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Pentagon may plant fake news

Plan part of battle for public opinion in Muslim world

February 20, 2002


WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is working on a plan to influence public opinion in hostile and friendly nations to help the war against terrorism -- a still-developing effort that some say could spread false information at home and abroad.

The Office of Strategic Influence, set up after the Sept. 11 attacks, has proposed placing news items -- false if need be -- with foreign news organizations, a defense official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

The office is considering having an outside organization distribute the information so it would not be apparent that it came from the Defense Department, the official said.

The Bush administration worries it is losing public support overseas, especially among Muslims who believe the United States is hostile toward Islam.

"This is a battle for minds," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday in a speech to defense contractors. "Our victory on the ground in Afghanistan has already changed substantially how this conflict is perceived, even in the Muslim world."

Wolfowitz did not comment on the proposed campaign, and top U.S. officials have not yet approved it.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the department is aware of the Pentagon office but declined to discuss its functions. Asked about State Department policy, Boucher said, "We provide accurate and truthful information."

The government has used covert tactics -- including disinformation -- to undermine foreign governments in the past. But most have been super-secret CIA operations against Iraq and Cuba. Such covert action by the CIA requires presidential authority and cannot be conducted against Americans.

The military also has long conducted wartime psychological operations such as dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages, as it did when fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon plans, if approved, would significantly broaden such information efforts.

Critics immediately said they worried that any campaign including lies would not only undermine U.S. credibility overseas, but circle back and dupe Americans.

"Anything they spread overseas will come back here, because information travels so quickly. Our own population will then hear it and believe it," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast specialist at the Brookings Institution. "It will affect our decisions, and I see that as a tremendous danger."

Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said he understands a desire to throw enemies off, but he added, "Lies have a nasty way of being found out."

At the Pentagon, some officials said privately that they worried any such campaign could hurt the credibility of military offices that provide information to reporters.

Since Sept. 11, the State Department has begun an aggressive effort to promote American viewpoints and policies overseas. And the White House has set up a so-called war room to quickly respond to allegations overseas.