By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — A Pentagon office responsible for coordinating Defense Department information campaigns overseas has been abolished in an effort by the Obama administration to distance itself from past practices that some military officers called propaganda, senior officials said Wednesday.
Military and civilian critics said the office, the Defense Department office for support to public diplomacy, overstepped its mandate during the final years of the Bush administration by trying to organize information operations that violated Pentagon guidelines for accuracy and transparency.
Pentagon officials said the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for support to public diplomacy had been eliminated, with the staff members reassigned and the office closed.
Senior Pentagon officials said the decision to close the office was made by Michele A. Flournoy, the new under secretary of defense for policy, and was meant to ensure that global communications efforts by the Defense Department and military would be aligned with the rest of the government.
“Because of the history of the office, we needed a fresh start in how we integrate the critical function of strategic communications across the board,” said a senior Pentagon official, who spoke anonymously to discuss a change that has not been publicly announced.
The office was created in 2007 to be the central point within the vast Pentagon bureaucracy and far-flung military to coordinate the Defense Department’s overseas information efforts with the rest of the government, in particular the White House, the State Department and American embassies.
But American military officers in Afghanistan in particular were angered last year by sets of “talking points” provided by the office for use in responding to queries on matters like civilian casualties. Officers who received the talking points predicted that the information would be seen by the Afghan public as blatant propaganda, and they refused to use them.
Officials said the Pentagon would now play a supporting role to the White House and the State Department in communicating government messages to foreign audiences, with the efforts no longer centralized in one place but assigned to each Pentagon policy office and regional military combatant commander.
Questions over the proper role of the Pentagon in public diplomacy have lingered since it was disclosed in 2002 that the Defense Department had created the Office of Strategic Influence; that office, a forerunner of the Pentagon public diplomacy office, was shut down after members of Congress expressed concerns that its behind-the-scenes efforts to shape public sentiment in wartime might undermine the military’s credibility.
Even in a supporting role, the Defense Department has far greater resources in money, trained communications personnel and broadcast and print technology than any other government agency or department.
Another senior Defense Department official briefed on the decision said the military, by its size and global reach, remained one of the government’s most visible tools for projecting American influence and defining its values, especially in operations short of combat, like humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions.
“The goal should be to produce words and actions that are matched,” the official said. “There still is a great need for a concerted effort in the planning stages of policy, execution and communications.”
The Obama administration has inherited a complex policy debate over how to communicate messages abroad during wartime, one that remained unresolved by the Bush administration despite a series of appointments of high-profile communications officials.
There is no disagreement that extremist and terrorist ideology is spread over the Internet and by videos with an agility not matched by either the government or the military, but there has been no agreement on a detailed plan of how to respond.
The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.