The Military’s New War of Words
It was California’s own Hiram Johnson who said, in a speech on the Senate floor in 1917, that “the first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”
What would he make of the Bush administration?
In a policy shift that reaches across all the armed services, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his senior aides are revising missions and creating new agencies to make “information warfare” a central element of any U.S. war. Some hope it will eventually rank with bombs and artillery shells as an instrument of destruction.
What is disturbing about Rumsfeld’s vision of information warfare is that it has a way of folding together two kinds of wartime activity involving communications that have traditionally been separated by a firewall of principle.
The first is purely military. It includes attacks on the radar, communications and other “information systems” an enemy depends on to guide its war-making capabilities. This category also includes traditional psychological warfare, such as dropping leaflets or broadcasting propaganda to enemy troops.
The second is not directly military. It is the dissemination of public information that the American people need in order to understand what is happening in a war, and to decide what they think about it. This information is supposed to be true.
Increasingly, the administration’s new policy -- along with the steps senior commanders are taking to implement it -- blurs or even erases the boundaries between factual information and news, on the one hand, and public relations, propaganda and psychological warfare, on the other. And, while the policy ostensibly targets foreign enemies, its most likely victim will be the American electorate.
One of Rumsfeld’s first steps into this minefield occurred last year with the creation of the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence. Part of its stated mission was to generate disinformation and propaganda that would help the United States counter Islamic extremists and pursue the war on terrorism.
The office’s nominal target was the foreign media, especially in the Middle East and Asia. As critics soon pointed out, however, there was no way -- in an age of instant global communications -- that Washington could propagandize abroad without that same propaganda spreading to the home front.
Faced with a public outcry, Rumsfeld declared it had all been a big misunderstanding. The Pentagon would never lie to Americans. The Office of Strategic Influence was shut down. But the impulse to control public information and bend it to the service of government objectives did not go away.
This fall, Rumsfeld created a new position of deputy undersecretary for “special plans,” a euphemism for deception operations. The special plans policy czar will sit atop a huge new infrastructure being created in the name of information warfare.
On Oct. 1, in a little-noticed but major reorganization, U.S. Strategic Command took over all responsibilities for global information attacks. The Omaha-based successor to the Strategic Air Command has solely focused up to now on nuclear weapons.
Similarly, the country’s most venerable and historic bombing command, the 8th Air Force, which carried the air war to Germany in World War II, has been directed to transfer its bomber and fighter aircraft to other commands so that it can focus exclusively on worldwide information attacks.
The Navy, meanwhile, has consolidated its efforts in a newly formed Naval Network Warfare Command. And the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, or JSCP, prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now declares information to be just as important in war as diplomatic, military or economic factors.
The strategic capabilities plan is the central war-fighting directive for the U.S. military. It establishes what are called “Informational Flexible Deterrent Options” for global wars, such as the war on terrorism, and separate plans written for individual theaters of war, such as Iraq.
To a large extent, these documents and the organizational shifts behind them are focused on such missions as jamming or deceiving enemy radar systems and disrupting command and control networks. Such activities only carry forward efforts that have been part of U.S. military tactics for decades or longer.
But a summary of the strategic capabilities plan and a raft of other Pentagon and armed forces documents made available to The Times make it clear that the new approach now includes other elements as well: the management of public information, efforts to control news media sources and manipulation of public opinion.
The plan summary, for instance, talks of “strategic” deception and “influence operations” as basic tools in future wars. According to another Defense Department directive on information warfare policy, military leaders should use information “operations” to “heighten public awareness; promote national and coalition policies, aims, and objectives ... [and] counter adversary propaganda and disinformation in the news.”
Both the Air Force and the Navy now list deception as one of five missions for information warfare, along with electronic attack, electronic protection, psychological . attacks and public affairs. A September draft of a new Air Force policy describes information warfare’s goals as “destruction, degradation, denial, disruption, deceit, and exploitation.” These goals are referred to collectively as “D5E.”
In order to do a better job of deception, the joint chiefs have issued a “Joint Policy for Military Deception” that directs the individual services to work on the task in peacetime as well as wartime. Specifically, it orders the Air Force to develop better doctrine and techniques for incorporating deception into war plans.
The Air Force, in response, now defines military deception as action that “misleads adversaries, causing them to act in accordance with” U.S. objectives. And, like the other services, it is increasingly folding its “public affairs” apparatus -- that is, the open world of media relations -- into the information warfare team.
“Gaining and maintaining the information initiative in a conflict can be a powerful weapon to defeat propaganda,” the Air Force said in its January doctrine.
That echoes a statement by Navy Rear Adm. John Cryer III, who worked on information warfare in the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia during the Afghanistan war: “It was our belief ... we were losing the information war early when we watched Al Jazeera,” Cryer said at an October conference, meaning that the U.S. perspective was inadequately represented on the Arab world’s equivalent of CNN. “We came around, but it took a lot longer than it should have.”
Of course there is nothing wrong with making sure the U.S. point of view gets represented in the news media, both abroad and at home. Done properly, that is a prescription for more openness and less unnecessary secrecy.
The problem is that Rumsfeld’s vision of information warfare seems to push beyond the notion that American ideas and information should compete with the enemy’s on a level playing field. And Rumsfeld’s vision, with its melding of public information and deception, is taking root in the armed services.
The new Air Force doctrine, for example, declares that the news media can be used not only to convey “the leadership’s concern with [an] issue,” but also to avoid “the media going to other sources [such as an adversary or critic of U.S. policy] for information.” In other words, information warfare now includes controlling as much as possible what the American public sees and reads.
The disinformation campaign being constructed goes against even the military’s own stated mission. Truthfulness, the Air Force says, is a key to defeating adversaries. Accordingly, the service branch adds, “U.S. and friendly forces must strive to become the favored source of information.”
The potential for mischief is magnified by the fact that so much of what the U.S. military does these days falls into the category of covert operations. Americans are now operating out of secret bases in places like Uzbekistan and the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq; Special Forces units are said to be inside western Iraq as well. In the meantime, the armed forces are making use of facilities in the Arab states along the Persian Gulf.
In all these cases and more, the U.S. and other western news media depend on the military for information. Since reporters cannot travel into parts of Iraq and other places in the region without military escort, what they report is generally what they’ve been told.
And when the information that military officers provide to the public is part of a process that generates propaganda and places a high value on deceit, deception and denial, then truth is indeed likely to be high on the casualty list.
That is bad news for the American public. In the end, it may be even worse news for the Bush administration -- and for a U.S. military that has spent more than 25 years climbing out of the credibility trap called Vietnam.