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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pentagon Plans to Disseminate News

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policymakers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said.

The plans, which have not received final approval from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, have stirred opposition among some Pentagon officials who say they might undermine the credibility of information that is openly distributed by the Defense Department's public affairs officers.

The military has long engaged in information warfare against hostile nations -- for instance, by dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

But it recently created the Office of Strategic Influence, which is proposing to broaden that mission into allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe.

The small but well-financed Pentagon office, which was established shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was a response to concerns in the administration that the United States was losing public support overseas for its war on terrorism, particularly in Islamic countries.

Many senior Pentagon officials say they know almost nothing about the office or its plans. Its multimillion dollar budget, drawn from a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget authorized by Congress in October, has not been disclosed.

The new office has begun circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations.

One of the office's proposals calls for planting news items with foreign media organizations through outside concerns that might not have obvious ties to the Pentagon, officials familiar with the proposal said.

Another proposal involves sending journalists and foreign leaders e-mail messages that promote American views or attack unfriendly governments, officials said.

To help the new office, the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm well known for running propaganda campaigns in Arab countries, including one denouncing atrocities by Iraq during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The new office has stirred a sharp debate in the Pentagon, where several senior officials have questioned whether its mission is too broad and possibly even illegal.

Those critics say they fear a single office might use not only covert operations such as computer network attacks, psychological activities and deception, but also the instruments and staff of the military's globe-spanning public affairs apparatus.

Mingling the more surreptitious activities with the work of traditional public affairs would undermine the Pentagon's credibility with the media, the public and governments around the world, critics argue.

"This breaks down the boundaries almost completely," a senior Pentagon official said.

Moreover, critics say, disinformation planted in foreign media organizations, like Reuters or Agence France-Presse, could end up being published or broadcast by American news organizations.

The Pentagon and the CIA are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States. In the mid-1970s, it was revealed that some CIA programs to plant false information in the foreign press had resulted in articles published by American news organizations.

Critics also argue that governments allied with the United States are likely to object strongly to any attempts by the American military to influence media within their borders.

"Everybody understands using information operations to go after nonfriendlies," another senior Pentagon official said. "When people get uncomfortable is when people use the same tools and tactics on friendlies."