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Disinformation, Disunity: 'Gumshoes' Seek a Leaker

October 12, 1986|Richard B. Staus | Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist, is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — The hunt is on. The explosive revelation that the Reagan Administration in August undertook a "disinformation" campaign in order to unnerve Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi has produced a search for culprits, resulted in the resignation of State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb and caused the bureaucracy to run for cover.

The FBI is expected to conduct an investigation into who leaked the contents of a sensitive National Security Council document outlining the disinformation campaign. The search will initially focus on the White House, since distribution of the memorandum was strictly limited. "Few people got to see it," said one White House staffer who sounded happy he did not. "My boss got his in a sealed envelope."

Disinformation is not commonly found in English dictionaries or used by U.S. officials--for good reason. It comes from the Russian dezinformatsiya and is supposed to be associated with Soviet efforts to spread false information for political gain. Kalb's resignation was tied to this point. But the principle behind his action is being overshadowed by the way he did it, with a final press conference and subsequent television appearances. One key State Department official went so far as to say that Kalb was "not a player, and hadn't been for some time."

White House officials must now certainly regret that the NSC ever wrote down the word disinformation. As one U.S. intelligence expert explains, "Professionals don't use the word. There are euphemisms." But the word did appear in a memorandum signed by a professional--National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter. "It was used carelessly," admitted one White House aide. "Drafted by some idiot," said another.

Poindexter, who shoulders most of the responsibility for the flap, is, as usual, saying nothing to the press. Other Administration officials are, however, not so reticent. "It is amateur hour at the NSC," said one State Department official. "Those folks over there think the world's a stage to act out their childhood fantasies." This official predicts there will be "a sacrificial lamb" produced at the NSC, just as previous leaks resulted in dismissals at the State Department (Spenser C. Warren) and the Defense Department (Michael E. Pillsbury).

The leading candidate at the moment appears to be Howard R. Teicher, director of politico-military affairs at the NSC. Teischer, unlike other unnamed officials, admitted to speaking to the press about the anti-Kadafi campaign in August. Specifically he "backgrounded" a Wall Street Journal reporter.

It was the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 25 that first broke the story that the United States and Libya were on a "collision course." But in so doing, the Journal became an unwitting participant in Administration plans to unsettle Kadafi, not crash into him.

While Teischer and his colleagues did not try to disabuse the Journal of its dubious scoop, they contend it was the reporters, not they, who hyped the story. In fact, Administration officials say that much of the Journal's initial information came from Egyptian and Libyan exile sources in Cairo.

Teischer, in particular, seems to have gotten a bum rap. He neither sought out the Wall Street Journal nor subsequently spoke to the Washington Post, which broke the disinformation story. A low-key professional, he is, at 32, already a 10-year veteran of national-security posts. A protegee of former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, he frequently participated in diplomatic shuttles to the Middle East, including one in October, 1983, when he was in the Marine barracks outside Beirut just hours before the terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines. Not surprisingly, Teischer sees himself unfairly caught up in bureaucratic and media infighting.

Somewhat more plausibly, Teischer and other hard-liners at the NSC also argue that they had little to gain by exposing Administration plans. Instead, they point the finger at Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency officials who, they say, have long opposed their get-tough-with-Libya approach.

It is clear that officials at these agencies harbor grave doubts about the wisdom of the Administration's Libya policy. The Pentagon has repeatedly resisted efforts to engage Libya militarily. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger time and again has warned of the risks of undermining Arab moderate regimes by forcing them to choose between the United States and a fellow Arab--even an unpopular radical like Kadafi.

Concerns raised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff harken back to Vietnam, as they continue to worry about a loss of popular support for the military because of controversial military actions. Even more parochially, the chiefs are caught up in a web of interservice rivalries, as various senior officers resist efforts to deploy and engage unconventional anti-terrorist forces, terrorist units like the Delta Force.

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