The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism: `We Actually Put out a False Message to Mislead People.' (Coverage of Terrorism)

By Beelman, Maud S. | Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism: `We Actually Put out a False Message to Mislead People.' (Coverage of Terrorism)


Beelman, Maud S., Nieman Reports


"In wartime," Winston Churchill once said, "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld evoked Churchill's words when asked for assurances that neither he nor his lieutenants would lie to the media as the United States pursued the war on terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan. Though Rumsfeld quickly added that he could not envision a situation in which lying would be necessary, this is indeed a "different kind of war," and the always-present risk of disinformation is heightened precisely because of that.

For reporters covering this war, the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield--a long and mostly losing struggle in the past--but in discerning between information and disinformation. That is made all the more difficult by a 24-hour news cycle, advanced technology, and the military's growing fondness for a discipline it calls "Information Operations." IO, as it is known, groups together information functions ranging from public affairs (PA, the military spokespersons corps) to military deception and psychological operations, or PSYOP. What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.

At the core of a civilian-controlled military and a free press, these blurred roles are fueling an intense debate within the uniformed ranks. "It's one of the biggest issues now that has to be resolved," said one military spokesman. "The reason public affairs has been so successful is because reporters trust us. You destroy our credibility and you take away our usefulness."

"The idea was the battlefield can be shaped by information, so it's necessary to conduct robust information operations in support of the battlefield," said another military official familiar with the IO doctrine. The problem, he added, is that "everyone has a different idea of what it means.... We have created a sort of a monster."

In August 1996, the U.S. Army issued field manual 100-6, outlining its vision of Information Operations. "Information and the knowledge that flows from it empower soldiers and their leaders. When transformed into capabilities, information is the currency of victory," the manual said. It noted that "the Army has shown considerable strength in applying both PSYOP and deception to military operations," adding that "PSYOP elements must work closely with other [command and control warfare] elements and PA strategists to maximize the advantage of IO." The manual stated that IO "does not sanction in any way actions intended to mislead or manipulate media coverage of military operations." But that risk is precisely what worries those familiar with this doctrine.

In peacetime, public affairs and PSYOP both deal in the truth, military spokesmen insist. "There is no black information," the military official said, referring to deception. "But in a war situation, it's different." In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, Pentagon officials leaked word that a U.S. aircraft carrier would be delayed in departing for the Persian Gulf. In reality, it headed to the region immediately.

"We actually put out a false message to mislead people," Jay Coupe, former spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained to The Washington Post in a September 24 article. "The idea was not to give information about the movement of our carrier. We were trying to confuse people." In a letter to the editor four days later, Coupe sought to clarify that "no public affairs personnel were involved in the message's preparation or release. It was a strictly internal message put out within military operational circles with the expectation that it might be leaked. …

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