A Rein on 'Bodyguard of Lies'

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 9, 2004

In preparing for the D-day invasion of France, Winston Churchill proclaimed that in wartime, truth is so important it requires "a bodyguard of lies." The British fooled German spies by building "airplanes" that could not fly to convince Hitler that the invasion would come at Calais, not Normandy.

Deceiving the enemy is one thing, but lying to the public is out of bounds. On Oct. 14, a Marine lieutenant told CNN that the assault on Fallouja had begun. In fact, the offensive did not begin for three weeks. CNN was quick to spot the lie and brand it false. Several Pentagon officials later admitted the announcement was part of a psychological operation to see how guerrillas would react if they believed U.S. troops were invading.

Lying to the media may produce a momentary gain, but to devastating long-term effect. Credibility once lost will not be regained; the U.S. public and overseas allies that the Pentagon depends on for support won't trust future proclamations.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon established an Office of Strategic Influence. But reports that the office intended to plant false news stories in the international media caused an uproar that led to the closing of the office in February 2002. Three months ago, military commanders in Iraq decided to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations into a "strategic communications" office. Soon after came the false report about Fallouja.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, has warned against this kind of alignment, saying public affairs should be kept separate from information operations groups, which may be involved in disseminating propaganda or misleading information. He is right to worry.

Two tales that should have been corrected much more quickly involved the death of Cpl. Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq. Tillman's enlistment in the Army after 9/11 made news because he was giving up a multimillion-dollar professional football contract. His death was widely publicized as well, with officials saying Tillman died fighting insurgents. Only later did they admit that he died when he was accidentally shot by U.S. troops. But even that was not the whole truth. Contradicting U.S. claims that a guerrilla attack sparked the shooting, Afghan witnesses say an explosion from a mine or another source panicked U.S. soldiers.

Lynch, captured early in the war, was photographed being carried to safety on a stretcher with a U.S. flag draped over her body. Reports said she had shot several Iraqis, firing until her pistol ran out of ammunition, and had been shot several times. Lynch was shot, but the story was heavily dramatized and exaggerated.

The axiom holds that in war, truth is the first casualty. But after the furor over the Office of Strategic Influence, both President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon would tell the truth. It's time to issue a new edict reminding the troops of that necessity.

The country shouldn't have to relive the 1980s, when military units helped a State Department office issue false reports about Nicaragua's leftist Sandinistas. In 1987, a U.S. comptroller general's report determined that some of the information amounted to "prohibited, covert propaganda activities," and the office was shut down. Yet in one form or another, it keeps coming back.