By David Anthony Denny
February 17, 2006
"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age," he told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York February 17.
To illustrate how the enemy thinks, Rumsfeld read a statement by Osama bin Laden's strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri: "More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media . We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of [Muslims]."
Rumsfeld said the extremists who have targeted the United States and its allies have become "highly successful at manipulating opinion elites" through "media relations committees" and other means. Some of today's "most critical battles," he said, may not be taking place "in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms" of key capitals like New York, London and Cairo, Egypt.
"They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people," Rumsfeld said. "They know that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause and as helpful to theirs, as any other method of military attack. And they are doing it."
This is the first war in history, Rumsfeld said, to be fought in an environment of e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, digital cameras, cell phones, hand-held video cameras, talk radio, 24-hours news broadcasts, satellite television and a global Internet with few inhibitions.
In many parts of the world, Rumsfeld said, media outlets are growing exponentially while still having "relatively immature standards and practices" that are as likely to inflame and distort as to explain and inform.
"In this environment the old adage that: 'A lie can be half-way around the world before the truth has its boots on' becomes doubly true," Rumsfeld said.
To compete with the extremists in using the media, Rumsfeld said, the U.S. government must become more skillful at:
The U.S. government also needs "to anticipate and act within the same news cycle," Rumsfeld said. This will mean round-the-clock media operations, with Internet and other communications channels just as important as traditional press relations. There will be less emphasis on the print press, he added, and government will need to attract more people from the private sector to support these efforts.
As an example of what can be done on a small scale, the secretary said the U.S. Central Command has launched an online communications effort providing electronic news updates and links to interested consumers. As a result, he said, several hundred blogs have received and published relevant content.
Rumsfeld said that the U.S. government needs to consider creating organizations and programs tailored for this new era, just as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe were created for the Cold War. What should a 21st century version of these two entities look like, he asked rhetorically.
"These are tough questions," Rumsfeld said, and "some humility is in order" because "we're trying to figure it out as we go along." He lauded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's proposals to increase broadcasting, Internet and student exchanges for Iran as "a good start" that "deserves support."
Rumsfeld said the biggest advantage for free societies in the fight against extremism "is that the truth is on our side and that ultimately, in my view, truth wins out."
"I believe with every bone in my body that free people, exposed to sufficient information, will, over time, find their way to right decisions," Rumsfeld said.
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