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Pentagon steps up 'battle of ideas'

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- The Pentagon's latest recruits are not soldiers, spies or scientists but spin doctors, bloggers and YouTube DIY filmmakers as it prepares to launch a vigorous new media campaign in support of its ongoing military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Monday the U.S. Defense Department announced it was setting up a "rapid response" operation in order to "get inside the 24/7 news cycle" amid growing criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq and the leadership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The new operation is dedicated to providing "more timely responses to breaking news," reacting promptly to critical coverage and offering Pentagon-friendly "information products" to media organizations.

As well as providing experts, guests and analysts to speak publicly on the Pentagon's behalf to the traditional TV, radio and print media, the new operation will also concentrate on harnessing the growing power of new media as a means of getting its message across.

One branch will be dedicated to "creating products and distributing information" for the Internet such as blogs, podcasts and video content for Web sites such as YouTube.

Ironically, the new Pentagon PR drive is at least partly inspired by the success of al Qaeda and other extremist groups in harnessing the power of the Web.

They have used the Internet to release messages by Osama bin Laden, to broadcast executions of Western hostages and as a propaganda channel to illicit prospective recruits.

"Al Qaeda has demonstrated time and time again how to use the Internet and how to use video effectively," Defense Department Press Secretary Eric Ruff told reporters on Wednesday.

Rumsfeld has also become increasingly frustrated in recent months over "bad news" coming out of Iraq, telling reporters earlier this year he was troubled by the success of extremist groups in "manipulating the media" and by the failure of the U.S. to counter their message.

"If I were grading I would say we probably deserve a 'D' or a 'D-plus' as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's taking place in the world today," said Rumsfeld.

Although the Pentagon's renewed PR drive marks a new stage in Rumsfeld's "battle of ideas," it is not the first time the U.S. military has sought to influence and manipulate the media, or used alternative channels to get its message across.

In 2002 the U.S. Army released the freely downloadable computer game "America's Army" as a "cost-effective recruitment tool," selling a positive image of military life to American teenagers. The game was downloaded 1.5 million times in its first six months, making it the most successful game launch in history.

Yet "America's Army" also contained an explicit political message. "Young people need to know the army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms," project director Colonel E Casey Wardynski told the Guardian newspaper in 2002.

And last year USA Today reported that the Pentagon's psychological warfare experts at the U.S. Special Operations Command had spent $300 million on an operation to place pro-American messages in foreign media outlets and to promote U.S. foreign policy via Web sites, newspapers and through novelty items such as bumper stickers and t-shirts.

"While the product may not carry the label, 'Made in the USA,' we will respond truthfully if asked," Mike Furlong, deputy director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, told the newspaper.

In 2002 the New York Times also reported that the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), set up in October 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, was "developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations" in an effort to "influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries."

The OSI was closed down soon afterwards amid public concerns about its role, though Rumsfeld appeared to hint to reporters later in the year that its work would continue, saying, "You can have the name, but I'm gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have."

Perhaps, in the world of media spin where Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and al Qaeda are fighting their "battle of ideas," the first casualty, as in war, will always be truth.

Donald Rumsfeld has expressed concern over extremist groups' success in "manipulating the media."

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