Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The targets of the psy war

Craig Unger has a must-read piece in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair about the psy-ops component of the run-up to the Iraq war:
For more than two years it has been widely reported that the U.S. invaded Iraq because of intelligence failures. But in fact it is far more likely that the Iraq war started because of an extraordinary intelligence success—specifically, an astoundingly effective campaign of disinformation, or black propaganda, which led the White House, the Pentagon, Britain's M.I.6 intelligence service, and thousands of outlets in the American media to promote the falsehood that Saddam Hussein's nuclear-weapons program posed a grave risk to the United States.

The Bush administration made other false charges about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.)—that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes suitable for centrifuges, that Saddam was in league with al-Qaeda, that he had mobile weapons labs, and so forth. But the Niger claim, unlike other allegations, can't be dismissed as an innocent error or blamed on ambiguous data. "This wasn't an accident," says Milt Bearden, a 30-year C.I.A. veteran who was a station chief in Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, and Germany, and the head of the Soviet–East European division. "This wasn't 15 monkeys in a room with typewriters."

In recent months, it has emerged that the forged Niger documents went through the hands of the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare), or operatives close to it, and that neoconservative policymakers helped bring them to the attention of the White House. Even after information in the Niger documents was repeatedly rejected by the C.I.A. and the State Department, hawkish neocons managed to circumvent seasoned intelligence analysts and insert the Niger claims into Bush's State of the Union address.

By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, in March 2003, this apparent black-propaganda operation had helped convince more than 90 percent of the American people that a brutal dictator was developing W.M.D.—and had led us into war.

Unger's report is important because it confirms, from the inside, something that some of us observed from the outside fairly early on:
We have in fact known from even before the outset that the war against Iraq would prominently feature psychological warfare. Most people have assumed that this warfare would be directed against the enemy and the subject citizens. They have not stopped to consider that, by definition, it would also be directed toward the American public as well.

This reality raises a serious concern about the fragility of democracy during wartime. Because under the aegis of a seemingly eternal war, the American government has clearly been involving the public in its psychological combat, and has hijacked the nation's press in the process. The entire meaning of the Iraq war -- and by extension, the "war on terrorism" -- is inextricably bound up in the psychological manipulation of the voting public through a relentless barrage of propaganda.

This is why the both the runup to the war and its subsequent mishandling have been so replete with highly symbolic media events -- many of them played repeatedly on nightly newscasts -- that have proven so hollow at their core, from the declarations of imminent threat from Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, to phony images of Saddam's statue being torn down, to flyboy antics aboard airline carriers, to meaningless "handovers" of power. It also explains why certain important and humanizing symbols of wartime -- civilian casualties, the returning flag-draped coffins -- have been so notably absent from our views of the war.

The role of the media in this manipulation cannot be understated. The abdication of the media's role as an independent watchdog and its whole subsumation as a propaganda organ bodes ill for any democracy, because a well-informed public is vital to its functioning.

But the fact that the military establishment, in the context of the "war on terror," clearly views the American public as the subject of a psychological combat operation should give us all pause regarding the ability of democracy to withstand this kind of assault.

The intelligence expert Sam Gardiner made similar observations in Salon with a harder base of evidence:
The Army Field Manual describes information operations as the use of strategies such as information denial, deception and psychological warfare to influence decision making. The notion is as old as war itself. With information operations, one seeks to gain and maintain information superiority -- control information and you control the battlefield. And in the information age, it has become even more imperative to influence adversaries.

But with the Iraq war, information operations have gone seriously off track, moving beyond influencing adversaries on the battlefield to influencing the decision making of friendly nations and, even more important, American public opinion. In information denial, one attempts to deceive one's adversary. Since the declared end of combat operations, the Bush administration has orchestrated a number of deceptions about Iraq. But who is its adversary?

... The White House is also using psychological warfare -- conveying selected information to organizations and individuals to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately behavior -- to spread its version of the war. And the administration's message is obviously central to the process. From the very beginning, that message, delivered both directly and subtly, has been constant and consistent: Iraq = terrorists = 9/11.

The president tells us that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here in the United States. But I know of no one with a respectable knowledge of the events in Iraq who shares that view. My contacts in the intelligence community say the opposite -- that U.S. policies in fact are creating more terrorism.

As I observed at the time:
Nonetheless, the American public is largely oblivious to this fact, instead seeing Bush's "strong and resolute" actions as making headway against terrorism. As Gardiner explains, the "repetition of the terrorist argument is utterly consistent with the theory that one can develop collective memory in a population through repetition." This hardly the only time this technique has been used by the conservative movement, either; how many times have we heard talking points reiterated ad nauseam by conservatives (from "It's not the sex, it's the lies" to "Al Gore invented the Internet" to "Kerry is a flip-flopper") until they eventually become accepted as truth?

... It would be one thing if all this manipulation were actually for the benefit of the American public. But it has occurred in fact solely for the benefit of the conservative movement and its agenda -- an agenda that, at its core, is profoundly anti-democratic.

The danger of placing the capacity for employing these techniques in the hands of a movement whose entire raison d'etre is the acquisition of power through any means could not be more apparent. After all, we've seen it happen before, with disastrous -- even apocalyptic -- results.

The key to all of this, of course, is the behavior of the media, its reliance on storylines, and the dissemination of the information, all of which reflect an elitist, top-down model of communications. I think it's easy to predict that Unger's revelations will receive less discussion on the airwaves than the "immigration debate" and Bill and Hill's sex life, because it doesn't fit readily into the well-established storyline that the Bush administration is "well meaning."

Which leaves it up to us Webfolk to start talking about it.

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