No one is sure how well psychological operations have worked in Afghanistan
or Iraq, but that's not stopping efforts to step them up, using contractors
to do it.
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
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'être 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."