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Spinning Out of Control

The Pentagon propaganda plan to win hearts and minds—of Americans

It wasn’t a good day for the Department of Defense when Stars and Stripes scooped the Pentagon’s secret scheme to profile journalists covering the war. Seems that the Rendon Group—the tyrannosaurus rex of military public-relations contractors—was getting paid to weed out reporters who did not fit the command’s ideal of tractability.

The Army and Rendon have vociferously denied that embed requests were being held up on this basis, despite subsequent revelations of two confirmed cases to the contrary and reports by individual journalists who obtained their Rendon-generated profiles.

Seeing an exposé of these practices was akin to spotting a tiny glitch in the virtual-reality world of “The Matrix” and getting a glimpse of the reality underneath. What lies beneath here is a powerful engine that propels our war machine. This Matrix is the construct of military “Strategic Communications,” a rubric that covers everything from military public affairs to public diplomacy to information operations. “Info ops” (IO) in turn include battlefield intelligence, some forms of electronic warfare, psychological operations (PSYOPS), military deception, and anything in these broad areas that serves to sell, manage, and manipulate the preferred messaging of the military. This massive complex is as expensive as it is complicated. But more importantly, notes author and war correspondent Robert Young Pelton, “it doesn’t work.”

It hasn’t worked in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Muslim world because locals have long developed an immunity against American military attempts to win them over. “If they see thousands of people getting killed, they react to that more than a school being built,” Pelton says. Therein lies the trouble with trying to conduct public diplomacy at gunpoint.

Critics charge that Strategic Communications, or “StratComm,” is also ill-fated because at its core it’s all about us—generating the right kind of news over there to stoke support for the war enterprise back here. When self-sustaining interests come first, military planners lose sight of what the Iraqi and Afghan people are really thinking. They never gain their trust, a key pillar in the counterinsurgency mission.

“Strategic Communications is not just ‘shaping information’ and needless internal churn, it’s a process designed to constantly justify the reason for the Department of Defense to be in this war,” charges Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror. He has worked on both sides of the wire, as an embed and independent journalist and as a private consultant for the International Security Assistance Force.

“It’s become its own industry,” Pelton adds. “It’s crossed the line from countering propaganda and allowing access to shaping propaganda and shaping what journalists do. It’s a monstrous system of controlling bits of information and misleading people,” and despite anti-propaganda laws and compartmentalization, the mission and the message are the same overseas and stateside.

Understanding the breadth of StratComm as it has developed over the last 10 years is a challenge in itself. According to an Associated Press investigation, the military increased its spending on “winning hearts and minds at home and abroad” 63 percent over five years, for a total of $4.7 billion in 2009 alone. That includes $1.6 billion for military recruitment and advertising and $547 million for public affairs.

These domestic activities provide jobs for 27,000 employees. Think of the slick media campaigns and provocative video games designed to lure potential warriors to recruiting offices. Then there’s the steroidal “war porn” generated by the Pentagon Channel and its surrogates in other niche media markets, like the Military and History Channels. During the Bush administration, there was a 50 percent increase in prepackaged videos, press releases, and radio interviews handed to news networks by DoD’s “Hometown News.” These press kits were often published and broadcast as original reporting with no Pentagon byline.

“We have such a massive apparatus selling the military to us, it has become hard to ask questions about whether this is too much money,” Sheldon Rampton, research director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told the AP.

Meanwhile, overseas StratComm spans a sprawling public-affairs and information-operations network. According to Matt Armstrong, a popular StratComm blogger and Washington consultant, PSYOPS are typically employed to change the behavior of a key audience or adversary. About 60 percent are “white ops,” he said, while 40 percent are “gray” or “black,” meaning they are tactical and covert, and we don’t hear about them until long after the fact, if at all.

Some IO activities can be silly and counterproductive, like when the Lincoln Group was paid upward of $100 million to plant fabricated pro-American “good news” stories in Iraqi newspapers. They can include dropping leaflets with messages from the military, producing millions of dollars worth of Westernized commercials, or jamming an enemy’s cellphones or media broadcasts.

IO activities can also be more dubious, sources say, like planting rumors in villages to smoke out the enemy or hiring private “media” consultants to gather “atmospherics” (physical and human intelligence) eventually used as tactical information by the military.

A Pentagon IO official who spoke with TAC on condition of anonymity insisted that the military is not in the business of deliberately deceiving civilians. “We don’t do this ‘black ops’ thing,” he said. If it is done, that’s the “role and mission of other agencies.”

Much of the StratComm budget is classified, eliciting a great deal of suspicion. Pelton calls StratComm a “huge slush fund” that invites “giant boondoggles” within the defense industry. And there’s been little change with the new administration. “Where does the money go? Even though I have expertise in that area, I don’t know,” he says.

Members of Congress have asked similar questions over the years. In 2008, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) called on the Pentagon to shut down the $300 million contract the Lincoln Group once shared with other private firms to engage in media outreach in Iraq. He demanded a closer look into the programs and decried the dramatic expansion of such contracts under President Bush. “It makes little sense for the U.S. Department of Defense to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to propagandize the Iraqi people,” Webb wrote.

In 2005, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) asked whether the military was propagandizing the American people, breaching the barriers set up by the 61-year-old Smith-Mundt Act and its subsequent amendments in 1972 and 1985, which restrict U.S. government propaganda on domestic soil. Jones had been troubled by reports that the Bush administration had hired Rendon to help sell the 2001 invasion of Iraq to the American people. The congressman’s questions led to a DoD Inspector General’s report that focused on Rendon’s government contracts from 2000 to 2005—a staggering $95.8 million in work orders over five years. In the end, inspectors “did not find evidence that the DoD hired [Rendon] to deliberately create conditions that would convince the American people and Congress that Iraq was an imminent threat” or that Rendon’s activities violated “DoD policy or legal requirements.” The report revealed a surprising number of military contracts for one company—46 total—for work ranging from consulting services and foreign-media analysis to “creating websites” and “public outreach programs.” The report never directly mentioned the “propaganda warfare” associated with founder John Rendon, as reported in James Bamford’s award-winning Rolling Stone article “The Man Who Sold the War” in 2005. (When reached by TAC, a Rendon spokesman offered a sharp, unsolicited rebuke of the four-year-old Bamford article, pointing out that the IG report vindicated Rendon.)

Jones was not impressed with the IG’s findings and doesn’t consider Rendon cleared. “It was always really hard to get to the goal line,” he said of the investigation, which was frustrated by a lack of participation by the military and civilian players.

So it seems that Smith-Mundt has finally run up against a real test: satellites, the Internet, and a global media allow real-time access to foreign information, including propaganda. What was being sold to Iraqis was conveniently absorbed by American audiences, too, leading critics like Jones to believe that private companies, or “covert perception managers” like Rendon, were feeding off U.S. tax dollars to drum up domestic support for an unnecessary war.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attempted to establish an “Office of Strategic Influence” to create a hub for IO—a sort of propaganda HQ—to “influence hearts and minds” in favor of the new Global War on Terror. Despite assurances by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith that DoD “doesn’t do covert action, period,” there was a brief but effective uproar over the propagandistic feel of the plan, and the operation was shut down. A year later, a sour Rumsfeld promised that his ideas would persevere. “And then there was the Office of Strategic Influence,” he told an audience in November 2002, “And oh my goodness gracious, isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny the sky is going to fall. I went down that next day and said, fine, if you want to savage this thing fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done, and I have. [W]hat was intended to be done by that office is being done … not by that office [but] in other ways.”

When New York Times writer David Barstow blew the lid off of the Pentagon’s “message force multiplier” program in April 2008, it was clear Rumsfeld’s boasts weren’t empty. But unlike the intended audience of Rumsfeld’s ill-fated PSYOPS command center, the program Barstow revealed was clearly designed to influence the American people, and it was as deceptive as any propaganda-dropping overseas.

According to Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, the Pentagon had groomed a coterie of retired military officers with similar ideological allegiances, seeming credibility, and media acumen to sell the war to Americans by playing objective military analysts on TV. Turns out they were regurgitating Pentagon talking points and helping to frame the war the way the military wanted Americans to view events in Iraq. In exchange, these retired officers, who serve on the boards of military contractors, received golden access to senior defense officials inhabiting the Pentagon’s “E Ring”—and beyond.

“Records and interviews show how the Bush Administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse—an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks,” Barstow wrote. The analysts represented “more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants … scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business.” This was StratComm at its best: three powerful interests—politicians, the military, and the defense industry—whose very survival was cleaved to the Long War, working together with a compliant corporate media to create elaborate theater for the American public.

Individuals working in the StratComm community today admit the Bush administration’s early attempts at waging this new “global conflict of perception” were clunky, expensive, and in many cases undermined the mission completely. On top of that, the military seemed totally inept at responding to serious controversies of its own making, like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004.

All of this qualifies for “lessons learned,” says Armstrong, who is part of a growing movement of StratComm strategists and advocates who say the next generation—shaped by a post-surge counterinsurgency mentality and a new administration—is smarter, more professional, and relies on truth rather than expensive gimmickry.

“They’re getting it. They understand that they can’t make people feel they are being snowed. You can’t lie to them. But you can’t wait for someone to come to you with questions. You have to be pre-active, as well as pro-active,” he said.

For Armstrong, it’s not a question of whether StratComm works or should be used, it’s a matter of making it better, taking advantage of new media such as blogs and YouTube, investing in local media instead of producing it, and “engaging information” rather than trying to control it. But he is ambivalent about limiting the scope of StratComm. Armstrong even advocates repealing the “quaint and misunderstood” Smith-Mundt propaganda law, which he argued in the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, “restricts … much of the government … from conducting effective message campaigns in a global media environment,” and has been “widely over-applied to effectively silence much of the government’s potential for responding and neutralizing enemy propaganda.”

“Think of [StratComm] in terms of counterinsurgency,” said Michael Doran, Bush deputy secretary of defense for public diplomacy. “Information is right at the heart of this war. On the Hill, I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding about this. There are a lot of good intentions but bad information. If you want better oversight over this, you can do it.”

Both men insist the DoD was forced to take over public diplomacy because the State Department was unable to step up. Indeed, defense spending dwarfs international-affairs outlays by a ratio of 17 to 1, according to national-security expert Lawrence Korb. So while the military says it does not want to bear the brunt, public diplomacy in its many forms will become a permanent part of the Armed Forces within the expanding StratComm enterprise. “We have some formal processes in place and we’re starting to pour cement into them,” said the IO defense official who spoke with TAC.

Not everyone is comfortable with this. The House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees have been teasing apart the shadowy StratComm budget, which includes an eye-popping $626 million for IO in fiscal year 2010.

“What is this money going for? How does it support the mission? It’s not been a very comforting exercise,” said one congressional staffer. “No one has asked questions about this in the past, it’s all been rubber-stamped.”

According to the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, funding for StratComm and IO has reached “at least” $10 billion since the 9/11 attacks, prompting “concerns” about oversight. The 2010 House defense appropriations bill included this note: “At face value, much of what is being produced appears to be United States military propaganda, public relations, and behavioral modifications messaging. The Committee questions the effectiveness of much of the material being produced with this funding.”

One could say the Matrix is working—if you assume that it is all about persuading the domestic audience, particularly the Washington power elite that controls the purse strings, to maintain current military policies. Polls suggest that Americans still support the war on terror and expanding DoD budgets. The White House is poised to put more troops into Afghanistan. Billions of dollars for StratComm activities evidently count for something—if not winning the hearts and minds of millions of Afghans and Iraqis, then securing the commitment of American citizens, which may have been the plan all along. 


Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and a columnist for Antiwar.com.

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