Psychological Operations by Another Name Are Sweeter


Jul 29, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on Small Wars Journal on July 29, 2010.

The Department of Defense has decided to change the name of military psychological operations (PSYOP) and this is a good thing. I make this assertion despite concerns about the name change raised by others in the Small Wars Journal.

Although most psychological operations are no more than messages and broadcasts aimed at changing the opinions, attitudes, or behavior of foreign citizens, officials or troops, they have come to have a sinister connotation in the minds of U.S. citizens and policymakers alike. The very term PSYOP summons dark thoughts of orbital mind control lasers, dastardly propaganda, or deception.

In truth, the vast majority of contemporary PSYOP are based on wholly truthful information. PSYOP personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan prepare air-dropped leaflets, develop posters and handbills, make radio broadcasts, and operate loudspeaker trucks. They carry messages ranging from what enemy soldiers should do in order to safely surrender (dropped as leaflets during the opening days of the war in Iraq) – to posters or radio spots with the phone number for a tip line Afghan citizens can use to report Taliban activity. Changing the name of these useful efforts is good; eliminating the possibility of them including falsehood would be even better.

Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan show that the U.S. military needs credible capabilities with which to inform, influence, and persuade foreign audiences. Popular support is essential in order to prevail in counterinsurgency. Effectively combating violent extremism requires changing the attitudes of potential recruits and supporters along with arresting or killing terrorists. Psychological operations have made valuable contributions in these areas, but not as much as they could have.

The misperception of PSYOP as deceptive and nasty has impaired Department of Defense efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. This negative attitude is held even within parts of the military itself. Troops from public affairs or civil affairs have sometimes been hesitant to work with PSYOP personnel for fear of being tainted by their (imagined) black arts. PSYOP are most effective when fully coordinated with all the actions of friendly forces, including maneuver and displays of might, but also with other communicators (like public affairs), and doers of good deeds (like civil affairs).

Public and congressional support for PSYOP has lagged because of the incorrect assumption that these operations are inherently insidious. Changing the name from the menacing "psychological operations" to the more benign "military information support operations," with the friendlier acronym MISO, should go some ways toward fixing the problem. As proof, note that PSYOP personnel have been operating in support of U.S. embassies for several years as Military Information Support Teams (MIST), receiving high marks from both ambassadors and foreign service officers. All these MIST activities are subject to the approval of the ambassador, and are all required to be completely truthful in both content and attribution.

However, there is more to be done beyond changing the name of psychological operations. There is a reason that PSYOP has a sinister connotation. Sure, some of the distrust stems from the term itself, but some stems legitimately from the range of capabilities and operations described in PSYOP doctrine and training, and from things that may or may not have been done in the past.

While the U.S. military has never had mind control lasers, current PSYOP doctrine does allow for the possibility of products and messages that are not wholly true, or are made to appear as if they were written or published by someone else. Again, the vast majority of PSYOP are and have always been completely truthful, but the possibility of them being otherwise is there, which means that any PSYOP product could be less than wholesome. That leads inexorably to mistrust of PSYOP.

The solution is simple. To protect military information support operations from developing the same sort of taint that psychological operations now have, they should be made unambiguously truthful. PSYOP (now MISO) doctrine should be rewritten to ban misleading or false content or disseminating messages with false attribution. Clear (and publicly stated) policies prohibiting falsehood and MISO doctrine that is free from "black" tools and approaches will signal to U.S. allies and target audiences alike that MISO personnel are honest, credible and trustworthy sources of information. Credible sources are, after all, the most persuasive.

Of course, there may still be times when the Department of Defense wants and needs to mislead or manipulate an enemy. Most of these will be tactical and short-term needs, and either directly protect the lives of U.S. forces or trick adversaries into exposing themselves to harm, or both. To preserve U.S. credibility in those cases where "black" tools are necessary, they should be separated completely from military information support so that MISO is never touched by the taint of falsehood.

Commanders who desired such capability could employ it, but the “black” tools would be separated with a policy firewall from truthful efforts to inform, influence, and persuade. This would promote greater collaboration with public affairs and civil affairs, and would facilitate the realization of strategic communication principles. And, to keep things honest, the residual "black toolkit" could be called something evil-sounding, like "deceptive manipulation" or even....PSYOP.

Dr. Christopher Paul is a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. He is the author of Whither Strategic Communication?, Information Operations - Doctrine and Practice, and co-author of Enlisting Madison Avenue.

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