December 12, 2005
Give this much to the Lincoln Group, the "strategic communications" outfit that’s been busted for placing agreeable propaganda in the Iraqi press at the behest of the U.S. Department of Defense: It’s not exactly shy about self-justification. "We counter the lies, intimidation, and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security," group spokeswoman Laurie Adler breathed heavily last week in a prepared statement to the press. "We are encouraged by their sacrifice and proud to help them tell their side of the story."
Ms. Adler huffed her hectic denial that anything was improper in the group’s activities after said activities—decorously concealed from both the American public and (in most instances) the client base of Iraqi journalists, who received fees ranging from $200 to $900 a month—came to light in successive stories by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Knight Ridder news service. And Ms. Adler’s stir-the-troops cadences, with their grand, abstract talk of a world according to nouns—"heroism," "sacrifice" (twice over), "freedom" and "security" on the one side, and "lies," "intimidation" and "pure evil" on the other—pointed up the big problem with the Pentagon’s good-news initiative, even with all legal niceties aside. Practitioners of propaganda simply cannot leave off the stuff, even when they are indignantly reminding us of their higher virtues and their love of the truth.
After all, substitute "capitalism" for "terror" and, oh, "Romanian" for "Iraqi," and Ms. Adler’s thundering official statement transmogrifies into an unalloyed specimen of Cold War–era agitprop right out of the Khrushchev playbook.
More than any other kind of rhetoric, the propaganda art is a triumph of complete—or as Ms. Adler would likely have it, "pure"—formalism. One might even argue that, in its capacity to thuggishly pronounce official certainties and yet, upon exposure, to slide into a gelatinous sinkhole of nonaccountability and elite policymaking intrigue, the practice of propaganda is the first truly postmodern form of expression. In its sphere, such as Ms. Adler’s Ministry of Information, any Big Truth or Big Lie can mutate without missing a beat into its opposite number, depending on the reigning state prerogative of the moment.
Consider in this regard Ms. Adler’s core claim that the Lincoln Group initiative to plant "storyboard" treatments of approved DoD spins on the Iraq War’s progress stands out from the opposition’s offensives on grounds of truth. This view was enthusiastically echoed in statements from top Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who also took pains to remind his audience that "everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction."
Well, not so much, actually. The initial report in the Los Angeles Times noted that much of the storyboarded product placed by the Lincoln Group featured photographs downloaded seemingly without authorization from the Associated Press and Reuters—and that "the photos that run with the stories do not necessarily depict the events described."
What’s more, the Lincoln Group—formerly known, in the great tradition of cloak-and-dagger aliases, as Iraqex, and as Lincoln Alliance Corp.—occupies a strategically blurry zone of the Pentagon bureaucracy, where actors and messages alike can easily stray far afield from the verifiable march of public events. Not long ago, the DoD merged "information operations"—that is, specialists in the harder-core brand of psychological operations and information warfare, designed to discredit enemies and destabilize public trust in unfriendly governments, regardless of relative truth values—with the far more straight-shooting Office of Public Affairs.
Indeed, the psy-ops hands in the Information Operations Division are the originators of the pro-war storyboards that the Lincoln Group then paid to get played, according to Los Angeles Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daraghi.
It’s important to recall that the merger of intelligence operations with public affairs came not long after the Pentagon junked the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence in 2002, which was reportedly shaping active disinformation campaigns to advance American objectives in the war on terror. And, to judge by the handful of botched P.R. activities that had surfaced in press reports prior to last week’s Lincoln Group news, the Pentagon’s new press hands have taken up the O.S.I.’s old agenda with considerable gusto.
There is, for example, this hateful item: In 2003, Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush died after U.S. soldiers conducted "unconventional" interrogation tactics, such as a long-term head-to-foot detention in a sleeping bag while being bound by electrical cords. The Army issued a release saying that the unfortunate detainee had died of natural causes, and had also given up the names of key local insurgents.
But none of that was true—and the four soldiers who carried out Mowhoush’s interrogation are now awaiting trial for murder. While many have correctly noted that the Lincoln Group’s handiwork has damaged U.S. credibility among Iraqi citizens, the Mowhoush whitewash suggests that we should also pay very close attention to what a free export market in U.S. propaganda does to our own democracy.
"Propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas," wrote the French sociologist Jacques Ellul in his still-classic Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, "but also democratic behavior—the foundation of democracy, the very quality without which it cannot exist. The question is not to reject propaganda in the name of public opinion—which, as we well know, is never virginal—or in the name of freedom of individual opinion, which is formed of everything and nothing—but to reject it in the name of a very profound reality: the possibility of choice and differentiation, which is the fundamental characteristic of the individual in the democratic society."
One such choice, of course, would be to insist that occupied Iraq be what Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed it was the day before the Los Angeles Times story broke—a country that "has a free media" serving as a "relief valve" for public discontent. Another choice is to be more mindful of the Bush administration’s many exertions to alter and control the flow of information within our own borders—and not merely in the well-documented illegal cases involving payola to columnists Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher to shill the No Child Left Behind Act, or the wholesale production of prepackaged TV news segments by U.S. government agencies that bore no on-camera recognition of their provenance.
Conveniently, Mr. Rumsfeld himself supplied a prime example of the species just this week when holding forth on—what else?—the responsibilities of the media. Sensing that it was not the most opportune time to marvel at the Iraqi media’s autonomy, the Secretary of Defense again took up the more familiar and comforting Bush-team pastime of demonizing the U.S. press. "We’ve arrived at a strange time in our country," he announced in a speech before the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on Monday, "where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press, and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact."
Of course, it was Mr. Rumsfeld who, in 2003, signed a classified document called the "Information Operations Roadmap," which, according to an official quoted in the International Herald Tribune, "accelerated 'a plan to advance the goal of information operations as a core military competency.’"
The Defense Secretary also overlooked a few celebrated recent examples of the U.S. press having to correct and account for significant errors in reporting the Iraq conflict. Funnily enough, they all had to do with the government’s deliberate promulgation of misleading information, such as certain infamous bouts of W.M.D. reporting, or the fanciful official account, spoon-fed to the press by the Pentagon, of the rescue of Jessica Lynch.
It is difficult, in the heat of such official beratings that are themselves aimed for maximum, context-free play in the media, for the press to adopt this longer view of things—and harder still for media civilians to do so. Perhaps the Iraqi populace, faced with the dilemma of which messenger to trust in the birth throes of their democracy, can help to remind us how the job is done.
Richard Brookhiser will return in January.
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