By Brian Toohey: Michael West Media

The use of disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks by China and other authoritarian states has rightly attracted much criticism in the mainstream media. However, the US and its democratic allies decades ago pioneered the use of disinformation in their own propaganda. Brian Toohey reports.

With few exceptions, Australia’s mainstream media has joined government ministers, senior public servants, generals and prominent US-funded think-tanks in implicitly drumming up support for a war with China. In the process, it has often abandoned accuracy and balance.

Take the May 4 article in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which stated that “democracies are just learning” how to compete with authoritarian states such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea in “grey zone” tactics involving “cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns” somewhere between war and peace.

The claim is false. The US and its democratic allies long ago learnt to spread disinformation as part of a huge propaganda campaign. The New York Times, for example, published two major articles on the topic in December 1977, “Worldwide Propaganda Network built by the CIA” and “CIA: Secret Shaper of Public Opinion”.

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The series explained how the US had developed an extensive network of more than 800 newspapers, news services, magazines, publishing houses and broadcasting stations, most overseas, to covertly promote American influence. The CIA even funded the Australian magazine Quadrant. Lincoln White, the US Consul General in Melbourne in the mid-1960s, later told me that the CIA station chief Bill Caldwell had a journalist on the The Age who “put our side” of the Vietnam war.

Within the CIA, the massive disinformation operation was dubbed “Wisner’s Wurlitzer” after the first head of covert action. The New York Times said Wurlitzer was supposedly capable of “orchestrating in almost any language anywhere in the world, whatever tune the CIA was in a mood to hear”.

The establishment of Radio Free Europe to broadcast into the Soviet countries and Radio Free Asia to broadcast into China are some of the better-known examples. The agency belatedly realised that hardly anyone owned a radio in China and tried to launch radios in balloons over China, but they blew back towards the launch site in Taiwan.

More conventional techniques often succeeded, particularly when the CIA surreptitiously gained control of existing media organisations or otherwise co-opted local journalists and broadcasters.

Iraq war based on disinformation

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More recently, some Anglo-Saxon democracies have relied on disinformation to build a case for starting wars. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard justified their calamitous act of aggression using nonsensical claims, masquerading as intelligence, about Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction.

This belligerence, in clear violation of the “global rules-based order”, led to an ongoing violence and a terrible refugee crisis, exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. Although China engages in harsh internal repression, Australian journalists routinely refer to Chinese “aggression” offshore without acknowledging that it is minuscule, unlike that unleashed by American and Australian democracies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Nor are the democracies novices in other grey zone activities. The US has a long history of interfering in other countries. Among multiple examples, the US and the UK in 1953 covertly overthrew a democratically elected, secular Iranian prime minister, who wanted to nationalise the foreign companies exploiting country’s oil. The coup masters installed the dictator Pahlavi Reza whose corruption and brutality led to the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979.

In 1956, the US intervened covertly to stop an internationally agreed election to unify Vietnam going ahead. President Eisenhower said in his memoirs that he intervened because he believed (correctly) that the North’s leader Ho Chi Minh would easily win the presidency. Without foreign interference by a democracy, there would have been no subsequent war in which as many as 3 million died. Even today, Vietnamese children are born with deformities caused by the American planes spraying dioxin, a persistent toxin, during the war. There are no comparable examples of China engaging in grey zone warfare where it has overthrown an important government or stopped a key election.

Pine Gap’s key role

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The cyber warfare capabilities of China and Russia are dwarfed by those of the US and its allies. The combination of the vast cyber capabilities of the US National Security Agency and those of the American military can destroy hospitals, power stations railway lines and other infrastructure in cyber attacks that go well beyond the grey zone.

Australia’s mainstream media regularly highlight grey zone activities involving Chinese intelligence-gathering activities without a balancing mention of the much more valuable intelligence gathered by satellites linked to US bases in Australia such as Pine Gap. The ABC has highlighted how Chinese “spy” ships can eavesdrop on military exercises off the Australian coast. The US and Australian military don’t care – encryption ensures that nothing of consequence is intercepted.

Pine Gap, however, collects almost all telecommunications and radar signals within China, plus detecting the infrared heat radiated from missiles and planes. This enables the US to pinpoint targets in real time during a war with China. These benefits far outweigh the value of Australia contributing a couple of frigates and a squadron of F- 35 fighter planes to a future war with China.

If China were foolish enough to attack its sovereign province of Taiwan, that would deserve strong condemnation, but not necessarily military intervention. Almost every country has officially recognised China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. In the 1950s and 60s, countries such as Australia and the US not only recognised that Taiwan was part of China, they promoted the fiction that China was ruled from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei.

Against this backdrop, outside intervention in Chinese military action against Taiwan would need to meet a higher standard than an attack by one sovereign country on another. If China were sensible, it would guarantee Taiwan autonomy, subject to an agreement that it would not host foreign military bases.

The Australian and US policy of encouraging Taiwan to take bolder steps towards total independence only risks a terrible war — China will never willingly allow Taiwan to host foreign military bases, just like America would never allow military bases of hostile foreign forces so close to its mainland.

No criticism of our draconian laws

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The head of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo told a parliamentary committee last year that he regularly briefs more than two dozen journalists. Most seemingly repeat what he has to say on a non-attributable basis. In a recent speech, Pezzullo said the “drums of war” were beating and Australia must be prepared “to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight”.

He said Australia must strive to reduce the likelihood of war, “but not at the cost of our precious liberty”. Few senior public servants have done more than Pezzullo to bring about draconian legislation curtailing Australian liberties.

In one example, long jail terms can now apply to anyone who “harms” relations with another country, whatever that is supposed to mean. Yet many of the journalists who rightly condemn Chinese authoritarianism fail to criticise the harsh provisions in this legislation.