Thursday, March 10, 2016

Perception Management: From Psyops to Blowback

In the Reagan Era, it was known as public diplomacy. The Bush administration called it strategic influence. What both terms described is the U.S. government's ability to influence mass perceptions around the world and, when necessary, at home.

If you don't think it's been going on for years and continues to this very moment, well, then it's working.

Bread & Puppet outside the Hilton (1995)
As the Iraq war began, we did get a peak behind the curtain. Word leaked out that a new Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence was gearing up to sway leaders and public sentiment by disseminating sometimes false stories. Facing censure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly denounced and disbanded it. A few months later, however, he quietly funded a private consultant to develop another version. 

The apparent goal was to go beyond traditional information warfare with a new "perception management" campaign designed to "win the war of ideas" - in this case, against those classified as a terrorists.

It's actually nothing new. Beginning in the 1950s, more than 800 news and public information organizations and individuals carried out assignments for the CIA, according to The New York Times. By the mid-'80s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: an organized, covert public diplomacy apparatus designed to sell a new product -- Central America -- while stoking fear of communism, the Sandinistas, Gadhafi and others.

Sometimes this involved so-called white propaganda, stories and editorials secretly financed by the government. But they also went black, pushing false story lines.

The U.S. Department of Defense describes perception management as a type of psychological operation. Traditionally, it's supposed to be directed at foreign audiences and basically involves conveying (or denying) information to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.

The goal is to influence enemies and friends alike, and provoke the behavior you want. During George Herbert Walker Bush's administration, the scope officially expanded to include domestic disinformation, using the CIA's public affairs office. This operation was charged with turning intelligence failures into successes by persuading reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests.

The Clinton era approach, outlined in Directive 68, was known as the International Public Information System. Again, no distinction was made between what could be done abroad and at home. To defeat enemies and influence minds, information for U.S. audiences was "deconflicted" through IPI's work. How appropriately Clinton-esque.

One strategy turned out to be inserting psyops -- the term of art meaning psychological operations -- specialists into newsrooms. In February 2000, a Dutch journalist revealed that CNN and the Army had agreed to do precisely that in Atlanta.

Once you realize that managing perceptions is standard procedure, some news stories take on a different meaning. For example, a popular storyline about post-war resistance in Iraq was that only a few Saddam loyalists and dead-enders were involved. Meanwhile, the opposition was sending videotaped messages, saying things like, "We are not followers of Saddam Hussein. We are sons of Iraq." For years, journalists and spokesmen stuck with a central assumption: that whatever problems we now face, leaving without "winning" would be worse.

Another approach is warping the facts to promote spin. Thus, in January 2004 USA Today could headline a story, "Attacks Down 22 Percent Since Saddam's Capture." Actually, the number of troops killed went up 40 percent during that period, but the U.S. military sources making the news preferred to focus on the number of incidents.

Or just fabricate the news -- from the Al Qaida-Saddam link to WMDs. And when something goes wrong? It's simple: just misplace the blame. Thus, when photos of soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners came to light, the first line of defense was to call it an aberration -- people somehow operating outside the chain of command -- and ignore reality.

During the first Gulf War, military intelligence officers didn't even need to ask: GIs routinely forced surrendering Iraqis to strip and pose for photos in groups. The new element was sexual humiliation, persuasive evidence that it was a psyop.

According to journalist Seymour Hersh, the abuse was part of a Pentagon operation called Copper Green, which used physical coercion and the sexual humiliation of Iraqis to generate intelligence about growing insurgency. The theory was that some prisoners would do anything -- including spying on their associates -- to avoid dissemination of shameful photos to family and friends. Not exactly the work of a few out-of-control grunts.

To most of the world, the photos from Abu Ghraib prison were evidence of potential war crimes, or at least punctured  U.S. pretensions about moral superiority. For those who orchestrated them, however, it was merely a psyop warfare tactic, a more violent form of perception management.

In terms of generating information that could reduce violence, Copper Green didn't work: the insurgency continued to grow and gave birth to ISIS. The un-intended consequences have been enormous. But in the psyop world, this happens so often that there's even a term for it -- "blowback" -- meaning an operation that has turned on its creators. Put another way, you reap what you sow.

(This column was originally published on June 21, 2004, UPI

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