Pentagon plans to sway public opinion

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is working on a plan to influence public opinion in both hostile and friendly nations to help the war against terrorism -- a still-developing effort that critics say could spread false information at home and abroad.

The Office of Strategic Influence, set up after the Sept. 11 attacks, has come up with proposals including the placing of news items -- false if need be -- with foreign news organizations, a defense official said Tuesday.

The office is considering having an outside organization distribute the information so it would not be apparent it came from the Defense Department, the official said.

The Bush administration worries it is losing public support overseas, especially among Muslims who believe the United States is hostile toward Islam.

"This is a battle for minds," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday in a speech to defense contractors. "Our victory on the ground in Afghanistan has already changed substantially how this conflict is perceived, even in the Muslim world."

Wolfowitz did not comment on the proposed new campaign, and top U.S. officials have not yet approved it.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the department was aware of the Pentagon office but declined to discuss its functions.

Boucher said, "We provide accurate and truthful information."

The government has used covert tactics -- including disinformation -- to undermine foreign governments in the past. But those mostly have been super-secret CIA operations against enemies such as Iraq and Cuba.

Such covert action by the CIA requires presidential authority and cannot be conducted against Americans.

The military also has long conducted wartime "psychological operations" such as dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages, as it did when fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon plans would significantly broaden such information efforts.

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