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To tell the truth



Published: Sat, February 23, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Pentagon is calling its plan for a propaganda war "Strategic Influence." But when the Soviets did it, we called it "disinformation" and we plainly thought it was wrong.

Planting false news stories or distributing outright lies presumably to further the interests of the United States is the worst kind of short-sightedness.

The first problem with disinformation is that the people you're trying to deceive see through a lie pretty quickly. And if you're feeding lies to journalists, they'll show no mercy every time they catch you.

The second problem is, even if you're telling the truth most of the time, the lies make everything you say suspect.

Bad timing: At a time when this nation already has a credibility gap in the Middle East, the United States dare not adopt an official policy that can only make matters worse. The most ardent enemies of the United States will never believe what the Pentagon says, so there is no point in lying to them. But it is important that the United States not betray the trust of the supporters that it has, and that it makes an honest effort to win over skeptics or people in the middle.

During the Cold War, the United States gained a worldwide reputation for candor. Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America didn't need to resort to lies to make this nation look good. The truth served our purposes better then, and it will today.

The Pentagon isn't going to like everything it sees in print or on television, either at home or abroad. But public opinion can't be controlled by lies -- unless, of course, you are prepared to go with the Big Lie and tell it over and over and over again. That is not the American way.

The Bush administration should rein in the Office of Strategic Influence before it does more harm than good.

It has long been said that the first casualty of war is truth. But the quote is most commonly attributed to U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson of California, an ardent isolationist. It is not necessarily so.

A strong and secure democracy such as the United States ought to be able to conduct a war against another nation or against a more nebulous foe such as terrorism without sacrificing the things it values.

And if the day comes that we no longer value the truth, we will no longer be the nation our Founders envisioned.




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