The Pentagon's right to lie.

The Pentagon's right to lie.

The Pentagon's right to lie.

Military analysis.
Feb. 22 2002 5:56 PM

The Artifice of War

Early in the week, the New York Times broke the story that a new department in the Pentagon, the Office of Strategic Influence, dedicated to influencing public sentiment overseas, was developing plans—not yet finally approved by the Bush administration—to provide false as well as true items to the foreign press. The paper reported that even some Pentagon officials opposed the plans—it quoted one unnamed "senior military official" calling them "scary"—because they would undermine the Department of Defense's credibility. (One Pentagon source told me that the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs put the Times onto the story because she viewed the OSI as a threat to her operation. A not unreasonable fear, since even just the initial publicity about OSI, not to mention its continued active existence, makes reporters less likely to believe the Pentagon line.) The news, followed in quick succession by condemnation from the paper's editorial page and its columnist Maureen Dowd, set off enough of a backlash that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quickly moved to comment, "[G]overnment officials, the Department of Defense, this secretary and the people that work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth."

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The Times'alarm was not far-fetched. This Pentagon, after all, has taken shutting out the press to new heights and has just given an important new counterterrorism job to Iran-Contra principal Adm. John Poindexter, whose idea of public accountability was to erase thousands of official e-mail messages. But it's still worth pointing out that there's nothing inherently wrong with the Office of Strategic Influence.

First, there's much to be said for an organized effort to influence public opinion overseas. Developing pro-U.S. attitudes can often do what guns and tanks cannot—and at a fraction of the financial and human cost. Witness Kosovo, where a U.S. air war couldn't topple Slobodan Milosevic, but where a postwar CIA-led political education campaign did. A key element in many of the United States' most disastrous foreign policy forays has been the failure to maintain favorable local sentiment. In two of these—Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993—it was the Pentagon that paid the price, so why shouldn't it have a stake in molding sentiment?

But what about the Pentagon's planting of lies? Dowd asked the right question about this: "Our cause is just. So why not just tell the truth?" In his response to the OSI story, Rumsfeld got close to the answer when he referred to deceptive Allied activities prior to D-Day designed to convince the Germans that the invasion of Europe was coming not at Normandy, but at Calais. (Rumsfeld didn't note, but perhaps should have, that the Geneva Convention recognizes the legitimacy of "ruses of war.") Yet he insisted that the Allies "never lied to the world and said they were going to Calais." Whether or not the Allies only implied and never lied is a matter for historians to settle, but it's paramount to realize that in making this distinction, Rumsfeld is straining at a gnat—sometimes only a lie is convincing enough, and therefore if it's important to make your enemy believe a falsehood, sometimes only a lie will do. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said the obligation to tell the truth was so great that if a knife-wielding man asked you where the person he wanted to kill was, and you knew he was hiding in your closet, you had to say so. Most people think Kant got it wrong—that he came up with a perfect example of where lying is not only permissible but also obligatory. It would have been wrong either to reveal the hiding man's location or to risk his discovery by trying to craft true but misleading statements about him. So Rumsfeld drew the line in the wrong place—the answer to Dowd's question is that since the Pentagon is often in the position of protecting lives from knives, it will often have to speak untruth to power. And sometimes it can't just have a lie ready to go in case someone asks the right question but must take unprompted steps to put the lie out there.

Misdirection is not the only straw being grabbed at here to avoid the truth about lying. That Times story said the Pentagon was only contemplating planting false stories overseas. But the Pentagon knows that a report on the Agence France-Press wire or aired on Al Jazeera will, especially in the age of the Internet, appear in the U.S. media soon enough. So in what sense could it be said to only be lying overseas?

And a follow-up report in the Times noted that despite the Rumsfeld pronouncement, another Pentagon official declined to rule out the possibility that the Department of Defense might hire an outside firm to spread the disinformation. But even on this plan, there will inevitably come the time when a reporter at the Pentagon asks Rumsfeld about the Calais-type story that was planted in an Egyptian paper by an independent consultant. If the reporter is just a little clever, he will ask Rumsfeld if the Pentagon hired outside consultants to plant such stories. In this case, in accordance with his truth-only policy, the best Rumsfeld can do is say, "No comment," which often will obviously mean, "Yes, we had the story planted." So, again, what was the point of the triangulation?

Of course, you want the Pentagon to lie only under extraordinary guy-hiding-in-the-closet conditions. The bright line should always be: Does the lie further an essential U.S. military goal that can't be accomplished to the same degree by truth-telling? But pace both the New York Times and Rumsfeld, there can be no blanket policy about lying, only officials exercising their best judgment and taking responsibility for the results.

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer who spent five years in the U.S. Navy and served overseas as an intelligence officer.