The Office of Strategic Influence went from obscurity to infamy to oblivion during a spin cycle that lasted just seven days in late February. Coming to terms with a week of negative coverage after news broke that the Pentagon office might purposely deceive foreign media, a somber defense secretary announced: “It is being closed down.” But for Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues along the Potomac, the inky cloud of bad publicity has a big silver lining.
Orders to shut the controversial office came a day after President Bush proclaimed zero tolerance for lies from U.S. officials. “We’ll tell the American people the truth,” he vowed.
Would the Defense Department try to deceive journalists? The question in the air was distasteful, and the answer from Rumsfeld could only offer comfort: “This is something the Pentagon has not done, is not doing and would not condone.”
A retired Air Force general was likewise reassuring when the Office of Strategic Influence crashed and burned. “I’m absolutely convinced that in no way would top officials of the administration ever have approved lying to the media,” said Donald Shepperd, who now works as a CNN military analyst.
After Rumsfeld ceremoniously disbanded the office, amid profuse pledges of veracity, Newsday columnist Ellis Henican astutely observed: “But don’t worry, Rumsfeld’s people were whispering yesterday around the Pentagon. They’ll keep on spreading whatever stories they think they have to — to foreigners especially. Call it the free flow of misinformation. Who needs a formal office for that?”
The whole brouhaha must have caused quite a few laughs in high places behind the Pentagon’s thick walls.
In American news outlets, some of the attacks on the Office of Strategic Influence actually reinforced the notion that the U.S. government has no rational motive for hiding truth, since its real endeavors can proudly stand the light of day. It’s an easy misconception that would hardly displease the propagandists who concocted the Office of Strategic Influence in the first place.
At the end of a tough New York Times piece, titled “Office of Strategic Mendacity,” columnist Maureen Dowd applied an oily salve to the PR wounds she’d just inflicted. “Our cause is just,” she concluded. “So why not just tell the truth?”
Why not just tell the truth? Because — whether the issue is support for human-rights abusers or civilian deaths courtesy of U.S. taxpayers — “the truth” would often indicate that the Pentagon’s cause is not just. That’s why not.
As soon as Rumsfeld declared the Office of Strategic Influence to be null and void, some public-relations dividends began to flow. The Chicago Tribune quoted Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, generously praising officials at the Pentagon: “This is good news for the public. Now we can have more confidence that what they’re telling us is true.”
But anyone would be ill-advised to have “confidence” in the truthfulness of Pentagon pronouncements — or to trust that officials aren’t hiding key facts with the simple strategy of withholding information. As a practical matter, the most effective whoppers — “the greatest triumphs of propaganda,” in the words of Aldous Huxley — are told by maintaining “silence about truth.”
Four centuries ago, the French cardinal and statesman Richelieu wrote that concealing true intentions “is the art of kings.” (“Savoir dissimuler est le savoir des rois.”) For kings and presidents, the illusion of credibility is crucial. Manipulative successes hinge on deference from courtiers and scribes; reporters and pundits.
To a significant extent, the uproar over the Office of Strategic Influence could end up leaving the impression that the Pentagon has a policy of being truthful with journalists. If so, other institutions eager to repair their images might consider setting the stage for similar damage-control moves.
For instance, if a staffer at Philip Morris leaked a memo proposing to deliberately target teenagers with cigarette advertisements, the president of the firm could then call a news conference to explain that he’s shocked — shocked! — that anyone would suggest such a thing.
With luck, some news accounts would portray nipping the formal proposal in the bud as an indication of resolute integrity. Meanwhile, young people would remain in the cross hairs of countless cigarette ads.
Such tactics can only succeed, of course, to the extent that journalists are gullible — or believe that they must pretend to be — while encouraging the public to go along with the charade.
Hey, whatever works.