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Pentagon rethinks news, spin efforts

The top general in Iraq seeks to pierce the wall between public affairs and its attempts to sway foreign populations.

April 18, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Since the end of the Vietnam war, the military's public affairs officials have tried to rebuild the Defense Department's credibility by putting distance between themselves and Pentagon efforts that use deception, propaganda and other methods to influence foreign populations.

A 2004 memo by Gen. Richard B. Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, codified the separation between public affairs, which communicates with the press and public, and "information operations," which attempts to sway people in other countries.

But Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has asked for changes that would allow the two branches to work more closely. His request has unleashed a debate inside the Pentagon between those who say the separation has made the Defense Department less agile and those who believe that restructuring the relationship would threaten to turn military spokesmen into propaganda tools.

A senior military officer close to Petraeus said the memo now in place prevents coordination between the information operations officers and public affairs officers.

"The way it is written it puts a firewall between information operations and public affairs," the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the internal debate. "You shut down things that need to be done."

Petraeus, who is considered adept at handling the American media, asked in mid-March that the 2004 memo be rescinded or revised. A Defense official said Tuesday that Myers' memo would not be revoked, but that the Pentagon would begin work on a new policy outlining the relationship and interaction between information operations and public affairs.

Pentagon officials have told Petraeus' aides that while the new policy is being developed, they should not interpret Myers' memo as a prohibition against coordination between public affairs and information operations.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon's top military planning group, considered a new version of the memo that would have stripped much of Myers' language on the need to keep the two functions separate. Instead, the proposed rules would have stressed the need for coordination.

"Conflicting efforts could impede operational success," the proposed new wording warned, emphasizing the need for the two branches to "be aware of each other's activities."

Although the proposed guidelines will not take the place of the 2004 memo, they could form the basis of a new policy. However, such policies typically take months to develop because they must be widely reviewed and vetted within the military.

During the Vietnam war, military press conferences were derided as the "5 o'clock follies" because of misleading or irrelevant information provided to the press. Since then, Army public affairs officers adopted new practices that disavowed the use of misleading or deceptive information.

The military instituted its formal information operations effort in the 1990s, bringing together an array of activities, including deception, psychological operations and electronic warfare.

The changes proposed by Petraeus have reignited a wider debate within the Pentagon over the use of information during the Iraq war.

In one highly controversial information operations undertaking, the U.S. military used the Lincoln Group, a Washington defense contractor, to pay Iraqi editors to publish articles casting the American military in a favorable light. Although the articles, written by American troops, were truthful, some public affairs officers criticized the practice after it was revealed in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 because it appeared as though the military was peddling propaganda to journalists.

Nonetheless, some officers believe the Iraq war has demonstrated the problems of failing to aggressively manage information. They note that during World War II, nearly all information from the war theater was censored. Other officers believe that any substantive changes would erode the military's credibility and consider it naive to think the U.S. public would tolerate 1940s-style censorship.

Advocates of lowering the wall between public affairs and information operations point to one missed opportunity last month. Army Major Gen. Michael D. Barbero revealed at a Pentagon news conference that insurgents had placed two children in the backseat of a car laden with bombs as a decoy to get past a military checkpoint. Once through, the bombers tripped the explosives, killing the children and three bystanders.

The grisly incident was widely reported. But some officers believe the story would have had greater impact if released in a more dramatized way to underscore the insurgents' barbarism.

Those who favor more aggressive information management believe public affairs officials should work for information operations offices.

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