Tasks could include such things as paying journalists in European nations to write favorable stories about American policies or secretly financing books or schools to counter radical Islam taught at some of Pakistan's madrassas, or religious schools, defense officials said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The proposal to use the military to influence public opinion in friendly nations has simmered for a year, with both uniformed and civilian officials split on the idea, the officials said.
There is agreement that it is appropriate for the military to do so-called "psychological operations" in adversary nations or in a nation when a military operation is under way. But critics say the Defense Department risks its credibility by doing such covert operations in allied or neutral nations.
At issue is the proposed revision of a classified department directive covering information operations.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is said to oppose using the military for a new array of such responsibilities, though he believes the U.S. government has not done a good job of educating the world about American goals and policies.
Other officials believe efforts to shape public opinion should remain with the State Department.
The debate over the directive was first reported in Monday editions of The New York Times.
There has been world disapproval of a number of positions taken by the United States, including Arab opposition to aspects of the war on terror and other opposition to a possible war against Iraq.
In a broad international survey released early this month, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the United States is falling out of favor in 19 of 27 countries where a trend could be identified.
The dislike was especially striking in Muslim countries. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed in Jordan had an unfavorable opinion of America, as did 69 percent of Egyptians and Pakistanis, for instance. But ill will toward the United States was also found in supposedly friendly nations like Canada, Britain and Germany.
The most common criticisms are that the United States acts by itself, pushes policies that widen the gap between rich and poor nations, and it doesn't do enough to solve the world's problems.
A previous Pentagon program aimed at winning hearts and minds overseas died quickly last February when Rumsfeld ordered the shutting of the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence. It was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America to centralize information operations, such as spreading messages on a battlefield by leaflet or through airborne broadcasts, officials said.
But an uproar followed reports in February that the office had proposed giving false information to foreign journalists as a means of furthering the U.S. war against terrorism.
The United States is already engaged in less controversial efforts to mould world opinion. Less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the State Department hired advertising executive Charlotte Beers to head an office of public diplomacy that has produced videos hyping American religious inclusion.
During the Cold War, American intelligence developed a pervasive influence not just in the media, but also in cultural spheres.
The Central Intelligence Agency secretly backed institutions like the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter magazine, as vehicles for demonstrating the intellectual heft of thinkers in Western capitalist countries.
According to author Frances Stonor Saunders, the CIA also funded tours by an American orchestra through Europe, paid for the production of film versions of anti-totalitarian works by George Orwell and covertly assisted the publication of many books and a few magazines.