US Army may have used PSYOP against senators. How is that different from PR?
According to Rolling Stone, a general asked a psychological operations specialist to help him get inside the heads of visiting senators. The military asks, was he trying to manipulate the Congressional delegation or just be a good host?
Allegations in Rolling Stone this week – that a US military officer may have been ordered to manipulate a congressional delegation visiting Afghanistan, by collecting information on their backgrounds and voting records – is creating a stir inside and outside the defense community over the proper roles of "psychological operations" (PSYOP) specialists.Skip to next paragraph
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The problem, say some senior military officials, is the often-complex distinctions between PSYOP specialists and public affairs officers, who routinely prepare background dossiers on visiting officials. The distinctions are further blurred, they add, by an increasingly media-savvy American military eager to influence “hearts and minds” both abroad and at home.
Troops specializing in PSYOP have clear legal boundaries. Targeting Americans, for example, is strictly off limits for military PSYOPs specialists. “Public affairs is really informing and providing information to a broad audience, including the American public,” explains a senior military official, who asked to speak on background because he is not authorized to talk to the press. “Psychological operations is purely about influencing the behavior of foreign target audiences.”
Was the PSYOP-trained officer asked to dig into the background of the visiting congressional delegation “because of his training?” If so, he says, “That would definitely be a concern.”
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the military’s alleged actions. The Defense Department’s use of PSYOP to manipulate members of Congress and target Americans with military propaganda is a clear violation of the law, they said. The ACLU called on Congress to investigate.
“If found to be true, these revelations are alarming. Using U.S. military intelligence assets designed for manipulating our enemies against our own elected officials is a brazen and chilling abuse of power that directly threatens the core democratic principle of civilian control over the military," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement released Friday.
While the prospect of an officer trained to manipulate psyches using those skills on elected members of Congress is galling to some within the military, others wonder whether it was an innocent mistake or even all that wrong.
Rolling Stone claims that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan troops, asked his team of PSYOP officers to create profiles of a visiting congressional delegation, including their voting records, “likes and dislikes,” and “hot button issues.” It's a common request of public affairs officers, who routinely put together dossiers that include a biographical sketch and articles written by visiting officials, for example.
“You could argue that he was just being prepared,” says USC's Mr. Armstrong.