The Pentagon is developing a major covert news and disinformation campaign to help Washington win the propaganda war against terrorism in the Islamic world.
The plan, worrying to some US defence officials, is being elaborated by the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), a recently created unit funded from an extra $10bn (£7m) of emergency funds voted by Congress to the Pentagon after 11 September. The main target is the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Asia, but the campaign may also be directed at Western Europe, where criticism has mounted in recent weeks of the Bush administration's strategy to fight terrorism.
Little is known of the OSI other than that it is headed by an air force general, Brigadier General Simon Worden, and is being advised by a powerful Washington communications consultancy, the Rendon Group. Its budget and staffing is unknown. Rendon has previously worked for the CIA, the Kuwaiti government and the Iraqi National Congress opposition group, and is being paid fees of about $100,000 a month, according to The New York Times, which disclosed the existence of the OSI yesterday.
The blueprint for the propaganda offensive is being studied by the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and by Pentagon lawyers, and has not yet been formally approved by President Bush. But Mr Rumsfeld is said broadly to back the idea, and Rendon's background is further evidence of how Mr Bush intends to ratchet up the pressure on Saddam Hussein and achieve "regime change" in Iraq.
None the less there are misgivings within the Pentagon at its seemingly imminent venture into an area traditionally the preserve of the CIA and the State Department. The main fear is that by feeding slanted and possibly false information to foreign government officials and the international media, the OSI might undermine the credibility of the Pentagon's official press department.
One Defence Department official said: "We shouldn't be in that business. Leave the propaganda leaks to the CIA, the spooks. If we get the reputation for spreading false information, then what is anyone to believe and not believe that comes out of this building?" Other officials fear the initiative, once revealed, might weaken support for the US among its allies.
Victoria Clarke, the official Pentagon press spokeswoman, said her department was not involved with the OSI, calling it "a work in progress". Though the Pentagon has been far from generous with information about the war, Mr Rumsfeld has more or less kept his promise not to lie to reporters, often telling reporters investigating sensitive issues: "I know, but I won't tell you." The New York Times said the plan, if approved, would embrace "black" disinformation and other covert activities in addition to accurate news releases. It would feature e-mail messages, distributed by an outside source to conceal their origin, which would promote US policies and attack unfriendly governments.Reuse content