The Pentagon's office of special information

Published December 2, 2004 1:00AM (EST)

War room noted earlier today that there's talk in Washington about further restricting media access to battle zones in Iraq -- a prospect that seems even more worrisome in light of today's LA Times report that the U.S. military has been exploiting American media to disseminate misinformation to insurgents:

"On the evening of Oct. 14, a young Marine spokesman near Fallouja appeared on CNN and made a dramatic announcement. 'Troops crossed the line of departure,' 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert declared, using a common military expression signaling the start of a major campaign. 'It's going to be a long night.' CNN, which had been alerted to expect a major news development, reported that the long-awaited offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Fallouja had begun.

"In fact, the Fallouja offensive would not kick off for another three weeks. Gilbert's carefully worded announcement was an elaborate psychological operation -- or 'psy-op' -- intended to dupe insurgents in Fallouja and allow U.S. commanders to see how guerrillas would react if they believed U.S. troops were entering the city, according to several Pentagon officials."

According to the Times, the false start was just a small part of a much broader psy-op campaign, and reflected a new arrangement by the Pentagon to control the flow of information:

"One recent development critics point to is the decision by commanders in Iraq in mid-September to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations into a 'strategic communications' office. An organizational chart of the newly created office was obtained by The Times. The strategic communications office, which began operations Sept. 15, is run by Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, who answers directly to Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

"Partly out of concern about this new office, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distributed a letter Sept. 27 to the Joint Chiefs and U.S. combat commanders in the field warning of the dangers of having military public affairs (PA) too closely aligned with information operations (IO)."

If that sounds at all like the kind of consolidation of control of say, the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, then maybe it's no coincidence who's ultimately in charge: "The strategic communications programs at the Defense Department," the Times further notes, "are being coordinated by the office of the undersecretary of Defense for policy, Douglas J. Feith."

Winning the propaganda war in the Middle East is no doubt a key to success in Iraq, especially in light of the 24-hour news cycle and the influence of Arabic satellite TV stations, as advocates of the new policy point out. "Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it's never been before," one senior Bush administration official told the Times. "We'd be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage."

But critics of the new arrangement say that exploiting America's own news outlets to do so may take a toll on the military's reputation. "'The movement of information has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world,' one senior defense official said. 'What's at stake is the credibility of people in uniform.'"

"'Pretty soon, we're going to have the 5 o'clock follies all over again, and it will take us another 30 years to restore our credibility,' said a second senior Defense official, referring to the much-ridiculed daily media briefings in Saigon during the Vietnam War."

By Jeff Horwitz

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