Collateral damage from Information Operations

Broadly defined, collateral damage is unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces.
US Air Force Intelligence Targeting Guide.
Noah Shachtman has a post up at Danger Room on a US military Psychological Operation. Basically, in 2006 a Sergeant Colabuno in Anbar province kept sending back reports to his superiors saying that in order to get Sunni Arabs on our side in Fallujah, we'd do well to talk tough on Iran. Then in January, White House rhetoric changed from concentrating on Iran's nuclear program to alleged Iranian support for Iraqi armed groups. Colabuno: "That overnight changed the attitudes of the people towards us. They took it as almost an apology."

Given the level of coordination between the military effort in Iraq and the information operations run by the White House, it would take a lot to convince me that the rhetoric from the White House was in any way related to requests from Iraq. The way I read it, there was a pull environment in Iraq, where an audience (Anbar Sunnis) wanted to pull a specific message out of the Americans. The Bush administration wanted to push the same message out at either its domestic audience or at Iran for diplomatic reasons, and that message spilled over to Iraq. By pure chance, the Bush administration's rhetoric on Iran happened to line up with what Iraqi Sunnis wanted to hear. This raises the question of "what if"?

What if we had an administration that took seriously the need to integrate all aspects of national power (military, economic, diplomatic, and information) in wartime, and thus executed an information strategy coming out of the White House that is tailored to events in Iraq and towards an Iraqi audience? There would be collateral damage on the American domestic scene. The message would have to come out of the White House to have credibility. The global reach of even local newspapers means that any story resulting from an information operation could leak into the American press, further bolstering the case for war with Iran by providing "independent" corroboration. The American electorate could mistakenly push its own government into a war with Iran. (Right now, over a third of Americans polled believe we should bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.)

MountainRunner, my go-to blog on matters for public diplomacy, information operations, et al, has noted a few times that the Smith-Mundt Act, which governed the actions of the now-defunct US Information Agency and now governs the actions of the Bureau of the State Department that the USIA was folded in to, was not designed to protect American audiences from US government propaganda. Rather, it was designed to help guide the USIA to counter Soviet propaganda. The Department of Defense, despite not being covered by Smith-Mundt and therefore theoretically being free to propagandize whomever they like, is skittish in doing anything that could be labeled as propaganda for fear of collateral damage. The few times they have, it blew up in their faces and they were charged with propagandizing. Unfortunately I haven't seen anything by MountainRunner or anyone else in the hypertoobz on whether there might be a solution to the problem of collateral damage in information operations.

There are going to be many challenges in information operations against Al Qaeda, of which collateral damage is only one. The dispersed nature of Al Qaeda and its potential support that we must try to influence means that we can't limit information operations to specific media outlets. The potential for political blowback for almost any operation combined with natural CYA instincts mean that our operational cycle will be long, as things have to travel up the chain of command to get approved. And of course there will always be a credibility problem - if any stories are exposed as either planted or false, all pro-American stories in the media will be dismissed whether they were the result of US information operations or not, and whether they are true or not.

Lots of problems, no solutions!

(P.S., MountainRunner wrote a good piece on the obvious need to update the Smith-Mundt Act for Small Wars Journal.)

4 comments:

Meatball One said...

Nice post. Thanks

Adrian said...

Tacka dig!

steve said...

"if any stories are exposed as either planted or false, all pro-American stories in the media will be dismissed whether they were the result of US information operations or not, and whether they are true or not."

This has already happened,

I personally now take any news item that supports the current administration line as suspect.

By the way, I found my way here via the Meatballis one's blog. I am amazed to see about half my favorite books listed on your list of favorite books.

Adrian said...

I agree - this administrations record has stripped it of the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks for letting me know how you found my blog - it's always nice to figure out who reads this and how they find it.

One unintended consequence of grad school is that I no longer have the time to read any books for fun - I get to read maybe 4 or 5 books for pleasure a year now, mostly in the summer. Consequently that list probably won't change much...