Psyops 101: Psyops on the homefront

11/07/20121 Comment

by James Corbett
November 6, 2012

The proponents of psychological warfare tactics by modern-day governments argue that fears about government propaganda are misplaced as there are laws in place to prevent the US government from propagandizing to its own citizens.

Indeed, legislation prohibiting government-sponsored domestic propaganda has been in place for nearly one century. That legislation, however, is outdated, unenforceable, and is routinely breached by the very government agencies that it is supposed to restrain. And as weak and effective as this legislation already is, it in danger of being even further diluted by a proposed amendment to the 2013 edition of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 seeks to update the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibits the State Department’s public diplomacy organs from disseminating propaganda intended for foreign audiences domestically. Smith, Thornberry, and other “modernization” proponents argue that the bill was drafted in a pre-satellite, pre-television, pre-internet era where the public feared the State Department’s ability to influence domestic politics. In this day and age of instant online access to websites and videos from anywhere in the world, proponents of the bill argue, the idea of segregating information into “foreign” and “domestic” is a futile if not meaningless activity.

In reality, though, it’s unclear what effect the Smith-Mundt Act has had in limiting domestic propaganda at all. There are no clear provisions, bodies or oversights for its enforcement and even the State Department itself seems unclear what bureaus are supposed to abide by it.

More general prohibitions on domestic propaganda also exist on the books. The 1913 Gillett Amendment, for example, now codified as USC Title 5 Section 3107, clearly states “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.”

Moreover, every one of the annual appropriations bills passed by Congress since 1951 has included a stipulation that “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.”

The Department of Defense has its own stipulation against domestic propaganda. Codified in USC Title 10 Section 2241a, the relevant passage reads: “Funds available to the Department of Defense may not be obligated or expended for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not otherwise specifically authorized by law.”

As we shall see, however, every one of these laws has been violated both in letter and in spirit by recently-exposed psyops campaigns, funded by the American taxpayer and aimed directly at the US population.

In theory, there are legal obstacles in place that prevent the US government from directly propagandizing to its own citizens. In reality, however, these regulations have been routinely flouted by the Defense Department and other federal agencies without any serious repercussion. Even a cursory breakdown of the actions of the last few Administrations show that domestic propaganda operations have been and continue to be an integral part of modern American politics.

Both the Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration before it made extensive use of Video News Reports, or VNRs, to influence public opinion on key issues. The reports, made to look like genuine news reports and then shopped around to news networks to be aired on the nightly news without any mention of their source, have been extensively used to tout government programs. The Clinton Administration, for example, used VNRs to promote Clinton’s Medicare proposals, and the Bush Administration used it even more extensively to promote newly-formed government agencies like the TSA and dubious government programs like “No Child Left Behind.”

The Government’s own Government Accountability Office repeatedly ruled that the Administration’s use of these VNRs was in fact illegal domestic propaganda, but the Bush White House dismissed the finding, arguing that the use of such reports was an issue of government intent, not legal restriction.

This argument was also used by the Department of Defense, which in 2003 issued an “Information Operations Roadmap” detailing the Rumsfeld DoD’s psyops strategies. The document failed to cite any of the statutory provisions putting legal restraints on the department’s ability to disseminate propaganda domestically, admitting that “information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and PSYOP, increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa,” but arguing that “the distinction between foreign and domestic audiences becomes more a question of USG [U.S. government] intent rather than information dissemination practices.” The document goes on to argue that the internet is akin to an enemy weapons system and asserting that the “DoD’s ‘Defense in Depth’ strategy should operate on the premise that the Department will ‘fight the net’ as it would a weapons system.”

In 2000, it was discovered that CNN had employed active duty US psyops officers at its headquarters in Atlanta. It has since emerged that this was part of a larger program including other news networks that embedded psyops officers in various newsrooms across the country.

Last year, a bizarre story emerged alleging that five US Senators were targeted by US military psyops officers for brainwashing to influence them into approving more funds and troops for the war in Afghanistan:

One of the most egregious examples of this type of operation, however, was the Pentagon pundit scandal that emerged in the midst of the Bush presidency. As domestic psyops campaigns go, it was as clear cut a case of direct government sponsorship of psyops on the American public as one could imagine.

Still, despite the copious and undeniable documentation of the scandal and the detailed coverage the case received in the alternative press, no one was convicted for the flouting of existing regulations, the DoD was neither reprimanded nor penalized for its role in the case, and nothing was done to insure that such blatant propagandization of the public cannot happen again in the future.

Proponents of these activities argue, as they do at every other opportunity, that the new age of global terror requires an understanding of a new warfare strategy. Information operations form an integral part of this alleged battle against the terror boogeymen, and in this age of instantaneous global communications and self-radicalized home-grown terrorists, it puts the government at an unfair disadvantage to prevent it from disseminating propaganda on the internet or satellite tv or other places where domestic audiences are likely to consume it.

This argument, as usual, completely misses the point. The point is not that Americans need to be saved from the biased, skewed propagandistic viewpoint of its own government’s communications. The nightly news has degenerated to the point where it acts as little more than a microphone for government agencies, and reporting in our current era amounts to little more than writing down notes at the latest White House press conference. More important is that government communications be accurately labelled as such. If the State Department or the DoD or any other government agency insists on the need to influence the conversation by broadcasting its own message, then surely it could not argue against a simple requirement that all government involvement in coordinated psyops campaigns be disclosed up front and in full. If every State Department broadcast or DoD-funded “talking head” or Administration-touting VNR simply required a short disclaimer that this message was paid for by the US government, surely the public could come to its own determination about the reliability of the information presented. Who could argue that a simple admission that “this opinion is brought to you by the US government” would undermine any message, so long as that message was accurate, factual, and documented?

The answer, of course, is obvious. Any such message would immediately incite skepticism in the audience and the message would lose its value as propaganda. This is precisely the point. Propaganda always functions by deception; by convincing the audience that it is by some disinterested third party, or by passing off lies as truths, it works to disorient, confuse and misdirect its intended recipients. It functions this way because, unsurprisingly, psychological warfare is precisely that: warfare. And in warfare there is no such thing as an “audience,” only an enemy.

Given this stark fact, what does it mean that time and time again the US government has been found aiming its tools of psy warfare at the American public itself? How many of these scandals have to take place before that public realizes that to the extent it disagrees with the policies of that government it is considered the enemy? And when the public finally does come to that realization, what will it do to insure that the DoD, the State Department, and all the other purveyors of these psyops tactics are defunded and their power to disseminate this propaganda is permanenly removed?


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  1. Psyops 101: Psyops on the homefront | Corbett Report | 11/08/2012

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