Was it an act of domestic terrorism, a devilish prank, or just one hell of a coincidence?
When nearly simultaneous fires broke out last week in 41 homes at a new development in Maryland, early suspicion fell on the Earth Liberation Front. The new houses had rankled green groups because they’re built near wetlands, and the E.L.F., which the FBI considers a domestic terrorist organization, has a history of getting fired up about such things.
For all the speculation about its role, the E.L.F. itself was mostly silent. The New York Times and The Washington Times reported efforts to get in touch, but no named spokesperson came forward. That could be because, according to the last known spokesman for the E.L.F., Leslie James Pickering, even the PR operation has gone underground.
Until he got out of the game in 2002, Pickering had a rather unique role as a PR man: He says he didn’t belong to the group he represented or even have a way to contact them. Pickering tells the Voice he was a social justice activist in Portland, Oregon, when the E.L.F. contacted him in 1997 about their burning of a federal horse stable near Burns, Oregon. He passed the claim on to the media.
After claiming several more attacks for the E.L.F., Pickering and fellow activist Craig Rosebraugh decided in 2000 to start an official press office to spread the group’s call for a sweeping overhaul of the capitalist system. At first, Pickering says, he and Rosebraugh were surprised at how the press mangled that message—using only the soundbites “where we didn’t look so good.” Then they learned “to manipulate [the press] as much as they manipulated us,” by appealing to the media’s taste for sensationalism, Pickering says. “If you’re trying to get across the message that ‘we’re not fucking around anymore,’ you can get that message across real clear.”
The feds apparently got the message. During his time as an E.L.F. flack, Pickering says, he dodged grand jury subpoenas, and the press office was raided twice by the FBI. He also had run-ins with the feds at protests—even at the supermarket.
The harassment was worth it, Pickering says, because he had become frustrated with the limitations of traditional protest. Eventually, however, he grew tired of “single-issue extremism” and wanted to move on to a broader struggle. Pickering folded the press office in the summer of 2002 and “after I stepped down from that, nobody stepped up.” An anonymous e-mail address is all that remains. In a December 7 response to The Washington Times, the press office said it could “neither confirm or deny” an E.L.F. role in the Maryland arson.
Tracking E.L.F. actions has always been tricky. The group has no hierarchy or official membership. If you believe in E.L.F. principles, you belong to it, and you can carry out acts of violence.
“The way I’ve heard it phrased is the A.L.F. [Animal Liberation Front] and E.L.F. are brand names,” says Washington Times reporter Jon Ward. “The way it works is a couple of people go out and burn something, and it usually takes them a couple days to claim responsibility because it takes them a while to figure out how to do that.”
Ultimately, the spokesperson decides if those acts are claimed for the E.L.F. or not, and therefore wields great authority. If someone gets hurt or dies, “this would not be considered an E.L.F. action,” according to a FAQ brochure produced by Pickering’s press office in 2001. (The E.L.F. website is down, but its material can be found on the A.L.F. site.)
On October 14, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told viewers, “There’s a major U.S.-Iraqi military offensive in Falluja under way right now.” Only there wasn’t. The assault didn’t begin until the following month. It turns out a Marine officer fed CNN a lie, perhaps to see how insurgents would react.
The military misled us. What else is new? Americans have already been fed the Jessica Lynch canard, the nose-cone shots of “precision” missile strikes, and even the WMD “evidence” that sold the war.
“This incident seems different in that it very clearly was the transmission of information known to be false in order to achieve certain military goals,” Michael Massing, author of an authoritative survey of Iraq coverage in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, tells the Voice.
The Pentagon said it was looking into the CNN incident. But the line between psychological operations targeting the enemy and PR aimed at Americans has been getting blurrier since the war started.
Now, Joint Chiefs chairman General Richard Myers is warning about holes in the wall between psy-ops and PR. In a September 27 memo to commanders, he warned that any coordination between the two must make sure that public affairs can “maintain its institutional credibility.”
That warning comes as U.S. psy-ops bulks up for the “global war on terrorism”: Last month, the Special Operations Command began surveying firms that might provide multimedia products to “enhance media capabilities of the Joint PSYOP Support Element.” A military spokesman, Captain Ken Hoffman, tells the Voice that while psy-ops involves only “truthful information”—like telling Bosnian kids not to touch land mines—”by law, the U.S. military cannot produce psychological-operations products directed toward U.S. citizens.”
But today’s global communications mean that messages meant for the bad guys can reach U.S. audiences, says Sam Gardiner, a retired colonel and military professor who tracks military pronouncements. And 24-7 news operations are prone to quickly report —and belatedly correct—disinformation like the Falluja feint. Plus, Massing says, while reporters in Iraq are skeptical of what the military says, they are hemmed in by rules governing whom they can talk to in Baghdad’s Green Zone and deterred by continued violence from venturing out of that area. Sometimes, the military action itself seems to have a PR angle. One of the first U.S. targets in Falluja was a hospital that had been a major source of civilian casualty reports during the first attack on the city in April. There may have been a military objective for GIs in effectively shutting down the hospital, but there was undoubtedly a PR effect.
“I think that the news management,” Massing says, “was an essential part of the offensive.”