“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” the oft-quoted military strategist Sun Tzu wrote more than 2,000 years ago. Today’s top propaganda troops, the U.S. Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, still repeat that dictum as they take their trade into the information age.
They may also have taken military persuasion skills into American newsrooms, according to a recent series of reports that began in the European press and sparked a media mini-scandal here in the United States.
The latest uproar over military news management is not about journalists’ access to some faraway combat zone, but rather concerns government-media collaboration on the home front. Fort Bragg’s Army Special Operations Command, home to the nation’s preeminent and only active-duty tactical propaganda unit, is under scrutiny for dispatching soldiers from the 4th Group to work as news interns at Cable News Network (CNN) in Atlanta and National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington, D.C.
Media analysts who have expressed alarm about the case say that while any official armed-forces presence in the news-production process is cause for concern, the psychological operations (PSYOP) personnel pose a particular threat, given the job they do. Soldiers from the 4th Group accompany U.S. troops in every major military deployment, amplifying the force of arms by barraging “target audiences” with information, persuasive appeals and intimidating threats.
In the wake of public disclosures about the unusual internships, both networks have banned the propaganda specialists from any future training programs, though the networks say the soldier interns had no influence on the content of news reports.
Echoing the media outlets that first welcomed and then abruptly decommissioned the PSYOP interns, Army spokesmen insist that the fuss is much ado about nothing. The 4th Group personnel signed up with the mainstream media to soak up skills, they say, not to spin the news about military matters.
Observers of this unprecedented episode are still sorting out the implications. A series of fragmentary press reports beginning in February 2000 revealed the basic facts about the internships, but the complete story has remained elusive.
Army documents and interviews with soldiers at Fort Bragg indicate that this was not the first time PSYOP troops were deployed domestically and suggest that, given the growing importance of persuasion operations in military planning and the increasingly advanced capabilities of units like the 4th Group, the U.S. media–as well as any citizen seeking the facts on foreign policy–should be on guard for additional military forays into the fourth estate.
Perception managementCease Resistance: It’s Good for You! is the title of the definitive history of combat psychological operations, written by an in-house historian at the Army Special Operations Command.
In one sense, that’s a fitting summation of the message traditionally spread by Fort Bragg’s psywarriors. United States military force is so overwhelming, enemy soldiers are reminded, that fighting back is futile. But PSYOP is no longer such a blunt instrument; it is used to convey a much broader range of themes than threats of violence, and push more goals than merely inducing surrender.
A flexible weapon that has become a mainstay of U.S. military interventions abroad, PSYOP is described glowingly by Pentagon officials as both a “force multiplier” and a “combat reducer.” Yet at home, it remains a little-understood and rarely reported-on specialization, and the recent round of press reports on the 4th Group interns did little to clear up speculation about what exactly these forces do.
Aside from the general lack of published information about military persuasion operations, PSYOP’s public standing probably suffers a bit due to the sinister-sounding terminology for the arsenal of weapons that target the mind. The parlance of propaganda operations includes euphemisms such as “psychological warfare” and “perception management,” but PSYOP is the term officially adopted by the U.S. military.
Training courses at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School use this working definition of PSYOP: “Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and, ultimately, the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups or individuals.”
The 4th Group practices psychological operations on its targets through face-to-face contact and a host of mass media: leaflets, stickers, posters, newsletters, magazines, comic books, e-mail, Web sites, loudspeakers, and radio and television broadcasts from land-, sea- and air-based transmitters.
The methods learned at Fort Bragg are applied worldwide to a multitude of missions. Recent operations conducted by the 1,100-member 4th Group and the Army’s two reserve PSYOP units ran the gamut from peacekeeping campaigns to intimidating attacks against the will of enemy aggressors.
In Central America, PSYOP soldiers aided medical and construction crews in getting crucial information to victims of Hurricane Mitch. In several South American countries, they disseminated counternarcotics publications and posters. In the Kosovo war, they cranked out millions of air-dropped leaflets supporting NATO’s bombing of Serbia and urging citizen resistance to the Milosovic government.
Even against the uncertain foreign-policy landscape of the post-Cold War era, persuasion operations are a growth industry. Fort Bragg can already boast the most sophisticated propaganda force in the world, and today the PSYOP units are launching another wave of modernization and tactical innovation, honing techniques and technologies for fighting the media-saturated conflicts dubbed “CNN wars” in the military literature.
According to recent Defense Department budget presentations to Congress, the 4th Group will soon break ground on an $8.6 million facility equipped with state-of-the-art production and dissemination equipment. The objective, one Fort Bragg commander explained, is to develop “a CNN-central concept … in which psychological-operations soldiers develop first-class, world-quality products and export them to remote locations.”
The military’s experience during the Gulf War left American commanders with a deep appreciation for the power and immediacy of television news in the age of satellite communications and increasingly globalized media. CNN, in particular, played a central role, as audiences from Boise to Baghdad turned to the tube for the latest news and views on the fighting. Off the battlefield, the Defense Department helped define the conflict and convey U.S. power by controlling media access and releasing the oft-broadcast video clips of “smart bomb” strikes and SCUD-busting Patriot missiles.
For all its success in using Gulf War media coverage to strategic advantage, the Pentagon found some of its own mass-communication resources to be lacking. “Military media capability is no match for the commercial sector,” noted a recent article in the Army journal Military Review. “We must tap that expert knowledge and capability to realize the full potential of information-age PSYOP.”
Intelligence gatheringThe effort to stay on the cutting edge of mass-media production is what led the 4th Group to assign eight enlisted personnel to work, out of uniform but making no secret of their Army jobs, as unpaid interns at CNN and NPR, according to Fort Bragg officials. Five soldiers worked at CNN headquarters in Atlanta between June 1999 and February 2000, and three at NPR’s Washington, D.C., offices between September 1998 and May 1999. The internships varied in length from six weeks to four months.
“We asked to go with NPR and CNN because we wanted to get our broadcasters, our communication-center operators and PSYOP soldiers to work with the best and see how they do their news gathering and transition to information, so we can do better,” Lt. Col. Paul J. Mullin, deputy commander of the 4th Group, explained on an April 10 segment of NPR’s All Things Considered, after the network’s participation in the training program was revealed in press reports.
Mullin lamented the loss of the arrangement, but said he understood why the news executives pulled out. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “They want to preclude the view that psychological operations could influence the U.S. press, which we certainly don’t.”
And they certainly can’t, according to Army and federal-government restrictions against domestic dissemination of military propaganda. “It’s forbidden by law,” Walter Sokalski, head of the Army Special Operations Command public affairs office, told The Independent. “We cannot do psychological operations on U.S. citizens.”
On paper, at least, the American public is protected from exposure to PSYOP, and Fort Bragg officials assert that their forces strictly adhere to such restraints. The restrictions were not breached in the case of the 4th Group news interns, Sokalski insisted. “It was just a matter of trying to improve individual skill sets,” he said.
“But that does not mean that we can’t use the tools [of PSYOP] to help the American people,” Sokalski added. “For example, during Hurricane Andrew down in Florida, it was the psychological-operations folks that provided most of the communications during the first couple days after the hurricane broke.”
But there’s more to the story of domestic PSYOP than CNN, NPR and hurricane relief. According to declassified Army reports, Fort Bragg’s psywarriors have on occasion strayed into questionable gray areas, testing and employing tactics on U.S. territory that are supposed to be reserved for foreign operations.
In 1963, for example, a massive counterinsurgency simulation staged in southeastern Georgia, WATER MOCCASSIN III, incorporated the local populace, subjecting civilians to anti-Communist PSYOP. As hundreds of Green Berets led foreign military officers through the paces of suppressing a mock guerrilla uprising, Fort Bragg’s 13th Psychological Warfare Battalion arranged for the troops to visit local elementary students. “The Georgia school visit was part of the exercise’s counterinsurgency plan,” noted a Special Forces summary. In an actual insurgency situation, such visits would be conducted by PSYOP soldiers seeking to curry favor with the locals and bolster the image of government forces.
(The plan to use civilians as make-believe insurgents had unintended consequences, the report noted. A spate of rumors about the exercise “caused thousands of good American citizens to believe that the Army was involved in secretly training thousands of foreign troops for some highly secret–and highly undesirable–mission.”)
The same year, South Carolina residents were treated to PSYOP broadcasts from the 1st Psychological Warfare Battalion during a similar counterinsurgency exercise, SWIFT STRIKE III. “Radio teams presented two news shows each day, giving news of the maneuver from Radio WANS in Anderson,” a battalion history states. “In addition, they presented a music and news program each night which made a hit with young people in that area.” The training stressed the importance of using indigenous media outlets and popular entertainment to snare listeners in contested areas.
A few years later, as the struggle for hearts and minds in Vietnam intensified, special-operations forces turned their attention to so-called “civic action” projects, which employed humanitarian aid and friendly outreach as ways of fostering support among target populations. PSYOP forces played an important back-up role in such operations and tested their tactics during “civic action projects in North Carolina,” according to an official recap of operations in 1971.
The purpose of this in-country training was twofold: to practice civic-action techniques on a familiar culture and to strengthen the military’s public standing. “There were three exercises which were designed to establish a favorable relationship between the Army and the citizens of North Carolina,” the report says. In the first, a PSYOP battalion supported Special Forces troops that ran a boys’ camp in Anson County, providing “loudspeaker and audiovisual support, as well as graphic and printed material” for camp activities. In the other two, the battalion gave slide shows and staged battle reenactments for civilians in the Fayetteville area.
At the same time as these overtly staged exercises, PSYOP soldiers were quietly supporting a Special Forces “domestic action project” on a Native American reservation in Montana. “The mission of the PSYOP personnel dealt with analyzing the culture of the Northern Cheyenne in terms of the particular socioeconomic conditions and traditional values by which members of the tribe maintain their separate identity,” according to an Army report. It was a classic target-audience assessment, the kind PSYOP specialists regularly prepare in order to best exploit the cultural and political nuances of foreign nations.
Whether or not these projects transgressed the fine line between authorized and forbidden operations on U.S. soil may be a matter of interpretation, but one domestic deployment clearly crossed over.
In a case that demonstrated how PSYOP can be used to manipulate political debates within the United States, five soldiers from the 4th Group were dispatched to Washington, D.C., in 1985-86, to work with an “Office of Public Diplomacy” created by the Reagan National Security Council. The office promoted the administration’s controversial Central America policies, in particular the contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
According to declassified documents, the soldiers assisted the office’s efforts to assess and influence media coverage of contra funding debates in key congressional districts, using their skills for spotting “exploitable themes and trends” and offering “intelligence analysis and production of persuasive communications” to Reagan’s public-diplomacy team.
The 4th Group personnel returned to base after just a year in Washington, and the Defense Department refused the office’s additional requests for PSYOP troops, evidently because of concerns that the domestic assignment could be construed as illegal. Shortly thereafter, Iran-Contra investigators discovered the public-diplomacy program and it was promptly shut down. Congress’ General Accounting Office, which later looked into the persuasion campaign, concluded that the Office of Public Diplomacy had conducted “prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies,” aided in part by the officers on loan from Fort Bragg.
Industry trainingBut the Army insists that the internships at CNN and NPR weren’t about propaganda. An officer with the 4th Group said that the Army asked the news networks to take on the interns as part of a military-wide program called “Training with Industry” that allows soldiers to learn from their counterparts in the private sector.
And relatively low-echelon soldiers, at that. “The internships are not geared to officers,” special-operations spokesman Sokalski told The Independent. “That would be like sending your managing editor; but these are like reporters, our enlisted folks who went. So it wasn’t the decision makers, it was the guys that are actually going to do the work, the technical people, the communications people.”
According to one of the interns, Staff Sgt. Jose A. Velazquez, who was interviewed by TV Guide, the training had its merits, but the work was essentially menial. Assigned to CNN’s Southeast bureau, Velazquez says he mostly “made calls and researched stories on the Internet. I saw how crews were deployed. I learned how they put stories together.” (Two of the interns were placed at that bureau, two at CNN Radio and one in the network’s satellite-communications section.)
NPR’s ombudsman, Jeffrey Dworkin, who was the station’s vice president for news when three members of the 4th Group were on site, made the same case about what the interns did. “They were very nice young people, interested in how journalism works, interested in how public radio works,” Dworkin explained to listeners of an All Things Considered panel discussion that included the 4th Group’s deputy commander. “They did filing and typing and sort of low-level things. They never committed journalism on our airwaves.”
An active-duty Fort Bragg soldier who worked with the 4th Group while the internships were underway backs up the story. According to the chit-chat around the office, she says, the assignments were fun and interesting but not particularly substantive, and the soldiers neither sought nor found means to shape news coverage.
“The purpose of them being there was not to provide military expertise,” she told The Independent. “From what I understand of the program, they’re not doing anything really important except learning. I talked to some of the guys who did it and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I got coffee a lot.’”
Her superiors agree that this was strictly a training assignment, asserting that a beneficial and above-the-board program got a bad rap, that the interns never had a role in shaping news reports, and that the Army meant and did no harm.
Sokalski contends that not only is the 4th Group losing a valuable training activity, the public will also pay a price for the termination of the internships. A main objective of the internships was to see how major news organizations streamline their operations using new technologies. “By what our soldiers in PSYOP were learning at CNN, we could decrease significantly the number of people we have to deploy overseas to support a particular operation,” he said. The intern program helped the 4th Group “do the job more efficiently without putting more soldiers in harm’s way, and, of course, saving the taxpayer dollars.”
Other damage has been done, from the military’s perspective, in the form of heightened public suspicions about Fort Bragg’s propaganda troops. The 4th Group, which specializes in persuading the doubtful and puts a premium on maintaining credibility, has recoiled from the suggestion that it infiltrated the U.S. media in order to manage it.
Perception and realityWhatever the actual reason the 4th Group personnel were dispatched to CNN and NPR, the Army very nearly got away with it. Were it not for a Paris-based e-mail newsletter, Intelligence Online, which broke the story on Feb. 17, 2000, the American public would probably still be tuning in to news produced in the presence of PSYOP specialists.
A correspondent for the newsletter attended a “Special Operations Low Intensity Conflict Symposium” in Arlington, Va., and reported that there, 4th Group commander Col. Christopher St. John “called for greater cooperation between the armed forces and the media giants. He pointed out that some Army PSYOP personnel have worked for CNN for several weeks and helped in the production of some news stories for the network.”
Dutch journalist Abe de Vries followed up a few days later with a report in the newspaper Trouw that explained the CNN internships in some detail. It was about this time that CNN management learned about the PSYOP interns and sent them back to Fort Bragg, according to statements by the network. Both CNN and NPR insist that senior news directors were unaware of the Army interns, who had been hired by the networks’ human-resource departments.
A Web site called Emperor’s Clothes posted an English translation of the article online, where it caught the attention of Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, who in March wrote commentaries lambasting both CNN and the military in his newsletter CounterPunch and The Los Angeles Times. Then the New York City-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Journalism (FAIR) spread the word in two special alerts about the case.
In April, TV Guide reporter J. Max Robins opened a new chapter in the controversy when he revealed that NPR, too, had hosted 4th Group personnel. In this and other published reports, CNN and NPR executives stated that it was a regrettable but ultimately harmless mistake to put soldiers in the newsroom.
“All the interns did a fine job,” an NPR spokeswoman said. “They performed minor tasks and had no influence on our news coverage, but when our senior newspeople found out they were here, they decided it was inappropriate; and we terminated the program.”
“Interns at CNN observe under the supervision of CNN staff and have no influence over what CNN reports or how CNN reports it,” the network said in a statement. “CNN’s position: It was inappropriate for PSYOP personnel to be at CNN, they are not there now and they never again will be at CNN.”
The short-lived internship program may have shifted the long-term balance of power between the military and the media, argue some observers.
The training could conceivably aid future military attempts to manage the news, FAIR warned. “What makes the CNN story especially troubling is the fact that the network allowed the Army’s covert propagandists to work in its headquarters, where they learned the ins and outs of CNN’s operations,” commented one of the group’s alerts. “Even if the PSYOP officers working in the newsroom did not influence news reporting, did the network allow the military to conduct an intelligence-gathering mission against CNN itself?”
“Were they gathering intelligence? Yes,” Sokalski said of the interns. “Not to be used against [the media], but to improve our overall operation and in the long run save our taxpayers money.”
The networks cannot afford to take such assertions for granted, said Margaret Blanchard, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, who specializes in the history of government-media relations.
“This [internship program] surely sounds like something out of the Nixon era,” Blanchard told The Independent, citing operations in which Army intelligence officers posed as journalists to penetrate and conduct surveillance against anti-war groups. “It doesn’t seem as nefarious, at least on the surface. But you wonder how this might fit into the overall picture down the road. If they learn the sources CNN uses for its military reports, I could see how they might use it to interfere with news organizations.”
As to the personnel departments at CNN and NPR that signed up the PSYOP interns, Blanchard said, “Even if they’re not journalists they should know that military and media don’t mix.”
The 4th Group’s chance to mix with the inner circle of American news producers may be over for good, but PSYOP commanders have not ruled out internships at other private institutions.
“They’re still constantly going to be on the lookout for new individual training opportunities,” Sokalski said. “They will possibly be on the technical side, though, with industry that deals with the technology. It probably will not be with large media organizations.”
Whatever skills and knowledge the soldiers gained from their time at top news outlets, the public-opinion costs to the Army probably outweigh the benefits. The impression that Army propaganda specialists got too close to the content of domestic news will linger.
“There’s no vast conspiracy,” a PSYOP officer told The Independent. But the 4th Group, trained to play the game of perception management, knows better than most that widely accepted perceptions are just as important as–and often become–reality.