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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Mulls Propaganda to Allies

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department is considering issuing a secret directive to the American military to conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policy-makers in friendly and neutral countries, senior Pentagon and administration officials say.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has not yet decided on the proposal, which has ignited a fierce battle throughout President George W. Bush's administration over whether the military should carry out secret propaganda missions in friendly nations like Germany, where many of the Sept. 11 hijackers congregated, or Pakistan, still considered a haven for al-Qaida's militants.

Such a program, for example, could include efforts to discredit and undermine the influence of mosques and religious schools that have become breeding grounds for Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism across the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It might even include setting up schools with secret American financing to teach a moderate Islamic position laced with sympathetic depictions of how the religion is practiced in the United States, officials said.

Many administration officials agree that the government's broad strategy to counter terrorism must include vigorous and creative propaganda to change the negative view of the United States held in many countries.

The fight, one Pentagon official said, is over "the strategic communications for our nation, the message we want to send for long-term influence, and how we do it."

As a military officer put it: "We have the assets and the capabilities and the training to go into friendly and neutral nations to influence public opinion. We could do it and get away with it. That doesn't mean we should."

It is not the first time that the debate over how the United States should marshal its forces to win the hearts and minds of the world has raised difficult and potentially embarrassing questions at the Pentagon. A nonclandestine parallel effort at the State Department, which refers to its role as public diplomacy, has not met with so much resistance.

In February, Rumsfeld had to disband the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, ending a short-lived plan to provide news items, and possibly false ones, to foreign journalists to influence public sentiment abroad. Senior Pentagon officials say Rumsfeld is deeply frustrated that the U.S. government has no coherent plan for molding public opinion worldwide in favor of the United States in its global campaign against terrorism and militancy.

Many administration officials agree that there is a role for the military in carrying out what it calls information operations against adversaries, especially before and during war, as well as routine public relations work in friendly nations like Colombia, the Philippines or Bosnia, whose governments have welcomed U.S. troops.

In hostile countries like Iraq, such missions are permitted under policy and typically would include broadcasting from airborne radio stations or dropping leaflets like those the military has printed to undermine morale among Iraqi soldiers. In future wars, they might include technical attacks to disable computer networks, both military and civilian.

But the idea of ordering the military to take psychological aim at allies has divided the Pentagon -- with civilians and uniformed officers on both sides of the debate.

Some are troubled by suggestions that the military might pay journalists to write stories favorable to U.S. policies or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of U.S. policies.

The current battlefield for these issues involves amendments to a classified Department of Defense directive, titled "3600.1: Information Operations," which would enshrine an overarching Pentagon policy for years to come.

Current policy holds that aggressive information tactics are "to affect adversary decision makers" -- not those of friendly or even neutral nations. But proposed revisions to the directive, as quoted by senior officials, would not make adversaries the only targets for carrying out military information operations -- abbreviated as "I.O." in the document, which is written in the dense jargon typical of military doctrine.

Although the defense secretary is among those pushing to come up with a bolder strategy for getting out the U.S. message, he has not yet decided whether the military should take on those responsibilities, the officials said.

There is little dispute over such battlefield tactics as destroying an enemy's radio and television stations. All is considered fair in that kind of war.

But several senior military officers, some of whom have recently left service, expressed dismay at the concept of assigning the military to wage covert propaganda campaigns in friendly or neutral countries. "Running ops against your allies doesn't work very well," Admiral Dennis Blair, a retired commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, advised Pentagon officials as they began re-examining the classified directive over the summer. "I've seen it tried a few times, and it generally is not very effective."

Those in favor of assigning the military an expanded role argue that no other department is stepping up to the task of countering propaganda from terrorists, who hold no taboo against deception.

They also contend that the Pentagon has the best technological tools for the job, especially in the areas of satellite communications and computer warfare, and that the U.S. military has important interests to protect in some countries, including those where ties with the government are stronger than the affections of the population.

Those who oppose the military's taking on the job of managing perceptions of the United States in allied states say it more naturally falls to diplomats and civilians, or even uniformed public affairs specialists. They say that secret operations, if deemed warranted by the president, should be carried out by U.S. intelligence agencies.

In addition, they say, the Pentagon's job of explaining itself through public affairs officers could be tainted by any link to covert information missions. "These allied nations would absolutely object to having the American military attempt to secretly affect communications to their populations," said one State Department official with a long career in overseas public affairs.