Jewish World Review March 1, 2002 / 17 Adar, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Pentagon's idea of lying to media was breathtaking' in its stupidity -- YOU'VE got to give the folks in the Bush administration credit. At the very least, they know enough to get out while the gettin's good.

Which is why the Office of Strategic Influence is now just a bad memory, the announcement that it was closing up shop coming on Tuesday. The OSI, a division of the Defense Department, first came to light just last week. It was the subject of a New York Times story in which military officials floated a bizarre new initiative. I use the word "floated" advisedly. The fact is, the idea lofted about as well as a Winnebago.

It seems the OSI reportedly planned to engage in so-called "information warfare," which is a fancy way of saying the Pentagon was going to disseminate false information - to lie, as a means of promoting American interests. Said lies would have been fed to foreign journalists for the consumption of foreign audiences - both enemies and allies.

When the news broke, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld backpedaled like Michael Jackson, vowing that the military would tell the truth and nothing but. Meanwhile, aides to the president were said to be furious at the whole thing.

As well they should be. The idea was breathtaking in its stupidity.

I'm not so naive as to believe no one has ever lied while standing behind a podium bearing a government seal. Nor am I unaware that misinformation is a legitimate covert tool in wartime.

But what was proposed here was a qualitatively different thing. Not some isolated act of tactical deception or some government spokesperson speaking with forked tongue in a press conference. Rather, it was the prospect of lies, plain and simple, being told as a matter of the official, ongoing policy of a department of the United States government.

Granted, they were "only" planning to misinform foreign audiences, but that's scant comfort. If you're willing to sanction lying to The Times of London, I have to believe you'll soon do the same to The Times of Los Angeles, The Herald of Miami or The Free Press of Detroit.

It's a lousy idea. Once you begin lying to a few people, you shred your credibility with all people. And it's not like the government has any credibility to spare.

Heck, none of us does. Over the past 30 years, a nation weaned on Watergate, the "X-Files" and the Lewinsky scandal has come to the conclusion that nothing can be trusted, least of all anything resembling an institution or other "official" source. That is, at least in part, the reason for the lure of the Internet: It's largely unregulated and wholly unfiltered. In cyberspace, all information is created equal.

Never mind that many of the "Net's so-called alternative news sources are gossip mills and rumor factories whose reliability compares unfavorably with that of the Acme company so faithfully patronized by Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons. They still enjoy that one advantage: They are neither media nor government. In the paradoxical calculus of the new age, that renders them more trustworthy. The easily gulled fancy themselves savvy, believe that now they're getting the "real" story government doesn't want them to know and corporate-controlled media hacks are too timid to print.

So that suddenly there's a world full of people ready to believe that the government is preparing to tax e-mail or that black voting rights will be outlawed in just a few years. Why not? They read it somewhere on the Internet, didn't they? That's the kind of real news you'll never get from a Capitol Hill press release or read in your so-called New York Times.


Media have their own sins of credibility to answer for. As for government, I'm glad the OSI's idea was shot down, but troubled that it got as far as it did. There's an old saying: When you realize you're in a hole, stop digging. A corollary might be: When you realize your credibility is shot, stop misinforming.

I'd have figured this was self-evident. I guess it isn't.

Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war. Apparently, common sense is the second.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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