PR Meets Psy-Ops in War on Terror
The use of misleading information as a military tool sparks debate in the Pentagon. Critics say the practice puts credibility at stake.
By Mark Mazzetti
Times Staff Writer
December 1, 2004
WASHINGTON â€” On the evening of Oct. 14, a young Marine spokesman near Fallouja appeared on CNN and made a dramatic announcement.
“Troops crossed the line of departure,” 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert declared, using a common military expression signaling the start of a major campaign. “It’s going to be a long night.” CNN, which had been alerted to expect a major news development, reported that the long-awaited offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Fallouja had begun.
In fact, the Fallouja offensive would not kick off for another three weeks. Gilbert’s carefully worded announcement was an elaborate psychological operation â€” or “psy-op” â€” intended to dupe insurgents in Fallouja and allow U.S. commanders to see how guerrillas would react if they believed U.S. troops were entering the city, according to several Pentagon officials.
In the hours after the initial report, CNN’s Pentagon reporters were able to determine that the Fallouja operation had not, in fact, begun.
“As the story developed, we quickly made it clear to our viewers exactly what was going on in and around Fallouja,” CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said.
Officials at the Pentagon and other U.S. national security agencies said the CNN incident was not an isolated feint â€” the type used throughout history by armies to deceive their enemies â€” but part of a broad effort underway within the Bush administration to use information to its advantage in the war on terrorism.
The Pentagon in 2002 was forced to shutter its controversial Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), which was opened shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, after reports that the office intended to plant false news stories in the international media. But officials say that much of OSI’s mission â€” using information as a tool of war â€” has been assumed by other offices throughout the U.S. government.
Although most of the work remains classified, officials say that some of the ongoing efforts include having U.S. military spokesmen play a greater role in psychological operations in Iraq, as well as planting information with sources used by Arabic TV channels such as Al Jazeera to help influence the portrayal of the United States.
Other specific examples were not known, although U.S. national security officials said an emphasis had been placed on influencing how foreign media depict the United States.
These efforts have set off a fight inside the Pentagon over the proper use of information in wartime. Several top officials see a danger of blurring what are supposed to be well-defined lines between the stated mission of military public affairs â€” disseminating truthful, accurate information to the media and the American public â€” and psychological and information operations, the use of often-misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle.
Several of those officials who oppose the use of misleading information spoke out against the practice on the condition of anonymity.
“The movement of information has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world,” one senior defense official said. “What’s at stake is the credibility of people in uniform.”
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said he recognized the concern of many inside the Defense Department, but that “everybody understands that there’s a very important distinction between information operations and public affairs. Nobody has offered serious proposals that would blur the distinction between these two functions.”
Di Rita said he had asked his staff for more information about how the Oct. 14 incident on CNN came about.
One recent development critics point to is the decision by commanders in Iraq in mid-September to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations into a “strategic communications” office. An organizational chart of the newly created office was obtained by The Times. The strategic communications office, which began operations Sept. 15, is run by Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, who answers directly to Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Partly out of concern about this new office, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distributed a letter Sept. 27 to the Joint Chiefs and U.S. combat commanders in the field warning of the dangers of having military public affairs (PA) too closely aligned with information operations (IO).
“Although both PA and IO conduct planning, message development and media analysis, the efforts differ with respect to audience, scope and intent, and must remain separate,” Myers wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.
Pentagon officials say Myers is worried that U.S. efforts in Iraq and in the broader campaign against terrorism could suffer if world audiences begin to question the honesty of statements from U.S. commanders and spokespeople.
“While organizations may be inclined to create physically integrated PA/IO offices, such organizational constructs have the potential to compromise the commander’s credibility with the media and the public,” Myers wrote.
Myers’ letter is not being heeded in Iraq, officials say, in part because many top civilians at the Pentagon and National Security Council support an effort that blends public affairs with psy-ops to win Iraqi support â€” and Arab support in general â€” for the U.S. fight against the insurgency.
Advocates of these programs said that the advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the powerful influence of Arabic satellite television made it essential that U.S. military commanders and civilian officials made the control of information a key part of their battle plans.
“Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it’s never been before,” one senior Bush administration official said. “We’d be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage.”
And, supporters argue, it is necessary to fill a vacuum left when the budgets for the State Department’s public diplomacy programs were slashed and the U.S. Information Agency â€” a bulwark of the nation’s anticommunist efforts during the Cold War â€” was gutted in the 1990s.
“The worst outcome would be to lose this war by default. If the smart folks in the psy-op and civil affairs tents can cast a truthful, persuasive message that resonates with the average Iraqi, why not use the public affairs vehicles to transmit it?” asked Charles A. Krohn, a professor at the University of Michigan and former deputy chief of public affairs for the Army. “What harm is done, compared to what is gained? For the first year of the war, we did virtually nothing to tell the Iraqis why we invaded their country and ejected their government. It’s about time we got our act together.”
Advocates also cite a September report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which concluded that a “crisis” in U.S. “strategic communications” had undermined American efforts to fight Islamic extremism worldwide.
The study cited polling in the Arab world that revealed widespread hatred of the United States throughout the Middle East. A poll taken in June by Zogby International revealed that 94% of Saudi Arabians had an “unfavorable” view of the United States, compared with 87% in April 2002. In Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, 98% of respondents held an unfavorable view of the United States.
The Defense Science Board recommended a presidential directive to “coordinate all components of strategic communication including public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting and military information operations.”
Di Rita said there was general agreement inside the Bush administration that the U.S. government was ill-equipped to communicate its policies and messages abroad in the current media climate.
“As a government, we’re not very well organized to do that,” he said.
Yet some in the military argue that the efforts at better “strategic communication” sometimes cross the line into propaganda, citing some recent media briefings held in Iraq. During a Nov. 10 briefing by Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, reporters were shown a video of Iraqi troops saluting their flag and singing the Iraqi national anthem.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to have the 5 o’clock follies all over again, and it will take us another 30 years to restore our credibility,” said a second senior Defense official, referring to the much-ridiculed daily media briefings in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
According to several Pentagon officials, the strategic communications programs at the Defense Department are being coordinated by the office of the undersecretary of Defense for policy, Douglas J. Feith.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times