In war, you deny information, spread lies and use psychological
warfare. An expert on military information operations explains how
Bush has mastered this technique — and used it against the American
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By Sam Gardiner
Sept. 22, 2004 | On Thursday, Iraq’s interim prime minister, Iyad
Allawi, will speak before a joint meeting of Congress, and from what
he said in London on his way to the United States, it looks like
Americans are going to be getting more of the strategic information
operations that have been crucial to Bush’s policy on Iraq from the
On Monday, Allawi said at a press conference: “Terrorists are coming
and pouring into Iraq to try to undermine the situation in Iraq …
And God forbid, if Iraq is broken or the will of Iraq is broken, then
London will be a target, Washington will be a target.” In those
sentences, Allawi employed the basic doctrine of strategic
information operations: Influence emotions, motive and objective
reasoning. Use repetition to create a collective memory in the target
audience. And the recurrent message of both Allawi and the Bush
administration is: Iraq = terrorists = 9/11.
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?
In August 2003, the administration’s message was that everything in
Iraq was improving. The White House led the information effort and
even published a paper on the successes of the first 100 days of the
occupation. By October the message had shifted: Things were going
well in Iraq, but the media was telling the wrong story.
Then, toward the end of 2003, the message was that the whole problem
in Iraq was “dead-enders” and “foreign fighters.” If it weren’t for
them, the situation would be fine. Then, after Saddam Hussein was
captured in December, the message shifted again: The coalition had
discovered along with the former dictator documents revealing the
insurgent network, which now would be broken. Once again, everything
would be fine.
At the approach of the hand-over to Iraq’s interim government in late
June, the administration said the event represented the worst fears
of the insurgents, who did not want any movement toward democracy.
The White House warned that there would be increased violence as the
insurgents tried to prevent the interim government from assuming its
proper role in running the country. In fact, violence did increase
before the transfer, but there was even more violence afterward. But
the administration’s information about the situation in Iraq sharply
Denying information to adversaries is one way of maintaining
information dominance. (According to the Army Field Manual, this
dimension involves “withholding information that adversaries need for
effective decision-making.”) In the case of Iraq, this has meant
eliminating press releases and press briefings. Since the hand-over
of power, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq has issued only six releases,
including one on the new Iraqi environment minister’s visit to a
landfill project. The most recent press release, on Aug. 12, was
about a boxer on Iraq’s Olympics team. The last press briefing by the
Multi-National Force in Iraq was June 25. The interim Iraqi
government does not hold press conferences.
The White House Web site also reflects the strategy of withholding
information. It used to actively provide content on Operation Iraqi
Freedom (or as the Web site now says, “Renewal in Iraq”), but the
last new entry is dated Aug. 5.
The effect of the White House’s control of information has been
dramatic. The chart above shows how English-language press coverage
of Iraq has fallen off since July. Early in July, it was typical to
find almost 250,000 articles each day mentioning Iraq. That number
has dropped to 150,000. The goal of denying the adversary access to
information is being realized. But, again, who is the adversary?
Before, during and immediately after the war, the White House
orchestrated an intensive program of press briefings and releases to
saturate media time and space, stay on message, keep ahead of the
news cycle and manage expectations. The White House conference call
set the daily message. The press briefings from the Central Command
headquarters in Doha, Qatar, were designed to dominate the morning
and afternoon press coverage, while the afternoon press briefing by
the Pentagon was intended for the evening news.
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.
Still, the administration has made its case for the 9/11 terrorism
and Iraq connection with some sophistication. For example, on March
25, 2003, the United States renamed the Iraqi fighters in civilian
clothes known as the Fedayeen Saddam. Either the Office of the
Secretary of Defense or the White House (I have been told it was
both) directed that they now be called “terrorist death squads” —
promoting the overarching message: Iraq = terrorists = 9/11.
Recently, the purported terrorist connection was reinforced by
another change in terminology. When coalition forces bomb a house in
Fallujah, the Multi-National Force press releases now announce that
they bombed a “safe house.” But Marines don’t come to that phrase
naturally. Marines hit enemy positions. They strike targets. The
implication is fairly obvious. Since terrorists use “safe houses,”
the insurgents in Fallujah must be terrorists. And some of us thus
come to believe that we are in Iraq to fight the “global war on
Appealing to the emotions aroused by 9/11 is classic psychological
warfare. And repetition of the terrorist argument is utterly
consistent with the theory that one can develop collective memory in
a population through repetition.
Images are also essential in psychological warfare, so negative
images must be defeated as quickly as possible. That’s why the images
of the contractors killed in Fallujah were so worrisome to the
administration. Government intelligence sources told me there was
fear they would have an impact like the images of dead U.S. Army
Rangers being dragged through the streets in Somalia did in 1993,
causing rapid erosion in support for that war.
Although we don’t know all the facts yet, it’s almost certain that
the White House or the Pentagon ordered the Marine attack on Fallujah
to fight those negative images. Five U.S. soldiers were killed on the
same day as the private contractors when their Bradley fighting
vehicle was destroyed. But there was almost no official reaction to
their deaths, no pictures; their deaths did not pose an image
Now, the New York Times reports that military operations to open up
the no-go areas in Iraq will not occur until November or December.
The official line is that the administration wants to wait until
Iraqi security forces are better trained.
My military mind only hurts when I hear this argument. The United
States has been trying to train the Iraqis to take over for almost
two years now. The effort began with the training camp in Hungary
before the war, but that program failed. The robust training program
that began in the early stages of the occupation was declared a
failure with the onset of the insurgents’ offensive in April. The
administration has not been able to staff the headquarters tasked to
direct the training. Nor is it even certain who among those being
trained are on our side. The Marines around Fallujah joke that after
they take a member of the Iraqi National Guard to the firing range
for practice, the sniper who shoots at them that night shows a
remarkable improvement in his aim.
It’s clear the Americans will bear the major brunt of the attack on
Fallujah. What could possibly be behind the administration’s decision
to wait until November or December to launch it? There’s certainly no
commander in the field saying, “Let’s give the bad guys another 60
days to operate freely inside their sanctuaries before we attack.”
Such a decision would be particularly bizarre when attacks against
coalition forces are more frequent than ever, attacks on oil
pipelines are on the rise, and the United States is suffering
Any military officer would say that you have to take the fight to the
enemy. So what can we conclude about this decision? There is only one
conceivable answer — the White House is delaying military operations
until after the Nov. 2 election for political reasons. In the
meantime, information-denial operations must be ratcheted up to
control the story. But that is becoming more difficult.
During the early part of the war, there was more deception than truth
in the comments and press briefings of the secretary of defense and
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among the fabricated
stories was the early surrender of the commander and the entire 51st
Iraqi mechanized division. We were told of an uprising in Basra — it
did not happen. We were told Iraqis had stolen U.S. uniforms to
commit atrocities — this was not true. We were told on White House
and State Department Web sites that the Iraqi military had formed
units of children to attack the coalition — untrue. We were told of
a whole range of agreements between the French and Iraq before the
war over weapons — false. We were told Saddam had marked a red line
around Baghdad and that when we crossed it Iraq would use chemical
weapons — completely fabricated.
We were told of an elaborate scheme by Saddam’s forces to ambush U.S.
Marines on March 23 as they fought toward Baghdad. The president
mentioned this incident many times. It turns out what really happened
that day is that the Marines were repeatedly attacked by a U.S. Air
Force A-10. It was a friendly-fire incident, not an Iraqi ruse. But
building on the theme of Iraqi evil was more important than the
Military intelligence officials’ prewar assertion when no WMD were
found that Iraq had moved its weapons to Syria is another example of
information denial. But although the Iraq Survey Group report to be
released at the end of this month will announce once and for all that
Iraq did not have WMD, the WMD argument already served its purpose in
garnering support for the invasion. The important message now
remains: Iraq = terrorists = 9/11.
The fog of war has not yet lifted. But when the strategy is to hide
the war from the American people, rather than to get them to approve
its instigation, fabrication is more difficult to sustain.
Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist of war, wrote, “War is an
extension of politics by other means.” When I taught Clausewitz to
students at various military war colleges, I told them that he meant
international politics. But I may have been wrong — I fear war has
become an extension of domestic politics, moving beyond influencing
adversaries on the battlefield to influencing the decision making of
friendly nations and, even more important, American public opinion.
Why have the American people become the adversary?
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About the writer
Sam Gardiner is a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy
and military operations at the National War College, Air War College
and Naval War College.