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Published: Friday, 2/22/2002

The war of words

Truth, it is often said, is the first casualty of war. Thus it was no particular surprise that the Pentagon set up what amounts to a new propaganda office to swing public opinion around the globe in favor of the United States position in the war on terrorism.

And it's no surprise that once the covert plan was unmasked, top officials beat a hasty retreat. The government, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assures us with a straight face, does not and will not lie to the public.

The existence of the agency, the Office of Strategic Influence, was disclosed by the New York Times, which reported that officials intend to plant pro-U.S. news reports - some factual, some not - in foreign media.

The Times also reported that some Pentagon officials opposed the operation, since it might call into question the credibility of the military's own “information” officers, who daily brief the international news media on events in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

The doubters have a strong point. After all, propaganda - dissemination of ideas, information, or rumor to help or hurt an institution, cause, or person - is effective only when the recipient doesn't believe it's propaganda.

Propaganda is a war of words rather than bullets, and it has accompanied the shooting kind in virtually every conflict known to mankind. In wartime, propaganda can build morale in the homeland or sow discord and suspicion among the enemy.

But as President Bush keeps reminding us, the war on terrorism is unlike any fought before. Propaganda tactics that might have been used successfully against a particular country or cause - Nazi Germany or the old Soviet Union, for example - cannot be expected to work against a terrorist enemy without an army, one that is far less clear and definable.

More to the point, does a nation that prides itself on “truth, justice, and the American way” really need to employ disinformation in a world, bound together by an increasingly sophisticated web of instant communications, that is more likely to recognize and reject such ham-handed tactics? The answer, clearly, is no. Our actions, assuming they are honorable, should speak for themselves.

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