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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Rumsfeld: The Media War on Terror

[Updated (4/10) on continuation page] Donald Rumsfeld defends "buying news" in Iraq and the use of electronic communications more generally as an important weapon in the war effort:

The Media War on Terror, by Donald H. Rumsfeld, Project Syndicate: “More than half of this battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media, [for] we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of [Muslims].” The speaker was not some public relations executive, but Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Terrorists have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but, for the most part, America and the governments of the other democracies have not. Consider that the violent extremists have their own “media relations committees” aimed at manipulating elite opinion. They plan and design headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.

They know that communications transcend borders, and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause – and as helpful to theirs – as any military attack. And they are able to act quickly with relatively few people, and with modest resources compared to the vast, expensive bureaucracies of democratic governments.

Today we are fighting the first war in the era of e-mail, blogs, blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras, the Internet, mobile phones, talk radio, and 24-hour news. In Tunisia, the largest newspaper has a circulation of roughly 50,000 in a country of 10 million people. But even in the poorest neighborhoods, you see satellite dishes on nearly every balcony or rooftop. ...

Regrettably, many of the news channels being watched through these dishes are hostile to the West. Media outlets in many parts of the world often serve only to inflame and distort – rather than to explain and inform. While al-Qaeda and extremist movements have used this forum for many years, further poisoning the Muslim public’s view of the West, we in the West have barely even begun to compete.

We saw this with the false allegations of the desecration of a Koran last year. First published in a weekly news magazine, the story was then posted on Web sites, sent in e-mails, and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days before the facts could be discovered. That false story incited deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ...

But we have begun to adapt. In Iraq, for example, the US military, working closely with the Iraqi government, has sought non-traditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people. Yet this has been portrayed as “buying news.” The resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything – all activity, all initiative – to stop. This leads to a “chilling effect” among those serving in the military public affairs field...

Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Compare that to the volume of coverage and condemnation associated with, say, the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, which were filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

Free governments must make communications planning a central component of every aspect of this struggle. Indeed, the longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework into place, the more the vacuum will be filled by the enemy. There are nonetheless signs of modest progress. ... Government public affairs and public diplomacy efforts are slowly beginning to reorient staffing, schedules, and bureaucratic culture to engage the full range of today’s media.

Still, government must develop the institutional capability to anticipate and act within the same news cycle. That requires instituting 24-hour press operations centers and elevating Internet operations and other channels to the status of traditional twentieth-century press relations. ...

This also will mean embracing new ways of engaging people throughout the world. During the Cold War, institutions such as Radio Free Europe proved to be valuable instruments. We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similarly valuable role in the War on Terror.

We are fighting a war in which the survival of our way of life is at stake. And the center of gravity of that struggle is not just the battlefield. It is a test of wills and it will be won or lost in the court of global public opinion. While the enemy is skillful at manipulating the media and using the tools of communications to their advantage, we have an advantage as well: truth is on our side, and, ultimately, truth wins out.

I agree we are getting beaten on the media playing field, losing the battle "for the hearts and minds of [Muslims]” not because of our capabilities, but because of our actions. The theme here seems to be that if we had greater capabilities to broadcast the government's message electronically, we could control the message and we would win the media battle as truth emerges. I think that is wrong. We are losing the media battle because our policies allow a negative portrayal. It's not the ability to send the message, it's the message that we have to send that is losing the media war:

They know that communications transcend borders, and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause – and as helpful to theirs – as any military attack.

Especially if you hand them the ammunition they need, an Abu Ghraib for example, to make the story explosive.

Where are the lines? When does it become propaganda rather than news? I agree that we need to fight the battle in the media as well as on the battle field. But why can't it be out in the open? That is where I differ. Planting stories in the Iraqi media penned under someone else's name, paying people to run favorable stories is not an honest or truthful representation. When we act honorably we have a message we can be proud of, a message we can stamp with the U.S. brand name, a message we can deliver to the world with our heads held high. Why do we need to deliver our message through clandestine manipulative means rather than openly and proudly?

When the administration implies torture is okay, no amount of media capability is going to overcome "the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib." No matter how much Rumsfeld and the administration might want to believe otherwise and place the blame on the media's coverage rather than the acts and policies themselves, they will not turn the story to "coverage and condemnation associated with, say, the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves" without manipulating the news in a way governments of free countries ought not do. It's the polices they have adopted, not the government's media capabilities or the coverage by the private media, that leaves us vulnerable to the negative portrayal that is losing hearts and minds.

Agree or disagree, I'll be curious to hear other views on this.

Update: Apparently the target audience of this effort includes U.S. citizens:

Firedoglake: Propaganda, Anyone?, By Christy Hardin Smith on Iraq: Wow, thanks to the Department of Defense, we no longer have to worry about such pesky issues as the facts on the ground or that perpetually irritating thing I like to call the truth.  No, no, no.  Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that any longer.

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with that effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the "U.S. Home Audience" as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.

Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi’s role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain "a very small part of the actual numbers," Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.

In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, "Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will — made him more important than he really is, in some ways."

"The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends," said Harvey, who did not return phone calls seeking comment on his remarks.

What’s a little government-pushed propaganda among friends, eh?  The fact that what they were pushing was not true, and they knew it, but still hoped to get the media here in the United States to push the themes — which they did — by using surrogate media outlets in Iraq to feed video and other information — well, we oughtn’t ask too many questions about that, right?  Because our servicepeople and their families, let alone the American public, ought not be able to make decisions based on the truth of how things are going, now should they?   (For some backstory on this, I covered some previous bits on psyops propaganda plants here.)

Got freedom?...

Apparently not. I wonder how else our view of the war has been manipulated ostensibly in support of the war effort?

    Posted by on Sunday, April 9, 2006 at 11:44 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (4)

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