School of Media and Communication

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Military and the Media - Weaponising the truth? by J Kucera

JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY: Military and the Media - Weaponising the truth?
Joshua Kucera JDW Staff Reporter
Washington, DC

June 8, 2005

When US Army Major Scott Nelson, a US military spokesman in Afghanistan, addressed a press conference in Kabul last October, telling the assembled reporters that the Taliban leadership was fracturing and that the rank and file were demoralised, most journalists there dutifully reported the statements as fact.

What those reporters did not know was that Maj Nelson, in addition to being the US spokesman, was also an information operations officer. He reported to an 'effects chief' who, in addition to co-ordinating the US military's public affairs effort, also managed functions like psychological and information operations, including military deception.

Maj Nelson's seemingly innocuous statement quickly became controversial in the small public affairs office in Afghanistan.

The head public affairs officer in Afghanistan at the time, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Keeton, said that when reporters asked to follow up on that story, she went to her superiors to get more information - standard procedure. "No, sorry, it's all classified," she recalled being told. "Well, how did you gather it?" she asked. "Well, that's all classified," came the reply. Eventually the curious reporters had to do a "he said-she said" report, with the Taliban spokesman denying the US allegations and neither side providing any proof.

"There were times I felt that I was being spun by people [in the US military]," Col Keeton told JDW. "If people don't trust the information they're getting from someone in the government, then we're no better than the enemy."

Col Keeton said her objection was less about whether or not Maj Nelson's statement was true and more that it was so vague as to raise issues about the military's credibility. Furthermore, since the statement was not part of the approved talking points prepared by the public affairs office for press conferences, there was a conflict of interest in Maj Nelson apparently using his press function as a means of disseminating information operations messages, she added.

Maj Nelson told JDW that the statement about the Taliban - like everything he told the press - was true. "The main reason at the time I could not go further into detail about the Taliban senior leadership disagreements was the source, level of intelligence we had on the senior Taliban leadership and the political sensitivities about the Afghan government announcing a national reconciliation programme," he said.

Col Keeton and Maj Nelson are friends and told JDW that their disagreement was purely professional. However, their dispute mirrors a larger debate within the US military about the proper relationship between strategic communications, public affairs and information operations.

The debate

On one side are those who believe that there must be a 'firewall' between public affairs - which by law must tell the truth - and information operations: a broad enterprise that includes military deception. They argue that, in addition to the moral argument that the government should tell the truth to its citizens, there is a long-term strategic case to be made for keeping public affairs the way it is now.

On the other side are those who are frustrated with the rising tide of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, fanned by what they regard as inflammatory reporting from Arab satellite channels, and who think that the military needs a more focused, co-ordinated and aggressive approach to disseminating information. They argue that a new discipline called 'strategic communications' should encompass both information operations and public affairs.

Even as the debate continues, some of the controversial proposals are already being put into practice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Traditionally, public affairs has been a separate staff function in which the department head reports directly to the commander. However, in Iraq another layer has been added: the Office of Strategic Communications is headed by US Air Force Brigadier General Don Alston, a former wing commander, and now head of strategic communications in Iraq which entails overseeing both the public affairs office and the information operations functions in the country. Afghanistan had a similar structure but has since abandoned it.

While adding another layer to a command structure may seem a minor bureaucratic detail, it has far-reaching implications, opponents say. Public affairs officers are experienced with the press and can best advise the commander on how his words or actions might resonate in the media, they argue. Most strategic communications officers come from operational backgrounds, who may not understand the nuances of dealing with the press, they say.

"It's so vital we keep public affairs separate," said one former US public affairs officer in Iraq, who spoke to JDW on condition of anonymity. "You take this war operator who has not been trained in public affairs, his instincts about public affairs are likely to be wrong. My instincts are to take the bad news and get it out early: 'Here it is folks, here's our dirty laundry.' Then when we say we have good news people will believe it. Whereas an operator will say, 'You know, the timing's not real good in coming out with this, let's just sit on it and maybe it will go away.' Then it blows up and we've lost some credibility.

"We [in public affairs] could cleanly go about telling the army story, giving the facts, both the good and the bad. Information operations is not interested in telling the bad," the officer said. "It upsets me because we are doing great stuff there [in Iraq] but if people see that as propaganda, then they're not going to believe it even though it's true." While public affairs officers opposed the joining of public affairs and information operations, they are not alone. US Air Force General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a letter in September 2004 to service chiefs and combatant commanders warning of the practice.

"Although both public affairs and information operations conduct planning, message development and media analysis, the efforts differ with respect to audience, scope and intent and must remain separate," he wrote. "While organisations may be inclined to create physically integrated public affairs/information operations offices, such organisational constructs have the potential to compromise the commander's credibility with the media and the public ... Public affairs officers should work directly for the commander."

Nevertheless, US Central Command (CENTCOM) and its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have made moves to integrate public affairs and information operations. The Office of Strategic Communications was established in 2004 after US Army General George Casey, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, identified strategic communications as his top priority.

Air Force Brigadier General Erv Lessel, the first head of strategic communications in Iraq, said the purpose of the office was to co-ordinate the US military's message in the country. "We weren't being as aggressive as we should or could be at getting information out to a variety of audiences," he said. "When I got there, public affairs was very distinct and not effectively co-ordinating with other parts of the staff in getting information out coherently."

The office includes an operations division, which co-ordinates communications for major events like the attack on Fallujah in November 2004. An assessment division analyses the media and how the military's message is disseminated.

Gen Lessel said traditional public affairs offices only focus on the first level of dissemination - giving information to the media - but his office was able to go deeper than that, he said. "Second, is the media taking that information and doing something with it, publishing it, getting it out to the public? Third, is the public reading it and is it the right people ... that you want to be properly informed? The fourth level of effect is, is it having an effect on individuals? What does that information lead them to do or not do?"

This 'operationalising' of public affairs is particularly attractive to the military. "We seem to be continually playing catch-up ball in terms of how we should provide information, things that we should emphasise and things we should avoid," Major General John Castellaw, Chief of Staff of CENTCOM, told JDW. "There are objectives we want to accomplish, there are objectives we want to deny the enemy from doing, and information is a part of this. So what we want to do is make sure we have a rational organisation, policy and guidance to achieve that."

The Office of Strategic Communications in Iraq does that, Gen Castellaw said. said Gen Alston. said: "I'm operating 24/7 in the information battlespace; we are tending to this part of the fight every day. I would say we move truth faster because of the agility I have and because of where my people are. "They're on the operations floor; that's where we have the best visibility and clarity of what's going on in Iraq at any time. My people are there sitting in a prominent position next to the intelligence people, the targeting people, all the right people so that as information starts coming up, I'm immediately getting a sense of what is going on."


However, opponents of the strategic communications idea say that the few visible benefits to the new structure could have been achieved simply by strengthening the public affairs office.

The true motivation, opponents say, is to wrest control of what the press reports. While career public affairs officers understand that is not possible, soldiers, whose military experience is in achieving specific effects with deliberate acts - like launching artillery - often believe that the same can be done with the press, opponents say.

Civilian leaders in the Pentagon are some of the highest-ranking proponents of strategic communications. Coming from political backgrounds, they also bring perspectives from political propaganda, opponents say. "People want the instant information answer to changing cultures. There isn't one," said one Pentagon-based public affairs officer. "But they think about it in terms of US political communication, which is only communication to get someone to pull a lever, or to get them to say something in a public opinion poll. ... Getting people to agree with you for 30 seconds on one issue does not change a culture. The cultural changes that have to take place have to be long term, dealt with from a position of integrity to where people understand what truth is and what truth isn't. And sometimes we're our worst enemy in that regard."

Of course, military forces' attempts to control what is written about them is not a new phenomenon. During the Second World War, journalists covering the US military were given ranks and uniforms and their reports were censored. In the 1990-91 Gulf War, journalists were given almost no access to the battlefield and had to rely on reports from a press centre that later were found to be misleading.

Nevertheless, before the US and UK invasion of Iraq, the US military agreed to 'embed' reporters within units. The military was pleased with the reporting that emerged and reporters who were embedded, for the most part, felt that they were able to tell at least one side of the story accurately and without censorship. It seemed to herald a new era in the relationship between the press and the military. However, the tide has quickly turned. Now that the US is mired in a difficult counter-insurgency mission with a shadowy enemy, press coverage has become more negative and some commanders in the field have come to view reporters as enemies.

Strategic communications

"Because the war and the policy went well in the early part of the war, coverage could not help but be from neutral to good," said Colonel William Darley, a former US spokesman in Iraq and now editor-in-chief of Military Review, an army publication. Now that the press is more negative, "there's the natural inclination for people [in the military] to say, well, they [in the press] are the enemy because all they do is report things that are wrong", said Col Darley.

In an article in the January 2005 issue of Army magazine, Col Darley wrote: "Operators whose lives depend on successfully controlling the battlefield legitimately ask, 'If public affairs can't be used as a weapon for asserting control, what good is it?' The answer is often not palatable to some individuals, but, in fact, the practical military value of public affairs to the operator is neither tactical nor operational, nor is it easily quantifiable. It is strategic, a concept that is difficult to perceive or stomach when one is locked into personal and savage combat at the trench-knife level, where discussion of lofty strategic abstractions is usually not welcome." Proponents of strategic communications say that they do not intend to use public affairs to lie to the press. Gen Alston said: "Gen Casey told me, 'Let me tell you what your number one worst situation would be: if you lie or deceive. You will hurt my organisation if you do not have credibility.'"

What strategic communications intends to do instead is to make sure that public affairs messages follow a theme or a narrative that is deemed to be operationally effective. Those themes include: the Taliban is weakening; the Iraqi police are taking the lead in anti-insurgent operations; the new Iraqi government is strong; and the US military is in Iraq and Afghanistan to help those countries. In Iraq, the focus of strategic communications is: "What is important? What theme do we need to see? What is the truth that is coming out of that?" said Gen Castellaw. "What we're seeing right now is a great effort by these insurgents who believe that as the [Iraqi] government becomes more solid, their opportunities to succeed lessen. So right now what they're trying to do is make sure the government is not successful, doesn't get off on the right foot, etc. That is what we see as a truth, so what we do is permeate that through the various organisations and that becomes an element of our story, our drumbeat."

In Afghanistan, Col Keeton said she was frequently asked to tell reporters that the US was close to catching one Taliban leader or another, but those who asked her declined to offer proof. "And so I would tell them, 'Well, when you capture them let us know so we can put that information out,' and then nothing would ever happen," she said.

That strategy can backfire, said the Pentagon-based public affairs officer, who referred to news releases in Iraq emphasising that the US was conducting operations "'side by side with our Iraqi brethren'. The trouble is, it wasn't true and when the Iraqis saw the Americans say that and didn't see any Iraqis, they said: 'This isn't true' - that hurts your credibility," the officer said. "We're creating a 'say-do' gap - we don't necessarily do what we say. We say what we want people to believe even if it's not fully grounded in facts or the truth, and that is becoming a very disturbing trend in the military."

Strategic communications officers downplay their detractors' concerns. "The role that I play is a role that the commander would play in every other theatre of operations," said Gen Alston. "You have to ultimately integrate all of these things. Gen Casey has at his disposal the capabilities of information operations and of public affairs. It's just tradition that it's integrated by the commander. In this case it's integrated a level down." This argument was supported by Gen Castellaw: "Everyone has sort of mischaracterised the discussion. They're talking about a merging of public affairs and information operations instead of a merging of capabilities that help you effectively communicate."At CENTCOM headquarters, Gen Castellaw is chairman of a Joint Synchronization Board, which works to make sure that the public affairs and information operations messages do not conflict. However, he does not have command over the public affairs office a distinction that is endorsed by opponents of joint information operations/public affairs offices: like Col Keeton and Gen Myers.

Most officials on both sides of the debate agree that the US needs to develop a common national policy on strategic communications, one that addresses the need to counter false propaganda without circumventing the safeguards in place to prevent the military from deceiving the public.

As long as the war continues, however, the debate is likely to rage. "The cultures are different," said Col Darley. "The media wants to report everything that they possibly can, and the military wants as little to be reported as possible and what is reported to be in a favourable light. If you're a combat commander on the ground, you are trained to try and control every possible element on the ground, no matter what it is. So when you inject an uncontrollable medium in there that has obvious, dramatic political impact, both strategically as well as tactically, commanders, particularly when things are not going well, are very resentful of an uncontrollable element among them. And I don't know how you relieve that tension."

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