December 3rd, 2008
U.S. general orders merger of NATO Afghan PIO office with Psy Ops
By David Cuillier
Most of us don’t cover beats in Afghanistan, but a story by Reuters about U.S. efforts to combine public relations with the psychological warfare and propaganda arm of the military gives me the willies and should make journalists everywhere more skeptical of military statements.
According to the story, the U.S. general commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan ordered the merger of the Public Affairs Office with Psychological Operations, which includes “black operations” that rely on deception and lies. The story is based on three unnamed officials because the U.S. would not speak openly about the merger. NATO allies apparently have raised concerns about the move.
Now, it’s not really news that the U.S. government plays mind games with the enemy and seeks to manipulate public opinion through questionable means (e.g., bribing journalists to write favorably toward their causes, lying about secret prison camps until exposed). But it is disconcerting that they bring together propaganda-spreading mind manipulators with public affairs, the folks who talk to the media and produce news releases. If journalists and the public were skeptical of military statements before, now they really ought to be wary.
Maybe it just formalizes what a lot of people probably suspected all along – that PR is a form of propaganda, but I have a hunch that many reputable PIOs would be chagrined to see their efforts undermined and their credibility gutted. These actions further harm our credibility in the world, and it makes us wonder what inappropriate shenanigans are going on in the homeland. Federal law prohibits the U.S. government’s use of propaganda on its own citizens – but are Psy Ops experts aiding government PIOs in their strategies for communicating with the U.S. public? Maybe, maybe not, but how are we to know given the blanket of secrecy shrouding these operations in the name of national security? Our government’s actions continue to erode our trust, reinforcing the need for journalists to be ever more vigilant.