Fine Print: Contractors' roles in psychological operations raise concerns

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Defense Department plans to spend nearly $1 billion on psychological operations (PSYOP) worldwide in fiscal 2011 -- and nearly 40 percent of it will go for contracted services and products.

The purpose of PSYOP is "to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior in a manner favorable to U.S. objectives," according to a report on Defense Department information operations sent to Congress in March.

How? By putting out truthful information through "television, web, posters, leaflets, billboards, radio, literature, drama and other creative means," according to the report. But who in the military is trained to do that?

For the Pentagon, contractors are the answer. Of about $180 million for PSYOP activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 95 percent will be for "large service provider contracts as well as small contracts for local service providers that perform printing and other production activities," according to the Defense Department, in answers to my questions.

Recent PSYOP activities in Afghanistan have included a major advertising campaign to persuade citizens to report suspected makeshift bombs to the military. It was done by contractors; as the March report notes, "DoD makes extensive use of contractors in media services to produce high-quality print, audio and video products."

The report adds, however, that contracted personnel "do not take the place of government and military decision makers who establish communication objectives, define target audiences, and approve all communication methodologies."

Still, there are "concerns about the [Defense] Department's ability to oversee adequately and manage appropriately the large sums of money flowing into a variety of information operations programs," the Senate Armed Services Committee said in its report on the fiscal 2011 Defense Authorization bill released this month. And the dismissal of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal over his comments in a magazine has put a spotlight on one failed aspect of the military's dealings with the media.

One year ago, when Congress asked the Defense Department how much the military was spending on "strategic communications," it first answered about $1 billion, then $626 million. Less than a year later, in the March report, the agency told Congress that things had changed: There was no "strategic communications budget." Rather, that term applied to all Defense Department capabilities and programs "designed to affect perceptions and behavior [domestic and foreign] in a manner that supports U.S. objectives."

Although strategic communications as an activity has ended, the report notes that some combat commands "have established small SC [strategic communications] cells as part of the commander's special staff." It points out that these staff members "function as planners, integrators, and 'dot connectors.' " Here is where the lesson of the McChrystal affair comes in.

Duncan Boothby, who helped arrange Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings's entree with the McChrystal entourage, was an SC staff member. But he was a private subcontractor under a broader prime contract let by the Afghan command for strategic communications management services.

Contracting out these services, whether for strategic communications or PSYOP, is a problem. Remember the investigations into the activities of Michael Furlong, the Strategic Command employee who used money from an information operations program concerning makeshift bombs to contract for services to help identify Afghan insurgents?

Another problem area is when PSYOP activities, directed at foreign audiences, cross with public affairs, the military's traditional outlet for dealing with the news media and domestic and foreign audiences. Oversight of all Pentagon information activities has been under review, although PSYOP activities have drawn their own special team "to ensure that each constitutes a traditional military activity," according to the March report.

The military has expanded into areas where it lacks expertise but has the funds to pay for contractors. PSYOP has been a favorite of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), but with the program's new popularity, particularly in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, it has spread within the Army.

As one result, after approval by top Pentagon officials including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, SOCOM's commander, Adm. Eric T. Olson, announced last week that the PSYOP name will be dropped because of bad connotations and changed to Military Information Support Operations (MISO).

But name changes, whether dropping "strategic communications" or going from PSYOP to MISO, won't solve the underlying problems. As long as the Pentagon has funds for information activities -- in amounts that other agencies don't have and cannot get -- it will turn to contractors.

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