Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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February 7, 2003

Special Report

US Psychological Operations Escalate Against Iraq

Analysis. By Michael Knights, GIS. Alongside the escalation of no-fly zone enforcement and the build-up of US forces in the Gulf, the US Government has slowly escalated its program of psychological operations (PSYOP) in the region. The objectives sought by US PSYOP are more ambitious than ever before, including “transformation of the psychological environment” of the Iraqi security state, according to one Pentagon source, as well as a broader campaign to reduce antipathy to Washington’s Iraq policy in the Arab world and international community. 

To achieve these aims, the US has for the first time employed the full spectrum of means to propagate its message, and is likely to maintain its PSYOP effort during and after a decisive military conflict with Iraq.

Though the US has, in one form or another, maintained constant PSYOP against the Ba’athist Government of Iraq since 1990, recent indicators emerging from the Pentagon suggested that US decisionmakers had become acutely concerned about rising international animosity towards Washington’s Iraq policy. Initial efforts were carried out by the US Department of Defense (DoD), where Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had long perceived the US to be losing the “information war” against foes such as al-Qaida and the Ba’athist Government in Baghdad, each of which has used Arab television stations such as al-Jazeera to alarm Arab élite and public opinion. The first DoD effort – the Office of Strategic Influence – was shut down in February 2002, after only four months in operation, when the US media discovered that its mandate included feeding disinformation to foreign media, so-called “grey propaganda”. 

[“Grey propaganda” is propaganda in which the originating source is unstated but from a generally acknowledged source; “black propaganda” is from a source, the origin of which is completely disguised or obfuscated, leading to the belief that it originates from a source other than its real sponsor; “white propaganda” is openly-released information, specific and accurately-acknowledgeable as to its source.]

[For a series of comprehensive studies on psychological strategy, see the Special Reports Psychological Strategy section of GIS.]

A subsequent attempt emerged in December 2002, when The New York Times reported that Secretary Rumsfeld had supported a change in DoD policy on PSYOP, redefining it in the cornerstone DoD directive “3600.1: Information Operations”. While previously, DoD policy defined PSYOP as operations to affect the behavior of “adversary” decisionmakers and populations, the re-wording favored “foreign” decisionmakers and populations, including friendly and neutral nations. Most significantly, Sec. Rumsfeld signaled his support for covert PSYOP, including actions to discredit mosques and leaders teaching radical forms of Islam, while supporting and funding more moderate religious establishments.

The DoD experience in 2002 showed that there remained strong sensitivity to military involvement in clandestine PSYOP and, as former senior PSYOP officer Col. Charles Borchini noted on the issue of deception: “It’s safer to tell the truth.” Since mid-December 2002, the DoD has stepped back from the “grey propaganda” rôle, leaving the State Department sole responsibility for strategic PSYOP. These would be limited to “white propaganda”, overt and civilian communiqué, but would still reflect US concern that Washington needed a stronger “communications strategy” on Iraq issues. Congressman Harry J. Hyde, Chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, recently proposed a $225-million tranche of funding to support new non-clandestine “public diplomacy” initiatives at the State Department. The Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy is Charlotte Beers, an influential advertising executive formerly head of Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency in New York.

Although new money could help to rejuvenate the State Department’s US Information Agency (USIA) — historically a key PSYOP conduit for the US — the majority of PSYOP radio broadcasts entering Iraq are run by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Of the 27 major stations broadcasting into Iraq, USIA only produces Radio Free Iraq (using part of the $97-million allotted to “government change” by the Iraq Liberation Act) and Radio Sawa, a Jordanian-based Arabic service of the Voice of America which recently received new State Department funding amounting to $35-million. As part of its institutional effort to restrict the rôle of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the State Department in May 2002 blocked funding which would have allowed the relaunch of the INC’s Radio Hurriah (Freedom).1

The CIA continues to operate a number of stations aligned with its favored opposition grouping, the Iraqi National Accord (INA). These operate primarily from the 50kw Voice of America transmitter in Kuwait. The main CIA-run stations, al-Mustaqbal and Voice of the Brave Armed Forces, primarily broadcast to the Iraqi military, inciting officers to launch coup attempts. The latter station is part-run by Jordanian intelligence. Saudi intelligence, meanwhile, has run the Jeddah-based Voice of the Iraqi People since 1991. Though USIA-run Voice of America Arabic language stations have increased their output dramatically, they are not believed to attract wide audiences amongst key constituencies such as youth or the armed forces.

Although these opposition and Western-run radio stations continue to broadcast from Kuwait, Iraqi Kurdistan, Saudi, and Jordan, the US DoD has now added its airborne transmitters to the spectrum. Lockheed Martin EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft of the 193rd Special Operations Wing began radio transmissions into southern Iraq on December 12, 2002, broadcasting to the “soldiers of Iraq” with news of the US build-up and encouragement to overthrow the Government, and to the “people of Iraq”, with information about the effects of Ba’athist policies on their standard of living as well as focus on the unanimous invocation of UN resolution 1441. Leaflet drops in early January 2003 pointed Iraqis to the frequencies used by the Commando Solo aircraft.

In the past, Commando Solo aircraft have broadcast Iraqi opposition radio stations, increasing their propagation range through the aircraft’s altitude. Though Commando Solo has broadcast INA stations such as al-Mustaqbal in the past, it was likely that since the DoD picked up the funding of the INC, its aircraft would also provide a new conduit for INC material. This would lighten the programming load on the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg. Opposition figures were also likely to assist with the heavy task of generating television programming, which Commando Solo can also broadcast. US military PSYOP are likely to set up television stations after a new military operation, using the same Special Operation Media Systems modules that were deployed to condition the Bosnian population to a prolonged US military presence.

The PSYOP effort recently added e-mail dissemination to its quiver of arrows. The messages, sent to senior Iraqi decision-makers, offered clemency after any future fall of the Iraqi Government in return for assistance in finding WMD and resistance concerning any order to use them during a conflict. Recipients were asked to use light signals at night to signal the position of WMD, cueing UN weapons inspectors onto the position. Iraqi commanders were warned that use of WMD would make them “war criminals”.

Though traditional PSYOP methods (such as 12 rounds of PSYOP leaflet drops in the no-fly zones) were also executed, the multi-media, multi-agency effort underway was allowing the US to undertake a highly complex and ambitious PSYOP campaign. At the strategic level, the US was attempting to reduce international antipathy to its unpopular Iraq policy. At the operational level, the US can use its radio and television conduits to get a range of complex messages across to its targets. The Iraqi people are first being conditioned to accept the US military and disregard Ba’athist orders to mount general resistance to an invasion; later, during military operations, they would be ordered to remain at home and avoid Iraqi and US forces for their own safety.

Different parts of the Iraqi military, meanwhile, were being targeted according to their rôle. Air defense operators and general military units were being advised to abandon their equipment, and desist from repairing damaged installations. Weapons of mass destruction operators were being offered the opportunity to redeem themselves in a post-Ba’athist reckoning by ignoring orders to fire and identifying weapons locations. Senior officers were being encouraged to prepare to seize control of the State. Perhaps due to this multi-faceted effort, President Saddam Hussein stated in December 2002 that hostile propaganda was “a bigger threat than bombs”.

A Note on Radio Hurriah:

Radio Hurriah, which broadcast between 1992-97, was established by the Rendon Group, a consultancy run by former CIA official John Rendon, as part of a new “strategic communications” effort against the Ba’athist Government of Iraq. The INC-aligned station operated as part of the Iraq Broadcasting Company (IBC), using facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as piggybacking on Voice of America facilities in Kuwait, courtesy of the CIA. Shortly after celebrating its greatest success – purportedly causing the Iraqi flag bearer to defect at the 1996 Olympic games – the IBC organization suffered a reversal of fortunes. During the September 1996 Iraqi Government incursion into Kurdistan, almost all of the 100-strong Kurdish-based staff were captured and executed. In January 1997, the CIA refused to continue transmission of Radio Hurriah from Kuwait.