An exposé by humorist Art Buchwald

by Sachi Sri Kantha

In Washington DC, the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence has been buried, at least officially. But who knows whether that information itself was a lie? The recent news that the American embassy in Colombo had admonished the LTTE about not jeopardizing the currently-fermenting peace talks had to be taken with a pinch of salt, after reading the following humorous exposé Art Buchwald penned recently. For its biting humor and worth on understanding the minds of Washington’s Poo-Bahs, first I reproduce the Buchwald’s piece in entirety. It was captioned as, ‘Truth dodges the big bullet.” Then, I briefly make my observations. Buchwald had written,

“When the Pentagon is at war, it comes up with some nifty ideas. The latest one was the Office of Strategic Influence. Its role was to coordinate public news releases and to plant false information with friends and foes alike.

The brass thought it was a neat idea until the American public found out about it. (Once again, blame the news media.) The uproar was so loud that Donald Rumsfeld, the most trusted man in government, had to deny that the Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence would tell lies and spread misleading misinformation, whichever came first.

Ordinarily that would be enough for me, as Rumsfeld has such an honest face. But then I started to think – suppose the secretary of defense was putting out the denial at the request of the Office of Strategic Influence? Was Rumsfeld sending up a trial balloon to find out if North Korea, Iran and Iraq, that notorious ‘axis of evil’, would buy it?

The reaction was so negative that the secretary of defense, at the urging of the president [Bush], decided, after a week, to shut down the office. This does not mean that the Pentagon will stop putting out fibs. It will simply manipulate its misinformation under other names.

This is not the first time the United States has trafficked in misinformation. It has always been the CIA’s job, and the agency was upset that someone was moving in on its territory. I know this because when I lived in Europe, some of the top CIA agents were planting misinformation behind and in front of the Iron Curtain.

This is how it worked: Langley headquarters [of the CIA] would fabricate a story that the Hungarians were selling rotten potatoes to Poland. The furious Poles would be so mad they’d start selling rotten tomatoes to the Hungarians. Both countries would begin calling up their reserves.

When it was shaped up, the story was cabled to a CIA agent in Paris, who planted it with a reporter from L’Humanite, the Communist paper. It was then read by the Washington Post correspondent in Yugoslavia and cabled back to the United States and printed as a factual dispatch.

The next morning, a high-ranking official at the State Department in Washington woke up and read that the Hungarians and Poles might go to war over potatoes and tomatoes. He called a meeting of the Hungarian-Polish Ad Hoc Committee and they discussed the role the United States should play. As a precaution, they advocated calling up the NATO airborne special forces team to guard the Hungarian-Polish border. State [Department of USA] didn’t know it was Langley that had put the game into play and had almost started World War III.

This was always the danger of the Pentagon having its people in the propaganda business. Everyone is aware that no one at the Pentagon knows what other people are doing, but by lying they would have the ability to launch planes, tanks and ships before learning what the true situation was. Patriotic Americans would stop believing in what their leaders were telling them.

So far we’re telling the truth about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. We are saying we don’t know and everyone is buying it. But if the Pentagon says, at a military briefing, that they know where he is, everyone will ask, ‘Then why don’t we kill the SOB?’

Trying to influence people in war can get everyone working in government into a lot of trouble. But once again, Rumsfeld has saved the day by telling the truth.” [International Herald Tribune, March 7, 2002]

My observations

No one other than a few handfuls like Andy Rooney and David Letterman, can lampoon the Poo-Bahs who currently operate in Washington DC like Art Buchwald. I especially liked his thought that, “I started to think – suppose the secretary of defense was putting out the denial at the request of the Office of Strategic Influence?”

Thus I have a strong suspicion that Donald Rumsfeld’s denial to the contrary, the ‘Office of Strategic Influence’ is operating anonymously and Colombo has been chosen as the first case study. This explains the “sternly-worded statement from the U.S. Embassy” as reported by Nirupama Subramanian’s dispatch from Colombo to Chennai, which appeared in the Hindu newspaper of March 12, 2002. This Nirupama Subramanian is a spitting image of what Art Buchwald has lampooned in his satire as the Washington Post correspondent in Yugoslavia.

14 March 2002