WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- If you liked the lie about the murder of Kuwaiti babies after Iraq's invasion of the oil-rich emirate in 1990, you'll love the Office of Strategic Information.
That is, if the Pentagon's new office of shadow plays survives in the form it had been envisioned.
Last week The New York Times reported that the Defense Department is paying the Rendon Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm, $100,000 per month to help the OSI with a broad campaign that would include "black" propaganda, or disinformation -- commonly known as lies.
This brought to mind one of the most notorious pieces of disinformation promulgated the last time the government wanted to build public support for a war against Iraq. It was fabricated by Hill and Knowlton, one of the world's largest public relations firms. This is the story that in 1990 invading Iraqi soldiers pulled Kuwaiti premature babies from their incubators and left them to die on the cold floor.
The Bush administration has scrambled away from the storm of criticism sparked by the Times' report, and the president promised Monday that his government would not lie about defense policy. On Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on NBC's "Meet the Press": "The person in charge is debating whether it should even exist in its current form, given all the misinformation and adverse publicity it has received."
The OSI was created shortly after Sept. 11 to build public support abroad for the U.S. war on terrorism.
On Wednesday, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith told reporters that the Pentagon would never lie to the public. But United Press International's Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess wrote that Feith "refused to rule out the possibility that hired guns -- private lobbying or public relations firms with more legal latitude -- would spread misinformation on the Pentagon's behalf."
On Monday a spokeswoman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense said Feith's words had been misconstrued.
"I don't think he said that we might hire 'hired guns,'" said Army Lt. Col. Catherine Abbot. "I think that's a misinterpretation of what he said."
But the transcript of the Feb. 20 Defense Writers' Group breakfast meeting supports Hess' interpretation. Feith was asked twice if he had ruled out the possibility of contractors spreading disinformation, and he evaded the question both times.
The Rendon Group said it would not lie.
Spokeswoman Jeanne Sklarz declined to discuss the nature of Rendon's contract with the Pentagon. "Let me just say that we have a confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement in place" with the Department of Defense. "We don't speak about the work we do for clients," she told UPI.
"The only thing I can say is that we have not, do not, and will not engage in disinformation."
According to The New York Times, "the Rendon Group has done extensive work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Kuwaiti royal family and the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group seeking to oust President Saddam Hussein. ... The firm is well known for running propaganda campaigns in Arab countries, including one denouncing atrocities by Iraq during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait."
Reminded of Hill and Knowlton's incubator story -- which echoed World War I Allied propaganda that invading German soldiers had bayoneted and mutilated Belgian babies in 1914 -- Sklarz said: "We would not do that. ... (President) John Rendon really believes that you don't need anything other than the truth to deliver messages."
UPI asked Hill and Knowlton if it now acknowledges the incubator story as a deception. "The company has nothing to say on this matter," media liaison Suzanne Laurita replied. When asked if such a deception would be considered part of the public relations business, she answered: "Please know again that this falls into the realm that the agency has no wish to confirm, deny or comment on."
The Iraqi invaders were guilty of enough acts of gratuitous cruelty, as numerous eyewitnesses reported, that one wonders why inventing an atrocity was considered necessary.
Hill and Knowlton did not produce the deception under a federal contract, but rather on behalf of the oil-rich Kuwaiti government. An appearance of U.S. government validation, however, came from a hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Oct. 10, 1990.
In his 1992 book "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," Harpers magazine publisher John R. MacArthur wrote that the caucus is not a committee of Congress, before which it would be a crime to lie under oath. "Lying from under the cover of anonymity to a caucus is merely public relations."
The 15-year-old star witness was indeed anonymous, identified only by her first name of Nayirah. "According to the caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait," MacArthur wrote.
In fact, she was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and her father -- ambassador to the United States Saud Nasir al-Sabah -- sat listening in the hearing room. Sobbing, Nayirah described how she, as a volunteer at al-Addan Hospital in Kuwait City, had seen Iraqi soldiers remove 312 babies from their incubators and leave them to die on the floor.
On Jan. 12, 1991, the U.S. Senate approved support of the war against Iraq by a narrow, five-vote margin. Did the story about the murdered babies make the critical difference?
By the time the deception was exposed, America was basking in the euphoria of the quick Gulf War victory. No one seems very indignant to have been taken in.
Let's hope we don't get any "stories" like this from contractors working for the Office of Strategic Information.