was a pretty bad egg the Pentagon laid when word was spoken of a
projected Department of Disinformation. There is always a problem
when the need arises to speak of operations that presuppose an enemy
out there. There are structural ambiguities in what you say and
what you don't say when you are dealing with an enemy. The trouble
arises in dealings with Congress and the press, which are among
other things, instruments of mediation. The Pentagon (let us say)
lets word out that North Korea is developing a biological weapon.
Congress looks into the question, but some of the briefings done
for Congress are shrouded in secrecy, and Congress acknowledges
the need to maintain that secrecy. The press then comes into the
picture. The press is, for professional reasons, skeptical. Quite
rightly so, because history is larded with examples of government
deceit, intended to generate the desired reactions.
And of course,
North Korean forces get into the picture. That country, and countries
that are on the North Korean side of things perhaps for strategic
or cultural reasons, perhaps because they gravitate to anti-American
constructions deny the biological-weapon story, or construe
it as an attempt to cure measles. So what then flows down to the
citizen is a third or fourth version of what actually is going on
in North Korea.
likes concrete imagery, so when questioned on Thursday, he began
by describing the need for a Department of Defense agency that dealt
with public information. The first example he gave was the Taliban
description of food parcels being dropped by the U.S. Air Force
as containing a terrible poison. Well, obviously we had to use every
means possible of denying these charges.
But in that
example, of course, we were engaged in giving out word of the truth.
But then Mr. Rumsfeld eased over into matters of "strategic
and tactical deception." Suppose that our military mission
was coming in from the north. Isn't it obviously sensible, as when
we sent out disinformation in 1944 on the exact point in France
where our troops would land, that we should encourage the impression
that we were coming in from the east?
But, of course,
skepticism can become a way of life. It tends to reflect a critic's
operative assumptions. For decades, those who sympathized with the
socialist ideal were ready to believe claims by the Soviet Union
of economic achievements, claims that proved absolutely illusionary.
What is building is what one might call the let's-call-it-quits
element in the West. Those who are progressively opposed to direct
action against Iraq are influenced by several factors, one of them
a fear of nascent American imperialism, another, a fear of unilateralism;
still another, the sense that Saddam Hussein has paid sufficiently
for past transgressions.
From this camp,
we are hearing on the matter of strategic deception. Ms. Flora Lewis,
writing in the International Herald Tribune, says that "the
suggestion that reasons and facts can be invented if the real ones
aren't good enough is worrisome," which is indeed correct,
though Rumsfeld was saying something slightly different. And Ms.
Lewis goes on, ". . . increasingly insistent rumbles from Washington
make it sound as if in a few more weeks [we] will be at war with
Iraq. If so, a great deal of the reaction depends on how the violence
starts, and how the war is conducted. Not much bland tolerance can
be expected for some kind of elaborate scenario that would seek
to make it look as if Saddam Hussein shot first."
Does the Pentagon
have this in mind? What do you call it if the Pentagon advises that,
even in the absence of concrete evidence that Baghdad is developing
weapons of mass destruction, we should proceed on the assumption
that they are doing so?
Is that a strategic
deception? What do you call it if the commander in chief, informing
himself as fully as he can, decides that the strategic national
interest warrants going in to Baghdad? What is a legitimate length
to which he can describe what we think to be going on in Saddam
Hussein's Iraq that is concededly inflammatory in design?
Roosevelt thought it strategically wise to move the country in the
direction of war against the Nazis, accounts of the implications
of a German victory were encouraged. In 1986, we had accounts of
the mistreatment of babies in Libya, which proved unfounded. Former
DoD secretary Bill Cohen and General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded
the Gulf War campaign, have publicly protested any Pentagon effort
to spread disinformation.
But what is
the right word for focusing attention on credible threats? If a
United Nations agency decrees that neither North Korea, nor Iran,
nor Iraq are engaged in creating weapons of mass destruction, is
that an act of disinformation?