Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
At the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. government fielded a worldwide network of propagandists, publicists, and payoff artists. The United States Information Agency (USIA) ran hundreds of information specialists abroad and produced enough films to rival Hollywood's top studios, all to sell the world on the goodness of America--and the evils of communism. There were USIA-run cultural centers and libraries in foreign capitals, Fulbright Scholarships and other exchange programs from the State Department, plus the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The CIA's covert payoffs, for better or worse, bought the allegiance of entire political parties in Italy and Japan. Other funds went secretly to sympathetic journalists, scholars, and labor leaders.
Exposes of CIA funding and abuses took their toll starting in the late 1960s, curtailing many of the secret programs. With the implosion of communism, Congress set about searching for a "peace dividend" and pared back what programs of influence remained. Convinced that USIA was a Cold War relic, conservatives in 1999 forced the Clinton administration to collapse the agency into the State Department. Hundreds of staffers were let go or retired, cutting the nation's public diplomacy corps by as much as 40 percent. American libraries abroad were shuttered, and exchange programs and foreign broadcasting dropped by a third. By the time al Qaeda's pilots flew their hijacked planes into Lower Manhattan, the U.S. government had ceded management of America's image abroad to Hollywood producers and rap musicians.
"Spring chickens?" After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials began to ponder how to get their message out. The Taliban, for all their backwardness, were scoring propaganda successes, and much of the Muslim world refused to believe that Arabs were even behind the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. To fight back, officials set up Coalition Information Centers in Washington, London, and Islamabad, Pakistan. But the centers focused largely on breaking news, putting out fires in a 24-hour news cycle the likes of which the Cold War had never seen. Responding to the world's media, including the often-inflammatory new Arab satellite network called al Jazeera, left little time to formulate a strategy that got at the roots of Islamic terrorism.
Pulling out those roots was a task more fitting for the CIA, the White House concluded. Just weeks after 9/11, in a secret national security directive, President Bush gave the CIA carte blanche to wage a worldwide war against al Qaeda. Among the activities authorized: propaganda and political warfare. But when it came to campaigns of influence, the agency's clandestine service was "dead as a doornail," says former Middle East operative Reuel Marc Gerecht. Once staffed by hundreds, the CIA's strategic influence section was down to some 20 people by late 2001, sources tell U.S. News . "We had precious few assets left," says another agency veteran. "And none of them were spring chickens." When a group of outsiders visited the unit, one recalls, they were literally met by a woman with a walker.
At the Pentagon, top officials wondered why more wasn't being done. The military's psyop units ran airborne TV and radio stations, showered millions of leaflets on countries, and distributed everything from comic books to giant kites in order to sway minds. But they had little know-how in combating a global movement of radical Islam. In response, military leaders ordered up their own operation--a new Office of Strategic Influence, charged with waging an information war against Islamic terrorism and the ideology behind al Qaeda. But stung by misleading reports that it would spread disinformation, OSI closed its doors just four months after it opened (box, Page 30).