Army Psy-Ops or Just Good PR?

February 25th, 2011 at 11:41 am | 10 Comments |

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Another Rolling Stone hit piece; another American General, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, in the crossfire. But this time there’s an “investigation” of the alleged crime, which is said to be initiating a “psychological or information operation” against members of Congress.

By all means, let’s investigate. Let’s clear the air about “psy-ops” and “information operations” once and for all: Because I guarantee you that no one in the Army — and especially not Caldwell (who heads up the training of Afghan security forces) — ever ordered anyone in uniform to deceive or manipulate members of Congress. Respect for the civilian chain of command is too deeply engrained within the U.S. military for that ever to happen.

No, what Lt. Gen. Caldwell requested of his soldiers was good public affairs work, and that is entirely legitimate.

Caldwell wanted to know what visiting members of Congress were thinking, what their concerns were, what issues animated them. Caldwell wanted to know this not so that he could “manipulate” members of Congress. He wanted to know this so that he could be more responsive to members of Congress.

And really, why would any American commanding general not want detailed information about his civilian overseers? Why would he not want to know “their voting records, their likes and dislikes, and their ‘hot-button issues’”? Why would he not want to “refine [his] messaging” to those who are responsible for funding — or not funding — the war that he is charged with prosecuting?

Good public affairs officers (PAOs) understand this — or at least they should understand this (though sadly, many do not).

The problem with Holmes is that he is not a public affairs officer, but rather an “information operations officer” (IOO). Thus he interpreted Caldwell’s perfectly reasonable and wholly legitimate request through the prism of an “information operation” or a “psychological operation,” such as he would conduct against the enemy.

But if Holmes had more brains and worldly perspective, he’d realize that understanding members of Congress and ascertaining their concerns violates no law or regulation. Moreover, informing members of Congress about your military needs and requirements vis-à-vis the facts on the ground is not propaganda; it is speaking candidly and truthfully with your civilian superiors.

The difference between an illegitimate “information or psychological operation” and a legitimate exercise of good “public affairs” is analogous to the difference between “lobbying” and “educating.” A “think tank” or a research institute “educates” Congress about public policy; a trade association, by contrast, “lobbies” Congress.

For tax and legal purposes, this is an important distinction. But practically speaking, this distinction is insignificant. Lobbying has a very precise and technical definition: It means that you can advocate for or against a specific piece of legislation.

A “think tank” or a research institute, a 501(c)(3), can’t do this; it can’t lobby. However, it certainly can and does “educate” Congress about the larger-scale issues raised by proposed legislation.

Thus the Heritage Foundation could not have lobbied on behalf of extending the Bush tax cuts. It could not have said, “Vote for this legislation.” However, Heritage certainly could have educated Congress (and did) about the harmful economic effects of not extending the Bush tax cuts.

By the same token, the U.S. military can inform and educate members of Congress about the military situation in Afghanistan; but it cannot manipulate and deceive them.

Unfortunately, too few military officers — even those within the public affairs and information operations communities — seem to understand this distinction. And so, they mistakenly conflate legitimate “public affairs” work with questionable “psy-ops.”

Most military PAOs and IOOs, after all, have never worked in the civilian world, the public policy community or the media. Consequently, they typically lack the sophisticated worldly sense and perspective that comes from seeing how information is developed and used in the real world. These finer distinctions thus elude them.

In fact, that’s the real scandal: that the most information-rich country on the globe, with the finest and greatest communicators the world has ever known, nonetheless has a military that is seriously subpar when it comes to the information arts.

John Guardiano blogs at www.ResoluteCon.Com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano.


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • TerryF98

    Methinks that you protest too much.

    There is more to this than meets the eye. The military industrial complex wants this war to go on for ever. There are big bucks and advancement in it on both sides. So it would not surprise me to find the army using these techniques against our own side in order to further those ends.

  • ottovbvs

    “By all means, let’s investigate. Let’s clear the air about “psy-ops” and “information operations” once and for all: Because I guarantee you that no one in the Army– and especially not Caldwell (who heads up the training of Afghan security forces) — ever ordered anyone in uniform to deceive or manipulate members of Congress. Respect for the civilian chain of command is too deeply engrained within the U.S. military for that ever to happen.”

    Either Guardiano is deeply stupid or deeply disingenuous when he says that no one in the army has ever ordered anyone in uniform to deceive or manipulate members of congress . And he’s not deeply stupid. History is full of such examples just as it’s full of examples of members of the military flouting civilian control in operational and other matters. I’m personally entirely familiar with the difference between psy ops and PR, although I’m the first to agree it gets a little hazy at the white end of psy ops. Guardiano is essentially saying a serving office is lying about orders he received which were probably illegal because he received legal counsel on the matter from another legally qualified serving officer. The sheer irrationality of a lot of this kneejerk special pleading suggests floundering rather any formal role but it’s possible I suppose that Guardiano is acting as a front man for the military. My guess is that the army has indeed used psy ops against these congressmen and senators, almost certainly under Caldwell’s instructions, although its impossible to tell how egregious it’s been because we have no hard information. I suspect it’s fairly egregious, Colonels don’t refuse direct orders from generals without damned good reason because they could be facing a court martial. Petraeus has done the right thing by setting up an inquiry because given the personalities involved there was no way this could be swept under the carpet. When its completed and the result announced Caldwell will either be exonerated or have a ticket for home. In the meantime we can safely disregard Guardiano’s transparent whitewash.

  • Deep South Populist

    Af-Pak is turning in America’s Forever War thanks to the power of an iron triangle that consists of 1) the military/industrial complex, 2) the corporate and financial sector, and 3) the American neocons and their lackeys in Congress.

    None of this is anything new, unfortunately. General Smedley Butler, who won 16 medals during a 33 year career in the Marines, including 5 medals for heroism and two medals of honor, had this to say about the American war machine in the 1930s:

    I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

  • think4yourself

    I have not read the article and possibly JG is correct. Everyone puts their version of a story in the light that favors them. It’s wrong to conceal factual information to decision makers, but not wrong to influence, an investigation should clear that up.

    However, as to “Respect for the civilian chain of command is too deeply engrained within the U.S. military for that ever to happen” I have two words for you.

    Oliver North

  • Nanotek

    “In fact, that’s the real scandal: that the most information-rich country on the globe, with the finest and greatest communicators the world has ever known, nonetheless has a military that is seriously subpar when it comes to the information arts.”

    if you think this one story means the US military is subpar when it comes to the information arts, we appreciate scandals differently

  • COProgressive

    Johnny G writes,
    “By the same token, the U.S. military can inform and educate members of Congress about the military situation in Afghanistan; but it cannot manipulate and deceive them.”

    Every Flag officer that says that the conflict if Afghanistan is “Winnable” is manipulating and deceiving their civilian leaders. We have been in Afghanistan for ten years and we are no closer to “Winning” than the day we got there.

    Johnny G went on to say,
    “Most military PAOs and IOOs, after all, have never worked in the civilian world, the public policy community or the media. Consequently, they typically lack the sophisticated worldly sense and perspective that comes from seeing how information is developed and used in the real world. These finer distinctions thus elude them.”

    To which I would add, “Most military combat commanders, after all, have never worked in the civilian world, the public policy community or the media. consequently, they typically lack the sophisticated worldly sense and prespective to know that a ten year old war is unwinnable and express that knowledge to their civilian leaders. They simply can’t judge the long term while fighting the day to day. That’s why we have civilian leadership of the military. We need leadership outside the war zone to decide what does and what does not make sense as the military involved in the fight can’t see the forrest for the trees.

    Asking a combat leader what they need to win is the wrong question. They will ALWAYS say more troops and more time. In the case of afghanistan that answer is demonstrably WRONG!

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,

    The long term effect of having US troops in Afghanistan is the same long term effect your fist has on a bucket of water once you remove it.

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