[above: Office of War Information research workers, 1943]
The Afghanistan Papers, published by The Washington Post on Dec. 9, have demonstrated that successive U.S. administrations have deliberately and systematically disinformed the nation about the nature of the conflict, its course, and prospects.
This should be no surprise to those who have studied the modern history of foreign affairs and the growth of government control over information, and particularly its grip on the public perception of foreign conflicts. What is striking is how successful government disinformation efforts have been, especially when compared with the ramshackle attempts of earlier decades.
Starting around 1800, the management of mass communications for power purposes has grown into an important component of every major power’s war effort. France was the pioneer in the field of systematic collection, processing, and presentation of information to the public, which is now known as Information Management (IM). Napoleon was an early expert in IM, in addition to his military and legal talents.
The French press was state-controlled and its tenor reflected the cult of the Emperor. Nevertheless, as the Napoleonic era newspaper collection shows, newspapers such as Le Moniteur and La Gazette de France continued to report quite accurately the movement of the armies and the shifting political landscape. This was the case even Bonaparte’s fortunes declined, starting with his ruinous withdrawal from Moscow in 1812 and the desertion of his unwilling Prussian and Austrian allies in 1813.
On the other side of the Channel, the British government was unable to rein in the press, which was mostly but by no means uniformly anti-Napoleonic. Press liberty was regarded by all but the most diehard Tories as part of the traditional English freedoms which the government could not curtail, war or no war. Across the political spectrum, newspaper reports of battles and politics were impressively accurate, even when unfavorable for Britain’s allies.
This tradition of press accuracy in reporting foreign military affairs set the terms for the ensuing two centuries. In the First World War, Great Britain discovered what seemed the right mix of deceitful propaganda and accurate news reporting. The early efforts of British propagandists were crude but effective—notably the anti-German atrocity stories in 1914-15—and increasingly sophisticated thereafter, as manifested by the Lusitania affair. By early 1918, the British government established the Ministry of Information (MOI), the first body of its kind in the world. While employing a range of psychological tricks, the British always tried to be seen to be as a reliable source of information.
The MOI was disbanded in late 1918 “because official propaganda had become too easily associated with lies and falsehood,” historian David Welch, author of the book Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II, told the BBC in 2016. “In World War Two when the MOI was re-established the Ministry was acutely aware of the cynicism associated with propaganda. It was agreed that, with the exception of harmful and unbelievable truths, whenever possible the truth should be told.” On the whole it was told, even during the darkest days of 1940-42, between Dunkirk and the fall of Singapore.
During the World War II, the German High Command issued regular bulletins about the situation on various fronts, and the core information remained reliable throughout the ups and downs of the war. These Wehrmachtberichten were separate from the propaganda efforts of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. While they adopted a sober tone after Stalingrad, even after Normandy they did not lie about the actual position and shifts of the front lines.
In the first 30 months of World War II, the American public was informed accurately on who was doing what to whom in Europe and the Far East, even though the prevailing tone of the press was strongly pro-British and—after June 1941—pro-Soviet. Shortly after Midway, President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI), to manage the news and to enthuse the American public for the war effort.
The OWI’s establishment marked an important watershed: a centralized propaganda agency came into being, with an inherent ambition to become the main distributor of wartime information. Furthermore, unlike its British counterpart, the OWI came to resemble the German propaganda effort. While refraining from directly lying to the public, it routinely blended filtered news with politically slanted commentary. The carte blanche to emulate Goebbels was obvious when Roosevelt gave the OWI the mission to take “an active part in winning the war and in laying the foundations for a better postwar world.”
The consequences were predictable. Several senior OWI writers resigned in April 1943 for what they regarded as “a turn away from the fundamental, complex issues of the war in favor of manipulation and stylized exhortation.” According to their press release, they no longer felt they could give an objective picture of the war, because “high-pressure promoters who prefer slick salesmanship to honest information” dictated OWI decision-making. Other senior staff, far more numerous, adored the USSR and Stalin. Three dozen were fired between 1943 and 1945 for their overt communist sympathies or Party associations. They were doubly motivated to produce deceitful propaganda: by FDR’s own decree, and by their ideological convictions. Regardless of whether and to what extent one or the other prevailed, the truth was certain to suffer.
In the ensuing decades, during the Cold War, the U.S. government covertly created or funded cultural institutions, activities, and publications which had the objective of discrediting the communist ideology in general and the Soviet system in particular. In 1950 the CIA founded the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) which published the London-based Encounter magazine (1953-1991). The cloak-and-dagger stories of spooks dropping brown envelopes filled with cash on Melvin Lasky’s cluttered desk may be embellished, but on the whole it was a worthy effort which relied on authors of substance. It was conducted with skill and imagination. Moscow had been successful in appealing to a broad segment of West European intellectuals before, during, and immediately after World War II, but by the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the crudity of its propaganda became obvious compared to the more nuanced U.S. effort.
No such sophistication was deemed necessary, however, when it came to selling wars of choice to the American public. The tradition established by FDR in 1942 is alive and well to this day. Its particularly egregious roadmarks are the invented Bay of Tonkin incident, which led to the war in Vietnam; the weapons of mass destruction fib, which led to the war in Iraq; the myth of massacres, which led to the Kosovo war; and—as we now know due to the Afghanistan Papers—the Afghan war. That war itself, rather than a specific incident, is a massive and deliberate campaign of disinformation and lies. It started when the GIs entered Kabul in late 2001. It has continued for the ensuing 18 years and continues still.
According to Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers related to Vietnam, the same old dynamic is present almost half a century later: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko was more succinct: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”
Expressions of shock and outrage sparked by the Afghanistan Papers evoke a wry smile among those of us who are familiar with the American left-right political duopoly’s way of managing information in general, and war information in particular. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s just business as usual. Close to three thousand Americans have died for the Lie, two trillion dollars have been wasted, but nobody will be tried, or named and shamed.
Afghanistan is not a crime of the Deep State. It is an ongoing joint criminal conspiracy of the American state-as-such against the American people.
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