Issue 100, Winter 2005/2006
“We call our stuff information and the enemy’s propaganda.”
— Col. Jack N. Summe, U.S. PsyOps (NY Times, 12/11/2005)
Nearly a year has passed since news broke that the administration was paying television commentators to tout its policies on the air, and was distributing pre-packaged video segments designed to be indistinguishable from local news reports. Although the Government Accountability Office decried these practices as illegal “covert propaganda,” the Justice Department has instructed those responsible to ignore the GAO’s opinion, because it is “nonbinding.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that the government is engaged in similar activities overseas. Although it has emphasized the need to cultivate “transparency between government and public” (in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld)1, gathering evidence suggests that the administration is making a concerted effort to subvert the free transmission of ideas and information, both in and from Iraq.
A few months ago, The New York Times exposed a program to surreptitiously place “good news” stories2, generated by the U.S. military, in the Iraqi press. The little that we know suggests an operation of enormous scope: one of three firms hired by the Pentagon, the Lincoln Group3, has received over $100 million for some 20 contracts, and has placed more than 1,000 stories in the “independent” Iraqi media.
Our government is prohibited from targeting the American public with “psychological operations.” However, a newly declassified Pentagon document (the Information Operations Roadmap) notes that the lines are easily blurred, acknowledging that “information intended for foreign audiences … increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa.”
The big picture includes not only “fake news,” but also very real threats to those who would tell the truth as they see it. In November, two British officials alleged that President Bush had proposed bombing Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar. The White House called the charges “outlandish and inconceivable,” but declined to release a transcript that might rebut them./update/the-long-and-the-short-of-it-cn-74/ The individuals who revealed the statements are now on trial for violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
The allegations don’t seem so “outlandish” considering the fact that U.S. forces previously bombed the station’s Kabul and Baghdad offices, and have detained an Al-Jazeera cameraman at Guantánamo Bay since 2001./update/the-long-and-the-short-of-it-cn-75/
These are not just isolated incidents: the Committee to Protect Journalists has announced that the U.S. is the world’s 6th leading jailer of journalists. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq has surpassed all other conflicts as the deadliest for journalists in history.
Every armed conflict brings a concomitant “war of ideas,” and the U.S. has every right to defend its actions to the world. However, there is a vast difference between “spin” to cast conduct in a favorable light, and deceptive propaganda and threats of violence, which contradict the very values we claim to be defending.
War raises grave questions of national purpose that deserve sober, informed debate. Yet dissent and discussion have never seemed so imperiled, nor the facts so elusive. Because these examples are hardly comprehensive, we have collected reports of incidents and information on government accountability, free speech, dissent, and press freedoms, in a section called “War & Speech.”
1 — Donald Rumsfeld, “War of the Words” in The Wall Street Journal, 7/18/2005.
2 — Jeff Gerth, “Military’s Information War is Vast and Often Secretive” in The New York Times, 12/11/2005.
3 — Charles R. Babcock, “Young Firm Finds a Bonanza in Middle East” in The Washington Post, 12/23/2005.
4 — Kevin Maguire and Andy Lines, “Bush Plot to Bomb His Arab Ally” in The Mirror, U.K., 11/22/2005.
5 — Juan Cole, “Did Bush Plan to Bomb Al-Jazeera” in Salon.com, 11/30/2005.
If you have questions about this story, please consult our collection of free speech materials relating to the Iraq war in War & Speech, or email [email protected].