The Pentagon awarded three contracts this week, potentially worth up to $300 million over five years, to companies it hopes will inject more creativity into its psychological operations efforts to improve foreign public opinion about the United States, particularly the military.
"We would like to be able to use cutting-edge types of media," said Col. James A. Treadwell, director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, a part of Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command. "If you want to influence someone, you have to touch their emotions."
He said SYColeman Inc. of Arlington, Lincoln Group of the District, and Science Applications International Corp. will help develop ideas and prototypes for radio and television spots, documentaries, or even text messages, pop-up ads on the Internet, podcasting, billboards or novelty items.
Treadwell's group was established last year and includes a graphic artist and videographer, he said. It assists "psyops" personnel stationed at military headquarters overseas. Col. Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command, which runs the Army's Special Forces, Navy SEALs and other elite combat units, said the contractors might help the military develop commercials in Iraq, for example, illustrating how roadside bombs meant for soldiers also harm children and other innocent civilians.
The companies declined to comment.
The contracts come as the Bush administration has been criticized for its uncoordinated efforts to repair the United States' post-Iraq image problems abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. The State Department, for instance, has been slow to mount a new public diplomacy program headed by former White House aide Karen Hughes. Vice President Cheney said in March that public diplomacy "has been a very weak part of our arsenal."
A Government Accountability Office report in April noted that the Pentagon had been pressing initiatives on "strategic communications" to fill "the planning void left by the lack of strategic direction from the White House." A September 2004 Defense Science Board report concluded that the "U.S. strategic communication must be transformed."
"The department is always looking for ways to improve our communication efforts, and we are working closely with the State Department to support their public diplomacy initiatives where appropriate," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in response to questions about how the new psyops program fits into an administration plan.
Some previous Defense Department efforts in the field have been controversial. In 2002, the Pentagon abandoned its Office of Strategic Influence after reports surfaced, which the Pentagon denied, that it would disseminate inaccurate information to foreign media.
After other agencies were criticized for hiring journalists to promote their policies, the Pentagon asked its inspector general to review its use of Fairfax-based Anteon International Corp. to run Web sites aimed at audiences in the Balkans and North Africa. The Web sites, known as the Southeast European Times and Magharebia, include articles from journalists paid by the Pentagon through the company, as well as articles translated from U.S. newspapers. That review is ongoing.
Treadwell said there is no connection between the Office of Strategic Influence and the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, adding: "I have never approved a product that was a lie, [or] that was intended to deceive."
SYColeman, a unit of L-3 Communications, is a government-services company with about 1,100 employees, most in the region. According to its Web site, Lincoln Group provides communications services and strategic planning. San Diego-based SAIC, which has 16,000 employees in the Washington region, is among the Pentagon's largest contractors. Its work includes playing a major role in the Army's $100 billion modernization effort and a failed program to create a computerized case-management system for the FBI.
"I don't think contractors are necessarily going to be cheaper than soldiers . . . but in some cases, because of that creativity that we want to reach, we're willing to pay a little more for their ideas," Treadwell said.
The agency does not expect to spend more than $3 million this year on the three contracts, Treadwell said, adding he doubted the $300 million ceiling would ever be reached. "The first year is really a test, if we make it work, if we're successful in reaching the foreign audiences, then I think there will be increased resources," Treadwell said.
"What's changing is the realization that in this so-called war on terrorism, this is not a force multiplier; this might be the thing that wins the whole thing for you," said Dan Kuehl, a specialist in information warfare at the National Defense University. "This gets to the importance of the war of ideas. There are a billion-plus Muslims that are undecided. How do we move them over to being more supportive of us? If we can do that, we can make progress and improve security."