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Inside NCR

Judging the need for or the effect of welfare programs is a devilishly difficult undertaking. Our story this week does not attempt to pass final judgment on the merits or lack of merit of the existing program. Teresa Malcolm’s reporting, however, points out the complexity of the programs and the growing, serious questions about the adequacy of a scheme hatched in prosperous times, now that we are experiencing an economic downturn.

It is of no little consequence that at every turn in looking into the state of welfare reform, one runs into Catholic activists and agencies lobbying and advocating for those on the farthest margins of society. It is where the church belongs.

Some weeks it’s just tough to keep track of it all, to grab hold of what it means to be at war with the “evil axis” while keeping up with the medal count at the Winter Olympics. In such a week even a lead story in The New York Times can slip into the pond without making many ripples. One last week bore the headline: “Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad,” with a subhead, “New Office Proposes to Send News or Maybe False News to Even Friendly Lands.”

Unpack that one.

The story reports that the Pentagon has a plan, which has not yet received final approval from the president, for a new agency that would engage in “information warfare.”

The further twist here is that the effort would go beyond hostile nations and include nations in the Middle East, Asia and even Western Europe, according to the report, and would include both true and false information, depending on what was needed to serve U.S. interests. Now maybe this idea goes nowhere.

But the fact that it is being seriously considered at high levels in the Defense Department is alarming. Isn’t there something inherently repugnant about a plan to spend federal money to hire professional liars?

What about U.S. news agencies overseas that might pick up on some of this information? Where does one go to get a confirmation? Or a denial? Are other U.S. agencies going to blow the cover of the Pentagon by admitting that an item put out by the “Office of Strategic Influence,” as it is to be known, is really balderdash and should not be reported as true?

How far are we willing to go under cover of a war on terrorism?

Since NCR started publishing a poetry page a little more than three years ago, the page has usually featured a photo taken by Jesuit Fr. Algimantas Kezys, as this week’s poetry page does (photo not posted to internet). Kezys is a photographer of some renown, and we will continue to make room on the page for Kezys’ work occasionally. But we have decided that this is the right time to ask readers to submit photos of their own for the page as well. We refer to such pictures around here as meditation photos, but the only true criteria are that the photo must stand on its own, for no explanatory lines will run beneath it, and that it be a striking, memorable photo. Look on the bottom of the poetry page for submission guidelines.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002