The Department of Defense’s psychological operations – PSYOP – capabilities are, and will continue to be, central in the larger government-wide effort to improve America’s strategic communications. That was a key point made by panelists at a discussion presented by IWP’s Center for Culture and Security on Monday, November 8, 2010.
Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon, Director of the Institute’s Center for Culture and Security, began the discussion by giving a brief overview of PSYOP, quoting its official Department of Defense definition: “Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.” She also described the recent development of the term “military information support operations (MISO)” to refine the organization, practice, and doctrine of psychological warfare in the U.S. government today.
COL J.M. “Matt” Venhaus USA, an officer with more than 23 years of experience in foreign media influence operations, discussed the philosophical change in PSYOP wrought by the ongoing transformation of warfare from conflict between armies to conflict between peoples, and noted that influencing behaviors must take into account the continuum of different degrees of conflict. COL Venhaus also observed that academic and commercial research is a crucial element that , when added to available military intelligence, helps to give us a holistic picture of potential audiences’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and point of influence.
Michael Williams, a retired military officer with extensive experience in information operations, discussed the precise definitions of the vocabulary of strategic communication. As he explained, PSYOP should be considered a tool of “information operations,” while “strategic communication” is “a new way of thinking about the role of information in operations and as an instrument of national power in achieving objectives.” Mr. Williams explained that strategic communication in this specialized sense has always existed, but has often been in the background; the increased need for interagency coordination today has increased its prominence.
COL Glenn Ayers USA Ret., who was Chief of the Psychological Operations Division of the Joint Chiefs from 2006 to 2009, offered notable examples of how the U.S. Army’s PSYOP capabilities are capable of accomplishing much of what is required by government-wide information operations mandates. He also explained the diversity of Army PSYOP capabilities, particularly their ability to engage in humanitarian work through information operations (for example, by providing information about land mine safety to local residents). COL Ayers also criticized what he characterized as a misunderstanding of the Smith-Mundt Act, which specifies the ways in which the U.S. government may conduct public diplomacy and information operations.
Questions from audience members led the panelists to discuss a wide variety of subjects.; notably, the panelists concurred that the types of intelligence supporting information operations “comes from the commercial sector and academia,” in the words of COL Venhaus.
Above: Michael Williams and COL Glenn Ayers USA Ret. discuss PSYOP and strategic communication
Above: COL J.M. “Matt” Venhaus USA, Michael Williams, COL Glenn Ayers USA Ret., and Dr. Juliana Pilon