How rocket scientists got into the hearts-and-minds game
Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's hawkish under secretary of defense, was on the phone with an intriguing offer. It was just weeks after 9/11, and Feith was talking to Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, deputy director of operations at the U.S. Space Command in Colorado. The nation faced not just al Qaeda but a global war of ideas against radical Islam, Feith said, and the Pentagon needed an out-of-the-box thinker. Would Worden come to Washington? Out-of-the box is a fair description of Worden. An astronomer by training, he was a principal architect of the Star Wars missile defense system in the 1980s. When Feith called, he was working on ways of defending Earth from asteroids. A maverick with a reputation for getting things done, Worden found Feith's offer irresistible.
Within weeks, Worden was putting together a new Office of Strategic Influence, with $100 million of Pentagon emergency funds. His 19-person staff included experts in psychological warfare and specialists on the Middle East, overseen by veterans of the space program. The Pentagon's war of ideas was being run, literally, by rocket scientists.
"The atomic bomb." OSI brought in leading scholars and asked some basic questions: Why do they hate us? How do you cut off terrorist recruitment? Of special interest were the thousands of Islamic schools, the madrasahs, in Pakistan's lawless border areas. The impoverished region was a hotbed, its schools churning out thousands of inflamed jihadists. The conflict between Islam and the West, Worden concluded, is really a battle between the 12th and 21st centuries. And America, he thought, ought to play to its strengths by bringing 21st-century technology to bear. Using computers and state-of-the-art communications, they would flood the border region with the most powerful force they could muster--ideas. Millions of them.
The plan was radical in its simplicity: "to provide direct, unfettered access to global information," according to an OSI report. Their chief weapon was to be a WorldSpace digital receiver, an $80 satellite radio that could pull in over a hundred channels and work virtually anywhere. OSI began shipping 80,000 of the radios to the border region, with plans to set up distance-learning channels and expose local children to the music and ideas of the world. "The target was the kids," Worden says. "Information is the atomic bomb."
The radios were just Step 1. OSI planned to install Internet kiosks in villages, using what it called Internet-in-a-box--cheap laptop computers run by solar cells. Then there was the "universal translator" project: Worden's staff readied funds to invest in translation software, hoping to achieve the kind of instant translation seen on Star Trek . OSI planned to use the software to flood closed societies from Syria to North Korea with English lessons, literature, and media from the West.
Shades of Orwell? By January, as the Afghan war wound down, top officials from the Pentagon's Office of Public Affairs began warning that OSI's work would be seen as propaganda and would damage the military's credibility. In late February, came Page 1 news stories "exposing" OSI as scheming to plant "disinformation" in the foreign press that would end up here at home. Editorials and cable-TV pundits denounced the new office as "Orwellian" and "duplicitous." In fact, OSI was none of that. The Pentagon's Office of the General Counsel later scoured the group's planning documents, E-mails, and internal memorandums and found no evidence that OSI was plotting to use disinformation. Indeed, the only time the word appeared was tied to its use by America's enemies. But the damage was done. Unwilling to endure the bad press, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered OSI shut down. The office had lasted a mere four months.
OSI staffers suspected that the Pentagon's public affairs staff had taken them out in a turf battle. "I can't say anything more than that the biggest disinformation campaign was leveled at us," OSI's Lt. Col. Marty France told the Los Angeles Times. Worden told friends that the affair effectively ended his career; he retired a year later. In his first public remarks on the affair, Worden calls himself "a casualty of friendly fire" but says the real tragedy was the loss of OSI. "In a war of ideas, we need to figure out how to prevail," he says. "This is about a lot more than bombs and bullets."
As for those satellite radios, some 25,000 of them did make it to Pakistan. But red tape and OSI's collapse left the project unfinished. The Pentagon, however, has not given up on the premise behind OSI. U.S. News has learned that a new office--a 70-person unit called the Joint Psyop Support Element--has been quietly created to replace Worden's team. This time, Pentagon brass put the new unit at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa--far from the turf wars of Washington.
This story appears in the April 25, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.