False News Demeans the Sender As Well | Freedom House

False News Demeans the Sender As Well

The Los Angeles Times By Leonard R. Sussman
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's pledge that the Defense Department would tell only the truth in seeking to influence public opinion overseas is a welcome answer to the controversy over the role of Defense's new Office of Strategic Influence. Rumsfeld's statement was necessary because the press had reported some unnamed subordinates declaring that "false" or "black" news would be used along with the "white" news or truth.

Rumsfeld's rejection of disinformation is in the national interest. There must be a clear separation between the very limited permissible use of black propaganda for a tactical military purpose and a broad, year-round strategy of truth-telling as persuasion. While it is appropriate to influence friends or foes, "hearts and minds" cannot be favorably influenced when a democratic society resorts to falsity in delivering news or information.

We should learn from the sorry history of disinformation. The Soviet Union first established Department D in the KGB security services. D stood for dezinformatsia. It used forged documents, false quotations, misleading rumors and other false claims of events, policies or relationships. In 1980, the Soviet Union accused the United States of creating the AIDS epidemic to depopulate developing countries. The story was printed widely after Moscow coordinated its own and satellite media systems with political pressure on authoritarian African regimes. In the end, the truth prevailed and the campaign was exposed. The Soviet Union's legacy is now that of a nation based on lies, rumors and distortions.

When the CIA in the Cold War used foreign journalists to convey U.S. "news," that revelation left all U.S. journalists tainted under the suspicion--widely circulated by adversaries of the U.S.--that all American reporters overseas were in the pay of the government.

A hapless American foray into black news backfired in 1981 when the White House claimed that a Libyan hit squad had been dispatched to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. This account was never confirmed, and the FBI eventually acknowledged the absence of any such evidence.

American attempts to use disinformation are generally regarded as an aberration.

But there is one crucial exception: disinformation as a military tactic.

Military use of false news has been widely hailed as eminently useful and appropriate. In the Persian Gulf War, the major assault on massed enemy troops was hinted as coming from the sea. Troop-laden ships were clearly visible to the Iraqi forces waiting on shore. Instead, massed U.S. tanks skirted the flank of the Iraqis and destroyed their effectiveness. By floating false news, the ships had been used as decoys, a tactic as old as warfare itself.

The prime example of the military use of deception preceded the massive landing of allied troops on the coast of Normandy in World War II. Prior to that action, rumors had been carefully floated, backed by actual feints of allied forces, implying that the invasion of Europe would take place far to the south. About 20 German divisions were removed from the real landing areas, helping the allied assault.

Stringent limitation on the use of black information must be a matter of principle in a democratic society. Lies conceived in an open society are readily uncovered for what they are, and both the argument and the nation itself are demeaned. Truth can be far more persuasive than black "news"--based on lies--particularly when U.S. enemies have a clear history of misdeeds more horrendous than a Washington writer can concoct.

During World War II, I worked as an editor in the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. We listened to the then-Axis countries--Germany, Italy and Japan--employ disinformation to serve Nazi and fascist objectives. For the most part, the attempts were ludicrous and were so recognized by Americans who were their targets.

It is eminently appropriate to seek strategic influence abroad. Winning the minds and hearts of other peoples should not be abandoned.

But, today, such strategic influence should be built on exposing the record of terrorism and repression by tyrants, and on the democratic aspirations of the people.

Leonard R. Sussman is the senior scholar in international communications at Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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