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The Military's New War of Words

November 24, 2002|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — It was California's own Hiram Johnson who said, in a speech on the Senate floor in 1917, that "the first casualty, when war comes, is truth."

What would he make of the Bush administration?

In a policy shift that reaches across all the armed services, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his senior aides are revising missions and creating new agencies to make "information warfare" a central element of any U.S. war. Some hope it will eventually rank with bombs and artillery shells as an instrument of destruction.

What is disturbing about Rumsfeld's vision of information warfare is that it has a way of folding together two kinds of wartime activity involving communications that have traditionally been separated by a firewall of principle.

The first is purely military. It includes attacks on the radar, communications and other "information systems" an enemy depends on to guide its war-making capabilities. This category also includes traditional psychological warfare, such as dropping leaflets or broadcasting propaganda to enemy troops.

The second is not directly military. It is the dissemination of public information that the American people need in order to understand what is happening in a war, and to decide what they think about it. This information is supposed to be true.

Increasingly, the administration's new policy -- along with the steps senior commanders are taking to implement it -- blurs or even erases the boundaries between factual information and news, on the one hand, and public relations, propaganda and psychological warfare, on the other. And, while the policy ostensibly targets foreign enemies, its most likely victim will be the American electorate.

One of Rumsfeld's first steps into this minefield occurred last year with the creation of the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence. Part of its stated mission was to generate disinformation and propaganda that would help the United States counter Islamic extremists and pursue the war on terrorism.

The office's nominal target was the foreign media, especially in the Middle East and Asia. As critics soon pointed out, however, there was no way -- in an age of instant global communications -- that Washington could propagandize abroad without that same propaganda spreading to the home front.

Faced with a public outcry, Rumsfeld declared it had all been a big misunderstanding. The Pentagon would never lie to Americans. The Office of Strategic Influence was shut down. But the impulse to control public information and bend it to the service of government objectives did not go away.

This fall, Rumsfeld created a new position of deputy undersecretary for "special plans," a euphemism for deception operations. The special plans policy czar will sit atop a huge new infrastructure being created in the name of information warfare.

On Oct. 1, in a little-noticed but major reorganization, U.S. Strategic Command took over all responsibilities for global information attacks. The Omaha-based successor to the Strategic Air Command has solely focused up to now on nuclear weapons.

Similarly, the country's most venerable and historic bombing command, the 8th Air Force, which carried the air war to Germany in World War II, has been directed to transfer its bomber and fighter aircraft to other commands so that it can focus exclusively on worldwide information attacks.

The Navy, meanwhile, has consolidated its efforts in a newly formed Naval Network Warfare Command. And the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, or JSCP, prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now declares information to be just as important in war as diplomatic, military or economic factors.

The strategic capabilities plan is the central war-fighting directive for the U.S. military. It establishes what are called "Informational Flexible Deterrent Options" for global wars, such as the war on terrorism, and separate plans written for individual theaters of war, such as Iraq.

To a large extent, these documents and the organizational shifts behind them are focused on such missions as jamming or deceiving enemy radar systems and disrupting command and control networks. Such activities only carry forward efforts that have been part of U.S. military tactics for decades or longer.

But a summary of the strategic capabilities plan and a raft of other Pentagon and armed forces documents made available to The Times make it clear that the new approach now includes other elements as well: the management of public information, efforts to control news media sources and manipulation of public opinion.

The plan summary, for instance, talks of "strategic" deception and "influence operations" as basic tools in future wars. According to another Defense Department directive on information warfare policy, military leaders should use information "operations" to "heighten public awareness; promote national and coalition policies, aims, and objectives ... [and] counter adversary propaganda and disinformation in the news."

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