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It’s propaganda time

Date: December 2, 2005

Critics of the Iraq war are outraged over the revelation that the U.S. military has been paying millions of dollars to plant pro-American, Pentagon-written propaganda articles in Iraqi newspapers and to buy off Iraqi journalists with monthly stipends.

But in my opinion, it's about time. Information is a critical part of any war, and the U.S. has for too long — to its own detriment — ignored this powerful and essential tool, a tool especially well-suited to the globalized Information Age. Even third-rate countries routinely use information and disinformation as an instrument of foreign policy, often against the United States. The U.S., in turn, cannot win the war of ideas by speaking softly or keeping its mouth shut. But we have been doing just that.

The United States Information Agency, the only open, global information organization run by the U.S. government, was abolished in 1999, supposedly because it served no purpose in the post-Cold War world. It has not been replaced. U.S.-sponsored entities such as Radio and TV Marti (which broadcast to Cuba) and Al Hurra, the U.S. television station broadcasting to the Arabs, have proven ineffective.

We need to be using all the means available in the war of ideas: public diplomacy, psychological operations, influence agents, disinformation and computer information warfare — from open and overt to clandestine and covert, from public explanation of policy to secret subversion of enemies. All of these must be well-orchestrated.

Our current situation is quite a turnaround from the Cold War years. In 1953, the CIA's celebrated Cold War information and disinformation arm — centered in the "Mighty Wurlitzer" propaganda offices of OSS veteran Frank Wisner — was an enormous operation, with thousands of employees adept at planting press and radio stories, engaging with labor unions, applying economic pressure, offering direct monetary payments and waging political and cultural warfare in an all-out effort to prevent European countries from falling to the communists.

According to a 1977 New York Times investigative series, the CIA owned or subsidized, at various times, more than 50 newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals and other communications facilities, most of them overseas. In some cases, these were used for propaganda efforts; in other cases, they served as covers for other operations.

Paid CIA agents infiltrated a dozen more foreign news organizations, and at least 22 U.S. news organizations employed American journalists who were also working for the CIA. Nearly a dozen U.S. publishing houses printed some of the more than 1,000 books that had been produced or subsidized by the CIA.

Today, this kind of effort has ended, and it is now unimaginable. Few American officials know how to play this game, and fewer would risk doing so. The left has argued that this shouldn't be done — that it's unethical, it's dishonest, it's a violation of journalistic standards. Our use of information today is insufficient, limited to disjointed efforts: the State Department's passive, reactive and defensive public diplomacy; the Defense Department's tactical, battlefield psychological operations; and the CIA's limited covert influence operations.

Examples abound. The State Department only seldom (and belatedly) has provided Arabic-speaking interviewees to refute stories on Al Jazeera. The CIA never did establish a clandestine radio station to propagandize against the Iranian mullahs.

Each of the few weak, unconnected information efforts has been undertaken episodically, coordinated haphazardly and funded poorly. Each ekes out its existence as transient tools accepted only in extremis, facing resistance from apathetic agencies, clueless congressmen and misinformed media.

A permanent leadership is needed in the form of a new Cabinet department that can knock together heads to force integrated influence activities — a Ministry of Propaganda, if you will.

Some influence operations are cheap, such as distribution of opinion pieces to newspapers; some are expensive, such as setting up a satellite television station; some are technically sophisticated, such as spreading disinformation into government computer networks; many are simple, such as immediate, vigorous, undiplomatic rebuttals by U.S. ambassadors to false accusations. But all require commitment by the national leadership.

In the war against Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, aggressive, relentless and exhaustive attacks are needed, including arguing against the terrorists' theological heresies, rebutting their lies, undermining their popularity, blackening their reputations, falsifying their public and private communications, publicizing intelligence against their fellow-traveler friends and jamming their radio, television and computer networks.

America's failure to use the indispensable instrument of information to protect its own national interests is inexcusable, especially as it wages a protracted war to the death against Islamic terrorists to preserve democratic governance, a free society and Western civilization.

WALTER JAJKO, a retired Air Force brigadier general and former assistant to the secretary of Defense for intelligence oversight, is a professor of defense studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. His views are not those of the Department of Defense.