When a bodyguard of lies was possible

Once upon a time in WW2 there was a US government agency called the Office of War Information (OWI), and in England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that 'Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.'

Both the OWI and Churchill's firm belief that the truth must be guarded were grounded in what is now called 'information warfare,' which runs the gamut from wartime news and propoganda to military deception.

During WW2, America and her allies were fighting a global war against Axis powers every bit as evil and deadly as the terrorist enemy we now face.  As was the case then, information in all its aspects remains a powerful weapon in the global war on terrorism.  But in this 21st Century, with its 24/7 news cycle, instantaneous worldwide communication, the internet, hostile foreign broadcasts and agenda—driven domestic media, a fundamental question must be asked.

Is it still possible to plan and sustain a bodyguard of lies?

'In recognition of the right of the American people and all other peoples opposing Axis aggression to be truthfully informed about the common war effort,' FDR authorized establishment of the Office of War Information in June 1942. Under the direction of well—known and tough minded broadcaster, Elmer Davis, the OWI disseminated information via newspapers, radio, movies and other outlets, generating propoganda themes for them all. It coordinated all government agencies in their handling of information.  Its Office of Policy Information conducted psychological operations abroad, propogating information aimed at weakening enemy morale and increasing support for the allied war effort.

The fact that OWI controlled war news did not mean that Americans were not made aware of the grim facts of battle, which were to be found in the works of Ernie Pyle and other correspondents, combat cameramen, combat artists and elsewhere.

From Churchill's famous phrase came the code—name Plan Bodyguard, which protected the most important secret of WW2, the time and place for the Operation Overlord D—Day landings.  It was a global strategic deception plan.  All other deception operations in all theaters at the time, down to the tactical level, were conceived in concert with that master plan.  Overseeing all Bodyguard activities from his bunker beneath Great George Street was Colonel John H. Bevan's London Control Section, which communicated and coordinated with American counterparts in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Security Control.  And the Joint Security Control communicated and coordinated with the Office of War Information, among other government agencies. 

That was then.  This is now.   Now, as when an attempt to establish an OWI—like agency called the Office of Strategic Influence in 2002 was sabotaged by a hostile domestic media.  In February of that year, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith met with Pentagon reporters to discuss the new information warfare effort.  They were deaf to Feith's repeated assertion that 'we are not going to endanger the credibility of our public affairs (officers).'  This was in regard to the reporters' belief in the rabid rumor that Pentagon PA officers would now be planting false stories for them to repeat.  Mind you, these are some of the same reporters who are only too willing to publish bogus stories based on anonymous sources that damage national security, harm soldiers in Iraq and damage troop morale. 

Which brings us to Marine spokesman LT Lyle Gilbert.  As reported in a December 1 Los Angeles Times article,  he appeared on CNN the night of October 14, 2004 saying, 'Troops crossed the line of departure.  It's going to be a long night.' 

CNN got its self—righteous knickers in a twist over this because, in fact, the Fallujah offense had not yet begun.  What they did not comprehend was that the operation had begun and that its plan called for a bit of deception, which remains a standard and integrated component of military operations.

Not reported in the LA Times article, which started the current buzz about psyops and information warfare, is the fact that LT Gilbert had more to say.  The next day, Agent France—Presse (AFP) reported him stating that a thousand US troops, tanks and Iraqi special forces were moving towards Fallujah.  Gilbert followed up with the explanation that 'the mission (of deployed forces) is to disrupt the militants' ability to conduct terror attacks.'

Every good deception plan is credible and consistent.  Its purpose is to confuse the enemy, keep him off—balance and provide the good guys with a tactical advantage.  That first October 'assault' may have been a fake, but what about the next one?  What if it is real and we, the bad guys, don't react properly?  Recall that just prior to the actual assault on Fallujah, two probing feints were conducted at its 'front door' which made the 'back door' a much more vulnerable and less dangerous point of entry for Marine and Army forces.  Here, the bodyguard, or body armor, of deception protected the truth about the timing and direction of the actual assault from the terrorists in Fallujah.  Why should an American media outlet complain about being a part of that tremendously successful battle?

The information warfare activity devoted to deception operations is alive and well in Iraq and elsewhere. Coordinating and integrating that sort of decelption with the entire spectrum of information warfare is a daunting proposition, in the face of domestic and foreign media with their own agendas and their own desire to be a powerful dominant influence . 

Whether or not America can establish an effective OWI—like high—level office to wield the weapon of information in our global war on terror remains to be seen. In the meantime, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, 'This is a war of ideas."  Indeed; one that we can and must win.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian