War Stories

Props to Propaganda

The case for lying about terrorists.


In a recent New York Times op-ed, my Slate colleague Robert Wright argued that while Donald Rumsfeld’s military managerial skills are now manifest, he doesn’t seem to have the necessary goods for the wider U.S. effort against terrorism. Wright’s lead example of this was how Rumsfeld handled a reporter’s question about leaflets the Pentagon had dropped into Afghanistan saying that Osama Bin Laden had “abandoned” his followers and featuring a digitally altered photo of him, sans beard and turban, in a tie and coat. Is it a good idea, the reporter wanted to know, for America to become known as a nation that doctors images? (This is a practice the government has persisted in. The United States recently put out re-jiggered Western dress “photos” of the five at-large al-Qaida suicide bomb suspects whose farewell statements were found in Afghanistan.) Wright accurately sums up Rumsfeld’s answer: “he’d never thought about that, then quickly added that, actually, he ‘wasn’t aware’ of the leaflet. Then he said it didn’t matter anyway.” Wright is correct that this isn’t very satisfactory, and he may even be right in suggesting that the sort of insouciance on display here is fatal to the U.S. effort to win friends and influence people around the world. But he’s wrong in saying that the United States shouldn’t have employed the doctored photos.

Rumsfeld might have started off his reply by noting that in World War II, British propagandists did a similar number on Adolf Hitler. Der Führer never danced that jig millions of newsreel viewers saw him dance upon learning of the fall of France—it was a film loop designed to make him look petty and immature. Which, of course, he was. Similarly, the Westernized shot of Bin Laden graphically suggests that he has so little concern for the customs or culture of Afghanistan that he would shed them in an instant to save his ass, and that’s true, too, even if we don’t in fact know that he’s done so.

Rumsfeld should then have reminded the reporter that, as Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” In other words, war is about defending fundamental principles, and the protection of first truths often requires sacrificing secondary and tertiary ones. And the United States shouldn’t try to project an image around the world of never lying but rather one of not lying about what’s important. The first truth in this case—that the world’s stability and liberty requires neutralizing Bin Laden—clearly trumps the principle that all government-issued depictions of people should be unaltered.

And it’s a somewhat dopey principle anyway. FBI “wanted” posters of long-on-the-lam fugitives often depict them as appropriately aged or in alternative haircuts, although the end-product is, as in the Bin Laden case, not only artificial but also merely based on a hunch. Ditto for pictures of missing kids on milk cartons. Most people can figure out that catching the crook or recovering the kid is a bit more important than preserving the absolute sanctity of photography. Yes, the Bin Laden photo was a bit more misleading than these domestic examples: Most Afghans don’t know from photo alteration, and so those who saw it probably concluded that Bin Laden had definitely gone Western. But so what? He would if he needed to.

The right of government officials to exploit the apparent verisimilitude of photography is like their right to falsely tell a criminal suspect that a confederate has fingered him so that they can secure his true confession, a right that’s been upheld by the Supreme Court. The court ruled that it’s the “totality of circumstances” in the police’s handling of the suspect that matters, not the single lie. And in the war against terrorism, it should be the same.

That’s what Rumsfeld should have said.