began on Oct. 7.

The dissension at the Pentagon over the new information effort, which was first reported in yesterday's New York Times, focuses on the intention of some officials to operate in peacetime as well as wartime. The military has long tried to influence public opinion in countries at war under the title of "psychological operations." But the new office apparently plans to extend such operations into nations in which the United States is not a combatant.

The division at the Pentagon over the plan is only the latest manifestation of a long-running battle inside the military between public affairs officials and the new community of "information warriors," said retired Col. Virginia Pribyla, a former head of the Air Force's press desk. "Information war" has been a major growth area in the military over the past decade, said Pribyla. "The problem is they don't see anything wrong with not telling the truth," she said.

An additional concern of public affairs officials is that those involved in the new effort do not have backgrounds that give them expertise in shaping public opinion. Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden, the head of the Office of Strategic Influence, is an astrophysicist who has worked extensively in space operations and missile defense.

Worden in turn reports to Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, a lawyer whose background is in Middle Eastern affairs and strategic arms control. Through a spokesmen, Feith declined to be interviewed for this article.

Worden's office also coordinates its work with retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who has been overseeing the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism on the National Security Council. Downing is a former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

But others said that the public affairs officers are overreacting. "I don't see the great, nefarious plot in this office [of Strategic Influence] that some people do," said Dan Kuehl, a specialist in information warfare at the National Defense University. "It just makes common sense" to use the power of information, he said.