It took all of seven days to shut down the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence -- roughly the same amount of time that anyone actually knew it existed.
Controversy over OSI originally heated up following a New York Times story suggesting the office might spread false reports to the foreign press or run "black" propaganda campaigns. After taking a beating over this -- as critics barked that the U.S. shouldn't lie to the rest of the world -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug. Indeed, it was all over so quickly, the debate over OSI didn't really progress far enough for anyone to bother asking whether office would actually have been very good at duping anyone.
A look back at some of the low points of U.S. psychological warfare, however, suggests that this might have been by far the more salient criticism. Consider the CIA's embarrassing forays in Cuba, well described in Jon Elliston's book Psywar on Cuba. By March of 1960, a little over a year after Cuban rebels seized power from dictator Fulgencio Batista, the CIA had developed plans to overthrow Castro. The propaganda war would span more than three decades, and employ traditional and nontraditional means of molding Cuban public opinion, including posters, newspapers, rumor campaigns, and radio and television broadcasts via planes, boats and submarines. The result was a chain of "psy-ops" blunders:
Radio Swan: The CIA enlisted a group of anti-Castro exiles and gave them programs on Radio Swan, a covert operation run under the guise of a steamship company. The station attempted to spread some real whoppers, including a claim that Castro's government spiked popular drinks with a secret chemical that would cause people to develop communist ideas. The Cuban newspaper El Mundo commented on the station's programming, "The latest stories on Radio Swan would make us laugh. . .if it weren't for the infamy and poison they distill." It was, of course, no mystery to Cubans or Castro as to who was hiding behind the curtain. On December 26, 1960, Castro told the UN that the United States had "set up a very powerful broadcasting station. . .which it has placed at the disposal of war criminals," i.e., the CIA.
El Gusano Libre! The Free Worm! This astonishing lack of subtlety was actually surpassed in 1962. In that year, the CIA picked up on Castro's term for counter-revolutionaries, which was gusano or worm, and ran with it in an effort to create a symbol of resistance and to incite rebellion within the ranks. "Voice of Free Cuba," a CIA radio station housed on a nearby submarine, talked up the "free worm" on broadcasts in a ploy to popularize the term, and thousands of leaflets with the image of the worm engaged in acts of sabotage were distributed around the country. In addition, one CIA memo called for providing Cubans with instructions on "how to draw 'El Gusano Libre' on walls and other public places." Was the free worm believable, or was this just grounds for some more giggles over at El Mundo?
Military and intelligence efforts to mold public opinion in the war in Afghanistan showed much of the same lameness and inability to "think like the natives." After all, shortly after 9/11, U.S. intelligence agencies sent out a call -- a desperate cry, really -- for speakers fluent in Arabic and the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto. But the new linguists haven't made much in the way of progress. Consider this US psyops radio broadcast in Dari and Pashto, first reported by the BBC, after our recruits dropped food packages that looked a lot like yellow cluster bombs:
Attention, noble Afghan people. . .As you know, the coalition countries have been air-dropping daily humanitarian rations for you. . .The food ration is enclosed in yellow plastic bags. They come in the shape of rectangular squares. . .The cluster bombs are 6 cm in diameter and 16 cm in length and they are cylindrical in shape. . .We would like you to take extra care and not to touch yellow-colored objects thinking they may be food bags. . .Do not confuse the cylinder-shaped bomb with the rectangular food bag.
Somehow, it's hard to imagine that, hearing this, the "noble Afghans" were very impressed that the United States could speak their languages.
Quite a lot of people got very high and mighty about the Office of Strategic Influence, and the result was a resounding embarrassment for the Bush administration. But the leak to the New York Times may be a blessing in disguise for Bush; think how much worse things may have been with an all out effort by the office of "strategery."
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