Pentagon Says It May Scrap
'Strategic Information' Office

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon may scrap its new "strategic information" office based on concern over reports that the military might spread false information to foreign journalists and others to bolster U.S. policy, a defense official said on Monday.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered the department to re-visit plans for the controversial Office of Strategic Information, formed two months after Sept. 11 attacks on America, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
"He has asked us to take a very hard look at it. And one of the questions, one of the issues raised was should it even exist," she told reporters in response to questions.
Clarke said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith was studying whether the new office should be disbanded in the wake of media reports that it might be used to spread false information among overseas reporters, civic leaders and others in both friendly and unfriendly countries.
Those reports last week sparked questions abroad and an uproar in Congress and elsewhere in the U.S. government.
Rumsfeld has since stressed that neither he nor the department had any intention of lying to anybody and that misinformation provided to enemy forces in battle should not be confused with normal, day-to-day public information efforts.
But defense officials told Reuters last week that the new office under Feith and headed by an Air Force general was considering spreading "disinformation" as well as true reports e-mailed to foreign journalists, government officials and civic leaders.
"The person who's in charge is debating whether it should even exist in its current form, given all the misinformation and adverse publicity that it's received," Rumsfeld said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
"I am always very, very concerned about our credibility," added Clarke, who is assistant defense secretary in charge of the Pentagon's public affairs office.
"I think it is very true that a lot of people were concerned," she told reporters when asked about a Washington Post report that White House officials were angered when stories of the plan broke earlier last week as President Bush was visiting Asia.
"Clearly there are lots of questions, and lots of issues, and lots of concerns," Clarke said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters on Monday that Bush did not even hear about plans for the new office -- which was formed in November -- until he was in China last week.
"And I think it's fair to say that the president would be troubled by any office that does not as a matter of public policy disseminate the truth and the facts," Fleischer said.
"That's what the president thinks government spokespeople and government public affairs officers -- the government -- must be dedicated to -- dissemination of the truth, facts ...," he added.
Defense officials, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters earlier they were concerned at the Pentagon plan to provide news items and possibly false information directly to foreign journalists and others to bolster U.S. policy and the war on terrorism.
The officials told Reuters they feared the shadowy Office of Strategic Influence, headed by Air Force Gen. Simon Worden, could damage the credibility of the department's everyday public affairs efforts.
Defense and congressional officials said that even the suggestion of mixing clandestine activities with the traditional work of public affairs could create major questions of credibility.
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