Monday, December 05, 2005

Perception Management

Last month, Rolling Stone Magazine had an article written about by James Bamford discussing the role that a company called "The Rendon Group" played in starting the War in Iraq.

In this report, it mentions how the CIA had determined that Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who was saying that he personally worked on 20 sites where Saddam Hussein was rebuilding a program for weapons of mass destruction, was not credible. He did not pass a polygraph test, and the CIA concluded that he was lying.

Nonetheless, the Iraqi National Congress, a group of dissidents that the Rendon Group set up and even named, went to work using al-Haideri to promote the war. They invited New York Times reporter Judith Miller to Thailand to interview al-Haideri. As a result, Miller wrote a front-page article in the New York Times titled, An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites. They also contacted an Australian journalist, Paul Moran, to do a broadcast version of the same story.

The intent was to manipulate the perceptions that Americans had concerning how dangerous Saddam Hussein was, and to get them (us) to support President Bush's attack on that country. To do this, it did not matter if the CIA thought that al-Haideri was lying. Americans (us) would not have access to this information.

After the stories broke, the Bush Administration then pointed to these stories as evidence that Hussein was a threat and that we needed to attack. They said this, while the CIA had the polygraph tapes and the report that branded al-Haideri a liar. Collin Powell used al-Haideri as a source when he gave his testimony before the UN (though it may be that Powell was lead to believe that al-Haideri's information could be trusted).

It is illegal for the Bush Administration to disseminate propaganda to Americans. However, propaganda may be used outside of the United States against the leaders and citizens of other countries to yield an outcome more favorable to the United States. This explains why Judith Miller was flown to Bangkok, Thailand to interview al-Haideri, and why an Australian journalist was used for the broadcast rights. Of course, these stories made their way into the American press, but the information was collected overseas, so it was considered legal.

Moral Law vs. Statute

I would like the reader to notice how often the Bush Administration defends its policies by saying, "Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture." On the question of torture, the Bush Administration's policy was to put together a legal defense against criminal charges that Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch characterized as, "It appears that what they were contemplating was the commission of war crimes and looking for ways to avoid legal accountability.”

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Europe arguing that the American practice with regard to the treatment of prisoners violates no national or international statute. In order to keep the abuse of prisoners legal, they are held in countries that do not have the same restrictions that are found in America. This begs the question: Either America’s laws against prisoner abuse are too strict, or what goes on in other countries is wrong. Legal, perhaps, but still wrong.

If all a person needs to claim to prove that they have done nothing immoral was that they broke no laws, then slavery was perfectly moral, up to the day that it became illegal. All of those abolitionists who were saying that slavery was wrong -- that legal slavery does not imply moral slavery -- were mistaken, if we take the Bush Administration's interpretation of wrong seriously. If we were to take the Bush Administration's interpretation of morality seriously, then they need to change their views on abortion as well. It, too, is legal, so only a Bush Administration hypocrite could call it immoral.

As a matter of fact, just as slavery can be immoral even where it is legal, the torture and abuse of prisoners can also be immoral even where it is legal. Bush's claim that he has violated no law is meaningless; a person can stand on the right side of the law and still fall on the wrong side of what is right.

The same policy seems to apply to the Bush Administration’s plan to turn the government’s propaganda arm on the American people – legally, of course. Since the law allows only prohibits domestic propaganda, and permits foreign propaganda, there can be no wrong in planting stories on foreign soil that will flow back into the American press. After all, it is not illegal. That which is not illegal is not wrong.


How many of the things that we think we know were given to us as a result of propaganda? How much of our world’s view was the result of having our perceptions managed by a professional?

Organizations such as The Rendon Group do not win up to $100 million dollars worth of contracts for nothing. They win these contracts because they are effective. They win these contracts because our perceptions can be manipulated, and they know how to do it. So, if our perceptions can be manipulated, and there are paid professionals out there working to manipulate them, then how much of what we think we know, how much of what we believe, and, even how much of what we value, is based on this manipulation?

I find this to be an uncomfortable question to ask.

Honestly, I have to ask this question about the Rolling Stones article: Is this an example of a planted story designed to manipulate my perceptions? Is James Bamford engaged in a campaign to get me to perceive the Bush Administration as he wants me to perceive it, without regard to the facts? Consider Mr. Rendon’s response to the article and Mr. Bamford’s counter-response on the end.

Of course, each individual is going to say, “My perceptions have not been manipulated. I know the truth. It is all those other people who disagree with me who have let their brains get washed by propaganda and half-truths.”


How wonderful it would be to have this particular immunity.

The best we can do is to try to correct for these tendencies. The moral question is: How many of us really try? How much harder is it to succeed with “perception managers” out there using our money to finance our failure?

If we truly want to make up our own minds about things, we have to have accurate information. We have to create a culture that considers it a virtue to respect others enough not to intentionally “manage” their “perceptions”. We need to create a culture that condemns those who think that manipulating our minds is proper, and reward those who think that we are worthy of treating with respect by giving us an honest assessment of the situation.

The Rendon Group used our tax money to get us to believe something that was not true, and to coax us into a war that an “unmanaged” American public might have rejected. It’s not that they caused us to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that it did not have. Rather, it caused us to believe that there was credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

Of course, where a professional organization such as this can convince us that there is credible evidence of something where none exists, it would not be difficult for them to also manage our perceptions in the opposite direction – blinding us to credible evidence that does exist.

Would it not be nice to have organizations giving us information that we can actually trust?

But, then, who would pay for it?

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