The U.S. Defense Department is taking a new approach in its battle against Islamist militants around the world - it is moving to expand its press operation. Officials say the goals are to counter terrorist propaganda, to respond more quickly to inaccurate or unfavorable news items and to make more use of new media, such as the Internet.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's media office is hiring more people, giving some existing staff members new duties and building a wall across its main work room in what Press Secretary Eric Ruff calls an effort to transform the department's public affairs operation to make it faster and better.
Ruff says the department wants to respond more quickly to breaking news and what he calls "inaccurate stories" in the media.
In spite of the new emphasis on speed, by the end of the day the Pentagon was not able to answer questions posed at Ruff's morning briefing about how many people are being added to the media staff, exactly what their jobs will be and how much the effort will cost.
Secretary Rumsfeld has frequently lamented his department's inability to respond quickly to negative or inaccurate stories, and he has accused militant Islamists of trying to manipulate media coverage of stories like the war in Iraq. He made this comment in August.
"They're waging a psychological war of attrition, designing their attacks to gain maximum media coverage and maximum public outcry, hoping to get free people to give in to the extremists," he said.
President Bush has also said that the United States can only lose in Iraq if the American people lose the will to fight, something he said last week the terrorists are trying to make happen through the media.
"We must not fall prey to the sophisticated propaganda by the enemy, who is trying to undermine our confidence and make us believe that our presence in Iraq is the cause of all its problems," he said.
Many experts agree that public relations may be as important as military efforts in the war on terrorism. Among them is Associate Professor Susan Moeller of the University of Maryland's journalism school.
"War at some level is always about public opinion," she said. "And now with the conflict against terrorism globally, and with hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war for public opinion both domestically and international has only become more critical."
But Professor Moeller says as the Pentagon becomes more active on the media battlefield, it must make sure that its increased volleys of information are accurate.
"One of the challenges that the military is going to face is to tell its message, to tell it accurately," she said. "If it is just spinning the message, just spinning what's out there, it's not going to be accepted, certainly not by its international audience, but eventually not by its domestic audience either."
Secretary Rumsfeld has said that terrorists do not care whether the information they put out is accurate or not, while the Pentagon tries to be as accurate as possible, often resulting in delays in responding to news reports. The secretary is concerned that as a result the Pentagon's information gets less coverage, and has less influence on public opinion, than the original media reports. But Professor Moeller says the profusion of information sources in recent years has made it easier for people to figure out what is true and what is not, and through that to determine who to believe next time.
The Pentagon press secretary, Eric Ruff, says part of the new effort will focus on getting the Defense Department's viewpoint into new media, such as Internet blogs and podcasts, and also to provide department officials for more radio and television programs. At a briefing, he denied a reporter's suggestion that the department is trying to go around reporters for major news organizations who cover the Pentagon on a regular basis.
One part of the effort has already begun - an increase in the number of letters sent to news organizations to rebut what the Pentagon says are inaccurate stories. At least five such letters were published in various U.S. newspapers on Monday alone, including one in the Washington Post. In addition, the department has begun making public letters it sends to news organizations that are not published.
The press secretary confirmed that the initiative was approved by the department's new Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Dorrance Smith. He came to the Pentagon earlier this year. At about that time, Secretary Rumsfeld said he would give his own department's media operation a grade of 'D' or 'D-plus' - which is barely a passing grade in American schools. Ruff says the new initiative is designed to improve that.