Propaganda and Disinformation
Jude Wanniski
June 5, 2002

 

Memo To: The National Press Corps
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Separating truth from fiction

When I was a boy in the 1940's, the word "propaganda" showed up in practically every movie involving the Nazis or the Japs. Italy was one of the Axis powers, but I don't remember anything about Italian propaganda. Mostly it was the Nazis, so the word has a kind of ugliness about it that we don't associate with "disinformation." Actually, Webster's Ninth Collegiate, which I use, says propaganda is "the spreading of ideas, information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person," or "ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause." The term "disinformation" does not sound so bad, but the dictionary says it is "false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth." That sounds worse than "propaganda," which prior to Hitler and his evil flack, Joseph Goebbels, simply applied to the missionary work of the Catholic Church in "propagating the faith."

One of the biggest problems for a journalist trying to do an honest job of covering the "news" is in spotting "disinformation." Propaganda is easy to spot because it is obviously self-serving and can be discounted accordingly. "Disinformation" is what the intellectuals at the Pentagon proposed as a vehicle for influencing global opinion, in an "Office of Strategic Information." When the New York Times reported on OSI, it quickly became an embarrassment Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not need, so he announced it would be dissolved. The private contractors who were to have staffed the OSI, though, were kept on at some unspecified Pentagon office, obviously doing "disinformation," which is their specialty. This is why you all have to be very careful in protecting your readers from "false information deliberately and covertly spread."

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush had a hard time at first persuading the American people that this required a full-scale military buildup and war. It helped to learn that Saddam Hussein had "gassed his own people" in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war, which meant he must be a monster akin to Hitler and Stalin. When news reached us that the Iraqi soldiers were looting and raping everything in sight in Kuwait City, this also helped our government "influence public opinion." We later learned that these stories were "disinformation," deliberately spread by the same experts who are now busy doing who-knows-what in some obscure Pentagon office. There is now not the slightest evidence that the Iraqi army deliberately killed a single Iraqi citizen with poison gas, yet there are reporters who still include those allegations as "facts" in their stories. You do not hear stories about the Iraqi army committing atrocities in Kuwait City because that "disinformation" was revealed to be false in congressional hearings. Or you would now wonder why the ordinary people of Kuwait in public opinion polls are opposed to any further U.S. military action in Iraq.

I noticed in Monday's Wall Street Journal that Bob Bartley, one of the best newspapermen of our time, had fallen victim to disinformation. Bob has been a full-throated supporter of a regime change in Baghdad and seems willing to believe anything he hears from his friends in the Pentagon, but he would never ever knowingly print something he knew to be incorrect. In his "Thinking Things Over" column Monday, for example, he wrote: "In any event, we know that Iraq has weaponized anthrax and has the capability to mount a serious anthrax attack, with germs released as aerosols rather than sent through the mail." How many people in high places read that column and believed it to be true, because it was written by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Editor of the Wall Street Journal?

Now I just happened to know that Iraq had not "weaponized anthrax" as Bartley stated. To be sure, though, I e-mailed Dr. Gordon Prather, the nuclear physicist who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan years in the Army's top science-and-technology position. His reply, which I sent to Bartley: "All I know is what I read in the newspapers. But I thought the Iraqis told UNSCOM -- and UNSCOM accepted it -- that they had only loaded -- weaponized -- liquid anthrax into their projectiles, bombs and warheads. The anthrax that is so deadly has to be spore-like. (My emphasis.) Anthrax assumes that form, naturally -- as does slimemold when there is no liquid around. The idea is to be light enough for the wind to carry the spores to someplace where there is liquid. Like your lungs. I don't think making an aerosol -- even if the Iraqis could do it -- would be enough. Certainly it couldn't be sent in envelopes."

Just by coincidence, about 25 years ago Bartley and I together wrote a long paper for a conference sponsored by the Racine Foundation on "The Limitations of the Press Corps in a Political/Technical Debate." The point was that when you mix politics and science, it becomes very hard to get to the truth, because Democrats and Republicans debating issues involving national security or lots and lots of money will always be able to find scientists who will support one side of an argument or another. It may be true that we have to do everything we can to remove Saddam Hussein from his seat of power, but we should not do so on the basis of disinformation... or propaganda.