From the State Department to the Pentagon, winning hearts and minds is an increasingly important element of U.S. national security strategy. But while Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes has been the highest-profile example of U.S. public relations in action, the Defense Department quietly has been tinkering with its own systems of overseas influence.
Among these are psychological operations, or PSYOPS. But after-action reports on the invasion of Iraq are skeptical about PSYOPS' success, and a psychological operations unit in Afghanistan recently tried to "demoralize" the enemy by desecrating Islamic corpses. Questions about these matters have led some policymakers to wonder how enhancing PSYOPS will complement other elements of military information operations, such as public diplomacy and public affairs. In addition, increasing reliance on contractors to conduct these operations is raising eyebrows, especially because the contract prices aren't small and some firms hired have murky pasts.
Psychological operations, defined by the military as the "systematic process of conveying messages to selected foreign groups to promote particular themes that result in desired foreign attitudes and behaviors," traditionally have been the nearly exclusive purview of the 4th PSYOPS Group (Airborne) of the Army's Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the military services have shown renewed interest in mass persuasion. For example, two-and-a-half years ago at Fort Bragg, N.C., the Army unveiled its Special Operations Forces Media Operations Complex, a 51,756-square-foot facility replete with all the tools 4th PSYOPS requires - printing presses, studios and digital audiovisual production facilities - in the service of producing materials to win hearts and minds wherever the U.S. military finds itself in the world.
Col. James A. Treadwell, the 4th's commander, said at the time that the facility's opening "marks PSYOPS as a growth field." But PSYOPS had entered a boom phase well before the new complex's ribbon was cut. From the post-9/11 involvement in Afghanistan to the end of what have been termed "major combat operations" in Iraq, Army PSYOPS units produced a deluge of media, including but not limited to 150 million flyers and leaflets and more than 20,000 radio broadcasts in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in the wake of Baghdad's collapse, there was a tremendous sense of satisfaction that a virtually uninterrupted flow of PSYOPS material had played a critical role in hastening the almost anticlimactic end of Iraq's military.
But when the Army's mammoth Operation Iraqi Freedom lessons-learned report was published in 2004, it revealed that PSYOPS weren't all they were cracked up to be. Part of this had nothing to do with quality; some PSYOPS units had been incredibly useful, but failed in their duty as "force multipliers" simply because there weren't enough of them. This was hardly surprising, as PSYOPS accounts for only 4,800 soldiers, 76 percent of whom are reservists. But the report also concluded that, for reasons that had nothing to do with numbers, PSYOPS simply hadn't had as profound an effect as some had thought. Not long after the lessons-learned report, the Pentagon's Defense Science Board - echoing an earlier Defense Planning Guidance report and a somewhat neglected 2003 Pentagon "Information Operations Roadmap" - concluded that when it came to conception and coordination of strategic communications, including PSYOPS, the military's efforts had languished. The board strongly endorsed a number of nascent structural and philosophical efforts at Defense and elsewhere to win a global battle of ideas.
So about two years ago, Treadwell was ordered from piney Fort Bragg to subtropical Tampa, Fla., where, from MacDill Air Force Base, he now commands one of the newest and perhaps least known elements of Special Operations Command: the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element (JPSE, or more colloquially, "gypsy"). Described in official literature as a unit comprising "more than 50 senior military and civilians with a deep knowledge of psychological operations," JPSE's raison d'Ítre isn't to horn in on the Army's PSYOPS turf, but rather to spare commanders across services and commands the agony of going through multiple layers of bureaucracy for support. And, according to a press release earlier this year, JPSE is devoting itself not to the darker aspects of psychological warfare but to propagating truthful messages.
In addition to facilitating more agile PSYOPS support, JPSE also is beginning to do something psychological operations traditionally hasn't: consider the big picture, according to Professor Philip M. Taylor of England's University of Leeds. "PSYOPS has really only worked in tactical/operations contexts, but in today's global infosphere, there's no longer any such thing as tactical information - everything has a strategic capability. This is where PSYOPS has traditionally been weak," says Taylor, one of the world's leading experts on psychological operations, public diplomacy and propaganda, and a consultant to the American and British governments. "JPSE is a recognition that 4th PSYOPS has been quite effective at the tactical/operational levels but less so at the strategic, and is part of the roadmap by which all components of information operations are to become more closely coordinated than they have thus far."
Policymakers have realized, he adds, that mechanisms of delivery and the messages themselves have to be integrated. Nancy Snow, senior research fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and adjunct assistant professor with USC's Annenberg School for Communication, adds that when it comes to trying to create a unified front in the practice of strategic communications, it's not uncommon for each tactical element to see itself as holding the magic strategic bullet. Thus, it's devilishly difficult to bring order to communications chaos, leading Taylor to wonder whether such integration, including that of PSYOPS, can be accomplished.
A Mixed Bag
PSYOPS have been a part of American military and intelligence endeavors since World War II. They range from above-board and even earnest to devious and mendacious. One of the problems with persuasion and perception manipulation is that success is not always easy to gauge and can become the subject of fierce debates. Policymakers and practitioners alike are grappling with this reality as they seek to figure out the PSYOPS part of a larger strategic communications equation.
Pre-invasion airdropped leaflets, for example, historically have been intended to affect a population by countering disinformation, promoting ideology and image, and appealing to the survival instincts of soldiers and civilians. Studying the leafleting efforts of the Army's 4th Psychological Warfare Group in 2002-2003, two University of Texas professors found that the majority of leaflets dropped on Iraq were of the survival motif, exhorting Iraqi soldiers to quickly surrender and imploring Iraqi civilians to shelter in place during the invasion, as well as to preserve their oil facilities. Given the quick collapse of the Iraqi military and the lack of refugee crisis that certain Pentagon planners were convinced was inevitable, some observers, including the Texas professors, posited that the 4th's leafleting efforts played a key role in the successful invasion.
Yet as some in the military noted then and later, there was no metric for objectively determining this. "In retrospect, [the leaflets] did seem to have the effect intended," wrote Lt. Col. Steven Collins in "Mind Games," a paper published in the summer 2003 issue of NATO Review. But, he added, just as PSYOPS is geared to slant perceptions, so too, can perceptions slant the analysis of psychological operations. The problem with the leaflets was "the problem with all PSYOPS actions: the difficulty in determining the cause of behavior during a war. Did the Iraqi military melt away primarily as a result of PSYOPS, or of bombing by coalition aircraft, or of lack of logistical support, or a combination of all three?" At best, Collins concluded, PSYOPS' role "remains an important variable to determine."
In early 2004, the Army Command General and Staff College's Combined Arms Research Library published a detailed study of major combat operations in Iraq. Its conclusion: PSYOPS were at best a mixed bag. "PSYOPS units can point with satisfaction to success in minimizing damage to the oil fields and keeping civilians off roads," it said. "However, they do so with risk since there is very little evidence available yet to support that contention. . . . Moreover, the PSYOPS effort enjoyed far less success in encouraging Iraqi units to surrender. . . . PSYOPS produced much less than expected and perhaps less than claimed."
Such considerations have led some to wonder whether military efforts such as JPSE are neglecting ways to improve PSYOPS in its strongest areas, tactical and operational, by beginning to dabble in the strategic. In a 2004 briefing, Marine Col. G.I. Wilson and two retired military officers observed that the problem with PSYOPS has less to do with the operations themselves and more to do with how they are, or are not, integrated into existing combat forces. Holding that psychological and information operations should be incorporated into every basic military consideration, Wilson and his colleagues suggested that in places such as Iraq, "regional fusion centers" should be established where the tactical and strategic mission specialists could work together to help frame and guide ongoing operations. Similarly, a recent National Defense University study held that the priority for PSYOPS should be doctrinal and structural reforms focused on the tactical level, because it's impossible for military PSYOPS to adequately compensate for a weak national strategic communications program.
And, says Taylor, even the most ambitious and effective PSYOPS reform can be easily undermined by soldiers' actions, for example, desecrating Afghan bodies or the Koran. "Democracies are their own worst enemies in this field," he says. "It's true, though rarely recognized in the control-freakery world of the military, that full spectrum dominance is impossible in the global information environment," even over U.S. soldiers.
'Sorry, It Wasn't Us'
Further, Taylor adds, groups contracted by the government to do PSYOPS or related work and analysis also can do damage. "There are plenty who have messed up and been fired; there are risks," he says. "But if the attitude is 'Something has to be done,' who is going to do it? There are so many PR firms willing to take bucks from the U.S. government.
"Outsourcing is either a sign of recognition that the military is not terribly good at certain types of persuasion, or a way of distancing the U.S. government from the messages. If that company then does something which is controversial, the government can say, 'Sorry, it wasn't us, but we'll fire the company that did this supposedly in our name.' "
Those concerned about the state of both PSYOPS and contracting paid close attention to JPSE's June announcement that it was giving indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contracts to three contractors for media approach planning, prototype product development, commercial quality product development, product distribution and dissemination, and media effects analysis. While JPSE commander Treadwell said the initial contracts were likely to be in the $250,000 range, the potential maximum value of each tender, $100 million, stirred great interest as did the choice of contractors. It wasn't necessarily surprising that Arlington, Va.-based defense contractor SYColeman got one of the JPSE tenders, based on its formidable number of existing contracts with the Pentagon; media work, however, is not something the company lists among its core competencies.
Similarly, while San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. has dozens of offices worldwide devoted to administering its Pentagon contracts, most of SAIC's work has been in the areas of engineering, systems and quantitative analysis, not media. Indeed, the last time it won a contract for media work - specifically, setting up post-Saddam television operations in Iraq - it performed with such ineptitude that the company was excoriated not just by the Pentagon inspector general and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., but also by its former project manager. SAIC ultimately lost that contract. Also inviting curiosity has been Lincoln Group, which despite having virtually no public profile and no demonstrable history in strategic communications - and having gone through multiple changes in name and orientation in less than three years - has landed two major media contracts with the U.S. military in the past year.
"A lot of these things go on if not in secret, [then] kind of out of view with very little tracking or public accountability, and as such, we don't really know when things go wrong," says USC's Snow. "But none of it really addresses whether any of this will have any impact if the people they're trying to reach just won't have any of it because we have unpopular policies."
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