11 September 2001>News Stories>A Leaky Ship Goes Under

A Leaky Ship Goes Under

Howard Kurtz . Washington Post . 27 February 2002

Score one for the leakers.

Someone within the bowels of the Pentagon – or at least close to the Pentagon – decided that having an Office of Strategic Influence was a very bad idea.

And told the New York Times.

Which declared in a front-page story last week that this office could be involved in planting false items with foreign news organizations and otherwise running secretive "black" campaigns.

Which framed the issue quite squarely: Should the Pentagon lie?

The D-word – disinformation – was used.

At that point, it was only a matter of time.

Don Rumsfeld told Tim Russert Sunday that of course the Pentagon wouldn't lie, and this was just a plan that hadn't been approved, but that the bad publicity could doom the venture before it got off the ground.

White House officials, in a rare public break with Rummy's boys, told The Washington Post Monday that they were shocked and appalled at the idea of such an office. Whoever leaked the story "did a tremendous disservice to the president," an unnamed official said in a sort of counter-leak.

Now the propaganda office is gone. Toast. History.

It was sort of a plea bargain: Rumsfeld said his department hadn't done anything wrong but wouldn't do it again.

All this underscores one of the main reasons that government officials leak: to stop a bureaucratic idea that they regarded as wrong or ill-conceived.

Sometimes the motivation is just the opposite, to float a trial balloon for a plan the leaker wants adopted. Sometimes it's just petty, to settle a score with an internal rival. And sometimes it's just about the ego trip of feeling important.

But leaks are not a common practice in the Bush administration. Which is why this one was such an eye-opener.

It took exactly seven days to blow up this office, a reminder of the power of the press to frame issues – but even more so the power of an informed whisper from inside the government.

Too bad no one from Enron dropped a dime (or, to update the cliche, 35 cents) before it was too late.

"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disbanded the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence today," says the Times, "ending a short-lived plan to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign journalists to influence public sentiment abroad.

"Mr. Rumsfeld denied that the new office would have spread misinformation, but he said disclosure of the agency's proposed activities in news reports and editorials made it impossible for the agency to do its job.

"'The office has clearly been so damaged that it is pretty clear to me that it could not function effectively,' Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters. 'So it is being closed down.'

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

"The office's director, Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden, circulated classified proposals that called for the military to not only drop leaflets and broadcast messages into hostile countries, but to broaden that mission into allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe. . . .

"Asked if the Pentagon's credibility had been damaged, Mr. Rumsfeld said: 'I doubt it. I hope not. If it has, we'll rebuild it.'

"The Defense Department will continue trying to get its message across overseas, just not through the Office of Strategic Influence, Mr. Rumsfeld said. 'The office is done,' he said. 'What do you want, blood?'"

These battles can definitely get bloody.


This . . . is just an amazing, and depressing, survey, reported by USA Today:

"A sweeping poll of attitudes in the Islamic world shows that most Muslims don't believe Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and disapprove of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. The Gallup Organization poll, released Tuesday, is the most comprehensive survey of Muslim countries taken since Sept. 11. It confirms anecdotal evidence of a huge gulf between the West and Muslim nations that existed before the attacks and remains deep.

"Although most Muslims condemn the terrorist attacks that sparked the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the poll shows a majority believe the campaign is morally unjustified and express a breathtaking depth of anti-U.S. sentiment.

"Respondents overwhelmingly describe the United States as 'ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked, biased,' says Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. 'The people of Islamic countries have significant grievances with the West in general and with the United States in particular.'

"Gallup conducted in-person interviews during December and January of 9,924 residents in nine Muslim countries: Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Key findings:

"Although U.S. officials say all 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Arab men, only 18% of those polled in six Islamic countries say they believe Arabs carried out the attacks; 61% say Arabs were not responsible; and 21% say they don't know.

"Just 9% say they think U.S. military action in Afghanistan is morally justified. The least supportive: people in Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan.

"Two-thirds say the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were morally unjustifiable, but significant minorities disagree. In Kuwait, which U.S. troops liberated from Iraq in 1991, 36% say the attacks were justifiable, the highest percentage of any country polled."