ASHINGTON, Dec. 4 — Early last year Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disbanded the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence after it became known that the office was considering plans to provide false news items to unwitting foreign journalists to influence policymakers and public sentiment abroad.
But a couple of months ago, the Pentagon quietly awarded a $300,000 contract to SAIC, a major defense consultant, to study how the Defense Department could design an "effective strategic influence" campaign to combat global terror, according to an internal Pentagon document.
Senior Pentagon officials said Thursday that they were caught unawares by the contract and insisted its language was a "poor choice of words" by a low-level staffer. They said the work did not reflect any backdoor effort to resurrect the discredited office and was merely a study to understand Al Qaeda better and find ways to combat it.
"We are not recreating that office," said Thomas O'Connell, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, the policy arm of the Pentagon that deals with the military's most secretive operators and whose staff wrote the document.
But some critics of the former office voiced skepticism, saying that the contract amounted to a veiled attempt to create a low-budget copy of its ill-fated predecessor. A spokesman for SAIC referred all questions to the Pentagon.
"It sounds very similar," said a senior military official who opposed the former office. "To run a perception-management campaign at the strategic level is the wrong thing for D.O.D. to be involved in."
The military has long engaged in information warfare against hostile nations, but the ill-fated Office of Strategic Influence proposed to broaden that mission into a strategic "perception management" campaign in allied nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Europe. That would have given the office a role traditionally carried out by civilians.
Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials have voiced concern that the United States is losing public support overseas for its war on terrorism, particularly in Islamic countries. The document, which describes details of the SAIC contract and is entitled "Winning the War of Ideas," describes a bleak picture of how that battle is going.
"Our inability to seize the initiative in the `War of Ideas' with Al Qaeda is perhaps our most significant shortcoming so far in the war against terrorism," said the document, dated Sept. 17, 2003. "We do not fully understand Al Qaeda and its relationship to supportive communities in the Islamic world, and so are not yet able to develop an effective strategy for countering its propaganda in those communities, let alone for winning the information campaign in the war against terrorism."
The document said one goal was to establish a "road map for creating an effective D.O.D. capability to design and conduct effective strategic influence and operational and tactical perception-management campaigns."
When read that sentence, a senior defense official winced at the wording. "We're asking for a menu of thoughts on how to approach this," the official explained. "This is not a secret document on how we're going to change the Arab world's perception of the U.S."