In the Reagan Era, it was known as “public diplomacy.” The current Bush regime calls it “strategic influence.” What both terms describe is the US government’s desire and capacity to manage 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.
As the Iraq war began, we did get a brief 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 false stories. Horrors! Facing public censure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly denounced and supposedly disbanded it. But, a few months later, 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 really 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, Qaddafi, and anyone else on the Reagan hit list. Sometimes it involved so-called “white propaganda,” stories and op-eds secretly financed by the government. But they also went “black,” pushing false story lines. One of my personal favorites was the Sandinistas as anti-Semitic drug dealers. That campaign included phony photos and bold misstatements by public officials as high as the president.
The Department of Defense (DOD) describes “perception management” as a type of psychological operation. Traditionally, it’s supposed to be directed at “foreign audiences,” and basically it 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. DOD sums it up candidly: “Perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations.”
During the Bush I years, the scope officially expanded to include domestic disinformation, using the CIA’s Public Affairs Office (PAO). According to CIA Base, an online resource, the PAO was in charge of 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 team’s version, outlined in Directive 68, was known as the International Public Information System (IPI). Again, no distinction was made between what could be done abroad and at home. To defeat enemies and influence minds, information for US audiences would be “deconflicted” through IPI’s work. How appropriately Clinton-esque.
One strategy turned out to be inserting psyop (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. Way to “deconflict”! According to Alex Cockburn, the military was evidently proud enough of its “expanded cooperation” with mainstream media to tout the effort publicly.
Once you realize that managing perceptions is standard operating procedure, what passes for news takes on a different meaning. Last year, for example, a popular assumption pushed by the government 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.” More recently, a central assumption has been that, whatever problems we now face, leaving without “winning” would be worse.
A recent “news analysis” from the Associated Press sent around the world illustrates how it works: To influence perceptions, present theories as if they’re facts. “Bad as things are in Iraq,” the April 10 story began, “a quick US departure would make them worse – encourage terrorists, set the stage for civil war, send oil prices spiraling, and ruin US credibility throughout the Middle East.” Only two sources, both obscure Middle East scholars, are directly quoted in the story, plus unnamed “regional experts.”
Another approach is warping the facts to promote spin. Thus, in January, 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 US military sources making the news preferred to focus on the number of incidents.
Or just fabricate the news – from the al Qaeda-Saddam link to WMDs. Concerning Venezuela, for example, the administration desperately wants the public to believe that President Hugo Chavez is a violent demagogue who should be removed. To that end, it pushes the unsubstantiated line that he ordered police and the military to attack demonstrators before a 2002 coup attempt. Without evidence, the Washington Post presented this accusation as a fact on its editorial page, offering it as proof that Chavez is “capable of violence.”
And when something goes wrong, just misplace the blame. Thus, when photos of soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners came to light in May, the first line of defense was to call it an aberration – people somehow operating outside the chain of command – and ignore reality. Humiliating “the enemy” is military intelligence (MI) 101. During the first Gulf War, MI officers didn’t even need to ask: GIs routinely forced surrendering Iraqis to strip and pose for photos in groups. The new element is sexual humiliation, persuasive evidence that it was a psyop. According to Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, 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 are evidence of potential war crimes, or at least puncture US 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 the un-intended consequences have been enormous. In the psyop world, this happens so often that there’s a term for it – “blowback” – meaning an operation that has turned on its creators. In other words, you reap what you sow.