FIGHTING THE SO-CALLED "information war" against terrorists and insurgents has cost the U.S. military nearly $1 billion in the past three years.1 But that may not be the highest cost.
Congressional questions about the spending for communication programs and news reports about questionable use of contracted public relations firms and journalists have brought to light an undefined area of military operations with little oversight or controls. Not surprisingly, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in March 2010, directed an internal assessment of information operations and internal investigations into specific activities.2
In a December 2009 Washington Post column, David Ignatius points out that "the military has funded a range of contractors, specialists, training programs and initiatives," and that the "militarization of information," particularly when hiring "covert contractors," should sound an alarm.3
However, in times of war, when ends may justify means, why shouldn't the military aggressively promulgate positive images of the United States and fight enemy propaganda?4 Why shouldn't the military hire public relations firms to plant unattributed American-friendly articles in foreign media (as alleged in the case of the Lincoln Group in Iraq in 2004)?5 Why shouldn't the military use companies that offer to "do more than just information gathering," merging "reporting, intelligence, connection-peddling, and strategic communications" (as is alleged about International Safety Networks)?6
Contractors who operate journalistic, news, or public relations activities for the military blur the lines between public affairs, journalism, military information support operations (MISO, formerly PSYOP). The dangers of these types of activities seem obvious. They change what are accepted international protections for journalists as non-combatants. They hinder and endanger journalists and render military public affairs ineffective. They rile up conspiracy theorists and provide fodder for anti-American sentiment. A nation that cherishes and promotes freedom of speech and press erodes these values and its credibility when it subjects foreign people to covert media manipulation. In the world of instantaneous news reporting, such activities extend beyond targeted foreign populations and reach U.S. and allied populations.
Robert Hastings, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, sees a line that "ought not to be crossed." He notes that "as a constitutional democracy, our government has an obligation to share robust information based on truth without attempting to influence its people," but adds, "We have to remember that public affairs needs to be done by public affairs people. Moreover, if we hire someone to do this type of work, they need to follow the same rules and directives that military public affairs officers follow. We should not be able to hire a surrogate to do otherwise."7
Questionable public information contracts are merely a symptom of an underlying problem within the military: no doctrine exists for strategic communications. This results in ineffective implementation and insufficient training for leaders and public affairs officers. In the absence of doctrine, military organizations experimented with strategic communications during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, these well-intended schemes might cost the United States its credibility. Why did these ill-advised initiatives become so pervasive? How do we meet the need to communicate in a far-sighted way that is integrated into all operations and demonstrated in not only words but by deeds?
What the Military Needs is Some "Strat Comm"
The military is in the business of fighting and winning our Nation's wars. Commanders saw a need to fight in the information realm and found innovative ways to do so. They must be innovative not only because of technology and an instantaneous news cycle, but also because there is no doctrine to follow. …