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Dod Document Dump: Who Needs Ethics?

Remember that Pentagon program, revealed last month, that fed talking points to supposedly objective military analysts to push the Bush administration's line on Iraq? The Department of Defense just released thousands of documents from the program, so we asked Government Executive correspondent and TNR contributor Alyssa Rosenberg to sift through the documents and see what she can find:

The U.S. government defines "Psychological Operations (PSYOPS)" as "planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, [and] objective reasoning." These propaganda strategies, however, are not allowed to "target U.S. citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any circumstances," on the directions of Executive Order S-12333.

All this makes me wonder: Did the military analysts program--which The New York Times describes as efforts "to exploit ideological and military allegiances"--constitute an illegal psychological operation against the American public? There is a thin line between disseminating legitimate information (the function of any government public relations office) and conducting a psychological operation. But given the lack of disclosure about the program and the pressure placed on analysts to provide favorable coverage or lose access to sources and information, I'd say the program veers into murky territory.

The answer probably lies partially in the intentions of Defense Department officials (which are likely beyond the reach of anything but a subpoena) and partially in the morass of documents released by the military to The New York Times. But the administration's attempts at information control aren't just clear in the talking points, but also in the way they were released.

One of the letters responding to the Times document request explains that "Ms. Allison Barber, an Initial Denial Authority for the OASD (PA), has determined that some of the redacted information is exempt from release," including "inter- or intra-agency communications protected by the deliberative process privilege."

Barber is also Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Internal Communications and Public Liaison, who is presumably the same Allison Barber who received memos about the military analysts' briefing sessions and welcomed them on board flights to Guantanamo. She also organized--and choreographed--an infamous 2005 teleconference between Bush and U.S. troops stationed in Tikrit that was designed to demonstrate high levels of military support for the president's war policies. That track record would seem--under normal standards of ethics, which don't seem to be the bar here--to disqualify her for reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests, especially for information concerning her own activities.

The DOD touts the fact that it "declassified and posted on the Internet highly sensitive memoranda on interrogation techniques" to prove it has nothing to hide. But if this 8,000--page document dump--a maze of duplicated memos and organizational charts, fat packets of favorable press clippings and redacted names, vetted by the very people whose actions and careers it concerns--taught me anything about the Defense Department's approach to the war in Iraq, it's that when you're looking for the truth, sometimes it's not what you have, but what you don't have that counts.

DOD Document Dump, Part 1: The Joke's On Us
DOD Document Dump, Part 2: Girl Power!
DOD Document Dump, Part 3: Grave Concerns
DOD Document Dump, Part 4: Gitmo Fieldtrip!

--Alyssa Rosenberg