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Bush's 'Perception Management' Plan

By Robert Parry
November 18, 2004

George W. Bush has been criticized for disdaining fact in favor of faith in his own instincts. But he is savvy about the dangers that information can present to his authority over the government and the American people.

That is why the first priority of his second term has been the elimination of the few government sources of information that could challenge the images he wants to project to the public. Bush doesn’t want the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency portraying his Iraq and other foreign policies as abject failures or reckless adventures.

So, by attacking these remaining pockets of analytical resistance, Bush is moving to ensure that his administration can keep much of the U.S. population seeing a near-empty cup as almost entirely full, a concept known in the intelligence world as “perception management.”

On a personal level, Bush appears to have found in his electoral victory a validation of his public-relations strategy of casting his foreign policy as a black-and-white war between good and evil. In this tough-talking approach, Bush has been helped immeasurably by the powerful conservative news media, ranging from AM talk radio to Fox News, from right-wing newspaper columnists to Internet bloggers.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand why Americans have grown so detached from reality without appreciating the combined impact of this conservative media – built over the past quarter century – and Bush’s personal insistence on loyalty over almost all other values. These two factors have made the United States a kind of ultimate test for the Orwellian intelligence theories of “perception management.”

Controlling Opinions

“Perception management” – also known as “public diplomacy” – is a propaganda strategy for controlling how a target population views political events. Refined by intelligence services as they tried to manipulate foreign populations, the practice eventually seeped into domestic U.S. politics as a way to manipulate post-Vietnam-War-era public opinion.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration saw the “Vietnam Syndrome” – a reluctance to commit military forces abroad – as a strategic threat to robust Cold War policies. So the administration launched an extraordinary effort to influence how the American people perceived overseas events, essentially by exaggerating threats from abroad and demonizing selected foreign leaders.

Psychological warfare experts from the CIA and Army Special Forces played key roles in implementing the strategy, which was carried out from offices in President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council and a “public diplomacy” bureaucracy set up at the State Department.

The strategy, which included bullying the U.S. news media into line over issues such as the conflicts in Central America, proved remarkably successful. [For more on this history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq or Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press and ‘Project Truth.’]

These lessons were not lost on Dick Cheney and other Republicans who had lived through both the difficult post-Vietnam years and the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s. With the second Bush administration, these experienced Republicans recognized that controlling the flow of government information – and the public’s perception of overseas reality – would again be vital in implementing their vision of a new American Empire for the 21st Century.

During the buildup to the Iraq War, Cheney even went to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to bang heads with intelligence analysts who doubted White House claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Many of these mid-level bureaucrats acquiesced to Cheney’s demands, but others resisted. After the Iraq invasion failed to find WMD, some of these suppressed CIA doubts began surfacing and causing Bush embarrassment, especially during Campaign 2004.

Four More Years

Now, however, with a fresh lease on four more years, Bush is inflicting payback on the CIA, especially its analytical division and its intelligence-gathering network, and on the State Department, whose analysts also questioned Bush’s Middle East policies.

Acting through new CIA Director Porter Goss, the Bush administration read the riot act to Langley’s intelligence professionals that they must get behind Bush’s policies or get out. The demands have led to an exodus of senior CIA officials, including deputy CIA chief John E. McLaughlin and deputy director of operations Stephen R. Kappes.

Bush then replaced Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was pliable but at least known for protecting the department’s bureaucracy. Powell’s successor is the famously compliant national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s ultimate “yes” woman who is so cozy with her boss that she once slipped up at a dinner party and referred to Bush as “my husb…” before catching herself and replacing that with “President Bush.”

The end result will almost surely be that Bush will hear even fewer contradictions to his judgments, while Congress and the news media will be cut off from internal government sources of information that could be used to question Bush’s decisions.

The powerful conservative news media played an important role, too, in setting the stage for these ongoing purges. Conservative columnists, including Robert Novak and David Brooks, pushed the dubious claim that the CIA’s only rightful role is to serve the president. They accused the CIA of disloyalty in trying to sabotage Bush.

“Now that he’s been returned to office, President Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his enemies,” wrote Brooks in the New York Times. “His opponents are found in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain offices of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

To Brooks, the justification for Bush going after the CIA was the release of information that made Bush look bad.

“At the height of the campaign, CIA officials, who are supposed to serve the president and stay out of politics and policy, served up leak after leak to discredit the president’s Iraq policy,” Brooks wrote. “In mid-September, somebody leaked a CIA report predicting a gloomy or apocalyptic future for the region. Later that month, a senior CIA official, Paul Pillar, reportedly made comments saying he had long felt the decision to go to war would heighten anti-American animosity in the Arab world.” [NYT, Nov. 13, 2004]

Bush as Victim

In other words, conservative commentators were afraid that plainly accurate analyses by CIA officials represented a threat to Bush’s power and justified his exacting retribution against these out-of-step analysts. It seems that no matter how much power Bush and the Republicans amass, their media apologists always make them out to be the victims.

It’s also a misunderstanding of history to claim that the CIA exists to “serve the president.” While it may be true that the “operations directorate” was created as a secret paramilitary arm for the U.S. executive, the CIA’s analytical division was established to provide unvarnished information to both the president and other parts of the U.S. government, including Congress.

Even at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA’s analytical division took pride in telling presidents what they didn’t want to hear – such as debunking Eisenhower’s “bomber gap” or Kennedy’s “missile gap” or Johnson’s faith in the air war against North Vietnam.

Though never perfectly applied, the ethos of objective analysis continued through the mid-1970s. Then, CIA analysis began to come under sustained attack from conservatives and neoconservatives who insisted that the Soviet Union was a rapidly expanding military menace with its eye on world conquest. The CIA analytical division held a more nuanced view of the Soviet threat, viewing Moscow as a declining superpower struggling to keep pace with the West while coping with fissures inside its own empire.

This CIA analysis was the backdrop for the “détente strategy” followed by President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who sought to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s Emergence

Nixon’s ouster over the Watergate scandal and Ronald Reagan’s entrance on the national stage in 1976, however, altered the political dynamic. Scared by Reagan’s successes in the Republican primaries, President Gerald Ford ordered the word “détente” dropped from the White House lexicon and let then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush open up the CIA’s analytical division to an unprecedented challenge from right-wing intellectuals, known as “Team B.”

The “Team B” assessment, involving a young academic named Paul Wolfowitz, accused the CIA analytical division of systematically underestimating the growing Soviet threat. In late 1976, accommodating this conservative wing of the Republican Party, Bush adopted a more alarmist CIA estimate of Soviet power.

When Reagan became president in 1981, with Bush as his vice president, the assault on the CIA’s analytical division resumed in earnest. Analysts who balked at the new administration’s ideological vision of the Soviet Union as a 10-foot-tall behemoth were shunted aside or forced out of the CIA.

The CIA’s once proud Soviet division took the brunt of the attacks. The surviving analysts began ignoring the mounting evidence of a rapid Soviet decline, so as not to contradict the Reagan-Bush justification for an expanded U.S. military and for bloody interventions in Third World conflicts from Nicaragua to Afghanistan.

‘Perception Management’

Having fitted the CIA with these ideological blinders, the Reagan-Bush administration next turned to whipping the American people into line. There, the magic words were “perception management,” as propagandists developed “themes” to frighten American citizens about threats from leftist-ruled Nicaragua or from peasant rebellions in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Rather than internal civil wars against corrupt oligarchies, these conflicts were pitched as “beachheads” for a Soviet assault on the southern border of the United States.

In reality, Moscow couldn’t even keep control along its own borders. But the Reagan-Bush intimidation of the U.S. intelligence system proved so effective that CIA analysts wouldn’t dare let themselves see the signs of the Soviet crackup.

Ironically, when the Soviet Empire collapsed in the late 1980s, the CIA took the blame for “missing” one of the most important political events of the Twentieth Century. Ironically, too, Reagan, who was most responsible for building up the Soviet straw man, got the most credit when it fell down. [For details on this intelligence failure, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Since then, I have talked with CIA veterans who acknowledge that they overstated the Soviet threat despite valid intelligence from their own agents inside the Soviet bloc who were describing the internal problems. But this U.S. intelligence failure was not just one of misjudgments; it was one of ideological pressure that distorted the reality that then became the basis for U.S. government policies and was sold to the American people as how they should perceive the world.

That pattern is now recurring. Intelligence is being manipulated to justify policy, rather than letting objective analysis inform policy. Bush makes his decisions based on his “gut” instincts and then the evidence is compiled to justify his decisions.

The next step will be the continued management of the perceptions of the American people. As U.S. intelligence agencies sing along to Bush’s tune, the propaganda will be amplified through the vast conservative media echo chamber. The mainstream press can be counted on to join the chorus.

Reality was on the ballot on Nov. 2. It seems to have lost.


Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.

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