The Defense Department last week appeared to back away from a policy that would put out information intended to mislead foreign reporters for strategic purposes.
The issue attracted media attention after The New York Times
reported that Defense's Office of Strategic Influence planned to plant false items in foreign media in an effort to influence public sentiment and policymakers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.
The alleged policy drew immediate criticism. In a letter to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Radio-Television News Directors Association said, "Not only would lying undermine the credibility of the Defense Department's public affairs office, it also would undermine the credibility of the United States in the world's eyes."
RTNDA President Barbara Cochran told Rumsfeld, "There would be no way to ensure that falsehoods told abroad would not also be told to the American public."
At a briefing the day after the article appeared, Rumsfeld seemed a bit ambiguous at first, stating that "we make a practice of assuring that what we tell the public is accurate and correct. And if, in any event, somebody happens to be misinformed and says something that's not correct, they correct that at the earliest opportunity." But there was no explicit denial of the policy.
Later that day, the Pentagon issued "a major clarification of earlier statements on misinformation policy," saying the policy was still under development but that "under no circumstances will the office or its contractors knowingly or deliberately disseminate false information to the American or foreign media or publics."
Subsequently, Rumsfeld reiterated that policy.
ABC News Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul said she was more satisfied following the later statements. "If there were something there" about a policy of intentionally misleading media, "it seems to have been rethought."
Nevertheless, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, wondered "how it is that these plans could have evolved to this point?" Rumsfeld, he noted, "does not address that. That makes me worry."