Opponents Attack Bush With Disinformation

Since Sept. 11, President Bush has been on a roll politically.

His popularity and job approval ratings have clearly driven his political opponents crazy, so much so that these opponents — which notably include several of the nation's most prominent newspapers — have seized on virtually any opportunity to try to discredit him with the public.

On three recent occasions, however, they have done so less to the detriment of Bush than of the nation and their own credibility.

First, on Feb. 19 The New York Times ran a front-page story darkly warning that the Pentagon had created a new organization called the Office of Strategic Influence. According to the Times, the OSI intended to "develop ... plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy-makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries."

Now, there was never any shred of evidence presented to support this charge (other than quotes of uncertain reliability from Pentagon sources who declined to be named). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flatly denied it. He noted that the organization's charter — which entailed communicating the truth about America to foreign audiences otherwise inadequately exposed to it — had yet to be approved. Mr. Rumsfeld also made clear that it would not receive his OK if it envisioned engaging in "disinformation."

Predictably, in the media echo chamber, the original allegations were repeated and amplified, to the point where the defense secretary felt he had no choice. Citing press distortions, he disestablished the OSI and expressed the hope that the functions it actually was supposed to perform would be taken on by other organizations in something approaching as effective a fashion.

Next came reports in The Washington Post that the Bush administration had put into place a "shadow government." The Post warned darkly that 100 or so senior civil servants were beavering away in secret bunkers against the possibility of a terrorist attack aimed at "decapitating" the nation's leadership. Whatever the motivation behind this leak, the risk was that it would compromise the location — and therefore, the security — of these vitally important "continuity of government" facilities.

In this case, high dudgeon was heard from Capitol Hill, as well as from some in the press. As with the strategic influence operation, the criticism quickly focused on matters of process. Just as no one could really argue against the desirability of improving America's standing in the Arab world (particularly after Gallup published a poll of nine Islamic nations showing a high degree of popular antipathy for this country), it was hard to object to efforts designed to ensure the U.S. government survives a devastating attack. Instead, top congressional Democrats whined that they had not been informed, until it was pointed out they had actually been escorted to COG shelters on Sept. 11 and members of their staff had received briefings shortly thereafter on aspects of the standby government program.

The Los Angeles Times had its turn last Saturday, breathlessly reporting that the Bush administration had in January given Congress a classified Nuclear Posture Review that called for contingency plans to conduct nuclear attacks on seven countries — Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Syria. Predictably, anti-nuclear activists bitterly denounced the NPR, as the press reported the harsh objections from representatives of the named countries. Once again, the Bush administration's critics sensed an opportunity to score political points and perhaps to compel it to back away from the prudent planning called for in the NPR, as had been done with the Office of Strategic Influence.

A curious thing has happened, however. In each case, the public seems to have seen through the shrill critiques and fevered denunciations. Like Bush and his experienced — and generally very sensible — national security team, the American people appear to understand the necessity for secret government activities in support of the war on terror.

Common sense tells our countrymen that using information to influence, and perhaps disarm, potential adversaries is a good thing. The same goes for the preservation of functional, accountable and, ideally, representative government despite attacks aimed at destroying it. Ditto efforts to provide for the viability and effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent by ensuring that the weapons, their employment plans and supporting infrastructure are as sound as we can make them.

The Bush team has gotten these initiatives right, as they have the broad thrust of their policy in the war on terror. While there is a place for informed dissent, disinformed carping — particularly that of a transparently politicized character — reflects badly on the president's critics and may inflict serious injury on his ability to conduct that war effectively.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.