Skip to content Skip to footer
Are We Depending Too Much on the Military’s Media Management?
(Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt / Flickr)

Are We Depending Too Much on the Military’s Media Management?

(Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt / Flickr)

Truth, as a casualty of war, has been a primary target, worthy of a $15 billion budget. Yet although “the media war” for the hearts and minds of Americans and foreign nationals is given high priority, it is out of sync with actual strategic achievements. This breach between our official statements and reality jeopardizes US credibility by favoring an Orwellian “information control” over simple candor.

Writing for the Armed Forces Journal in 2012, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis reflected on his recent tour of Afghanistan, noting, “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by US military leaders about conditions on the ground.” Davis’ assessment is echoed by journalists and soldiers, but it also highlights the extent of the military’s careful managment of its own image. Later, he writes about “the gulf between conditions on the ground and official statements of progress.” This gulf, of course, is no accident, but a calculated strategy with a high price in terms of money, transparency, troop welfare and human life.

Despite this, a handful of whistleblowers bridges that divide. In recent years, this has led to worldwide notoriety for individuals such as Pvt. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who have shared privileged information at great risk to themselves. The American attitude toward “whistleblowers” remains conflicted: We value transparency but don’t like one of our own airing dirty laundry. While not all whistleblowers are heroes, the depth and breadth of media management during wartime illustrates what a crucial function such “leakers” serve in democratic society.

US Media Strategy in Iraq

The military owes its media management approach to two extremes: The anything-goes approach in Vietnam proved problematic for military PR, while its restrictiveness during the first Gulf War garnered heavy criticism from news outlets. The result was the “embedded reporter” solution introduced for the Iraq War. In providing journalists first-hand access to troops, the military hit pay-dirt, with reporters invariably self-censoring – when not being bullied, that is.

Some 500 journalists were embedded during the invasion of Iraq, yet concrete examples of high-quality news coverage are hard to come by. The scarce iconic images that exist from the invasion largely were staged photo ops, not real-time frontline moments.

If the images seem orchestrated, one might say the same about the personnel. Using private PR companies such as The Rendon Group, the US military paid more than $100 million for “communications advice.” This ended in 2009 when it was revealed the marketing group was cherry-picking reporters deemed most likely to report positive portrayals of military operations. Even loading the embedded journalist program with ostensibly friendly reporters, however, failed to ensure a friendly relationship for either party on the ground.

Sandy Johnson, AP’s Washington Bureau chief, spoke with The Nation in 2003, providing a litany of instances where embedded reporters were physically pushed around or ordered away from explosion sites or had their disks and videotapes confiscated. Of course, just a few years later, Americans learned there are worse fates to befall journalists who find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. After having numerous Freedom of Information Act requests rebuffed by the military, Reuters finally discovered the untimely end of two of its journalists when Manning shared unclassified video footage with Wikileaks depicting an aerial weapons team engaging them in a crowd with an Apache helicopter.

Perhaps the real heavy artillery in this story is less literal, coming in the form of a multimillion-dollar media program involving traditional PR tactics supplemented by fake websites for commercial contractors, meticulous ad placement, coordination with Hollywood filmmakers and an all-around goal of collusion. It would be unfair to assume the worst about all military media efforts. But even when things are going smoothly, the Pentagon doesn’t quite know how to determine success in the realm of media management.

David Petraeus, Master of Spin

Despite sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into so-called “information campaigns” (often leaflets dumped out of airplanes) in Afghanistan and Iraq, no systematic assessment method is engaged to gauge these endeavors.

Media management by the military in the past 20 years can be summarized with one word: arrogant. This is illustrated best, perhaps, through its tragic proponent, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the ostensible master of a media-managed war at home and in Iraq.

Prior to his fall by way of scandal in 2012, Petraeus was perceived as a bold new “doer,” who stepped in to an Iraq at impasse with a decisive vision for action and its public presentation. In reality, his story invokes a Greek tragedy, its hero undone by his own would-be strengths, obsessively broadcasting the image of success while America’s project in Iraq unraveled.

Early on, Petraeus charmed journalists and the public, branding himself as a new kind of general, happy to give a comment, provide a good story and even appear on Sunday talk shows.

One of the first reporters to savor the unprecedented access was Washington Post senior editor Rick Atkinson, who was afforded almost ’round-the-clock access to Petraeus for two months. His resulting book, In the Company of Soldiers, illustrates how this access was not offered without a catch. Petraeus expected consistently celebratory portraits of his command and wasn’t shy about letting Atkinson know when his coverage colored outside the lines.

While overseeing the update of the military’s counterinsurgency manual, Petraeus emphasized the importance of what he termed the “war of perceptions.” Although he was surprised that home invasion raids in the dead of night and whisking military-age males off for questioning had no significant effect on the army’s public relations with Iraqi civilians, there were other moments where a fine attention to presentation was required. “The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency,” Petraeus’ updated manual directed. “This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counterinsurgents conducted continuously using the news media.” According to the manual, when left to its own devices, that same media could “develop stories on their own that may be inaccurate and may not include the [US counterinsurgency] perspective.” Soldiers and officers were encouraged in the chilling euphemism to “help the media tell the story.”

If this sounds like simple pragmatism and forward-thinking, it’s the limits to which he was willing to go that are cause for concern – including misleading the American public about the actual progress in Iraq, covering up US support of sectarian death squads and even fabricating a justification for war against Iran.

Time and again, Petraeus presented a carefully crafted portrait suggesting incremental achievements and an improving situation for US forces in Iraq. In reality, even he had so little faith in the enterprise by 2005 that he was sure to have his own “exit strategy” in place before agreeing to lead the troop surge roughly a year later.

One of the biggest challenges he faced upon his 2006 return to Iraq was a mess he had helped create. Although Petraeus did not hatch the plan to back sectarian militias to promote US goals in Baghdad, he, more than anyone else, ensured that the policy was obscured to avoid unwanted scrutiny from the American public and human rights agencies. Revisiting the US playbook from Latin America, Petraeus selected dirty wars rock stars to reprise their role in assisting, directing and arming a Shiite counterinsurgency.

Manning the Only One Imprisoned

We know of Petraeus’ and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s involvement, again in large part thanks to documents released in 2010 by Manning to WikiLeaks. These files also revealed shocking discrepancies between the Pentagon’s “body count” and the one Petraeus offered. It turned out that for every death deemed an enemy combatant, two civilian men, women or children were killed.

For bringing this to light, Manning was handed a 35-year prison sentence in 2013. While the Army private admits it was a betrayal of military code to leak the files, consider the more heinous crimes at work behind the scenes. By exploiting sectarian fighting in Iraq, Petraeus was able to confuse and convince potential critics, sometimes disavowing all knowledge (as in the case of the gruesome “Wolf Brigade” death squad) and other times claiming full credit. By 2007, Petraeus was able to tell Congress his surge was working, pointing to a decrease in sectarian violence in powder-keg neighborhoods of Baghdad. Battalion intelligence officer Capt. Jay Winks, meanwhile, explained to The Washington Post in blunt terms how this was not, in fact, an indicator of success. Rather than evidence of the tide turning with Petraeus’ troop surge, the calm belied the gruesome sectarian cleansing driving Shi’a led counterinsurgency efforts. Said Winks, “They ran out of people to kill.”

“It’s Not Up to the Pentagon to Sell Policy to the American People.”

Although the general eventually was undone by a more personal scandal, the narrative of his career in Iraq quickly unraveled once his immaculate reputation was damaged. The tragic obsession with media presentation in Petraeus’ story embodies the military’s approach to public perception, where image often trounces realities.

According to an Associated Press investigation, by 2009 the bolstered military budget on “winning hearts and minds at home and abroad” had reached more than $4.7 billion. That same year the number of Pentagon employees assigned to “public relations, recruitment and advertising” crested to 27,000 – just shy of the entire State Department’s personnel total of 30,000.

While the AP investigation captured contracts listed in private federal databases and documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it was unable to estimate the spending attributed to classified budgets or some contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the incomplete accounting, one thing was immediately clear in the findings. Spending outside of recruitment and advertising has more than doubled since 2003, with roughly $489 million spent on influencing public opinion abroad and an additional $547 million targeting the American public.

Given that extremist groups and organizations like Al Qaeda have been diligent in their own “media war” – often inflating civilian casualties and promoting their own spin – one can see the importance in taking an active role in forming public perception. It’s worth noting that the money spent on these programs still represents less than 1 percednt of the Pentagon’s budget. Still, such excess has raised concerns from within. What’s more, say critics like the Pentagon’s own inspector general, this orchestrated program may have crossed the line into propaganda.

While recruitment and advertising are the only two ways in which the military is authorized by Congress to influence the American public, an internal audit in 2008 suggested an alarming amount of time and money was being used for public affairs – a tool Congress distinguishes as inappropriate. Even the Pentagon’s acting director of public affairs noted in 2003 that his role was to provide members of the public with information so they can make their own informed decision. “There’s no place for spin in the Department of Defense,” he said.

Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes of New Hampshire echoed this sentiment in 2008 by introducing legislation to uphold this division between the media and armed forces. He noted, “It’s not up to the Pentagon to sell policy to the American people.” It’s this collusion between wartime operations and information management that is strictly forbidden to prevent the military from influencing what information is available to the public. Yet, since the first years of this century, we’ve seen programs aimed precisely at generating spin and directing favorable impressions toward military operations not just among people abroad but among US citizens at home.

Consider the case of the “America Supports You” campaign. Tasked with informing deployed soldiers about the public’s volunteer donations, this public-affairs campaign came under fire in late 2009. Diverting funds earmarked for its Stars and Stripes newspaper, the military doled out nearly $12 million of contracts to a public relations firm to raise donations so the ostensibly organic fundraising success could then be advertised back to the American public as popular support for the war in Iraq was plummeting. The same audit that revealed the “America Supports You” debacle also led to the ban on offering corporations logo placement on the Pentagon website in exchange for advertising revenue or promotional partnerships.

The blurring of advertising-recruitment and public affairs began as early as 2002, when Rumsfeld set up his Office of Strategic Influence to integrate public affairs and “psychological operations” (traditionally aimed at public opinion abroad). When Congress ordered the office disbanded as an unlawful propaganda force, Rumsfeld continued his course and simply abandoned the name. In a secret “road map” for integrating public affairs and psy-ops efforts, the defense secretary conceded, candidly, that the military should accept the fact that psychological operations inevitably would affect the American public, writing off this level of propaganda as necessary collateral damage.

Of course, the sculpting of public opinion doesn’t stop at “hard news.” Perhaps now more than ever, the military seeks to sway perceptions through soft associations in cultural avenues. This is apparent in courting video game companies and Hollywood studios to the extent that every branch of the armed forces has its own entertainment and Hollywood liaison office. When filmmakers and developers want to ensure authenticity in their blockbusters, military consultants are standing by with special access, guidance, personnel and even equipment for those willing to play ball. Meanwhile, the level of detail is matched only by the level of jingoism found in first-person shooter games like “Call of Duty,” modeled after contemporaneous wars in the Middle East.

Whether the military is managing perceptions through hard news or entertainment, the results and the ethics and propriety of such campaigns remain difficult to track. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described information operations as potentially dangerous propaganda, questioning their quantifiable benefits to national security and the American public. If Panetta’s comments call the quantifiable benefits of these campaigns into question, they speak even more powerfully about the role of soldiers who speak out about war crimes, such as Manning.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen assessed the schizophrenia of our approach in the Pentagon’s Joint Force Quarterly, insisting, “We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”

Help the One Person Speaking Out for the Truth

The 35-year sentence recently thrown at Manning undermines this almost beyond repair. Former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley warned against such cruel overkill in The Guardian in April 2013. “Those responsible for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib had a far more significant impact on perceptions of the Iraq war than Manning did,” he writes. And yet, our track record for prosecuting “bad apple” soldiers who commit war crimes is far weaker than it is for prosecuting the people who’ve exposed them. Mullen might wonder what that communicates.

All of this highlights the importance of the public having undoctored, accurate information – something we’ve historically needed provided for us by people in unique positions of privileged information who are prepared to step outside the letter of the law.

In his 2012 Armed Forces Journal article, Davis spells it out in chilling clarity: “If Americans were able to compare the public statements many of our leaders have made with classified data, this credibility gulf would be immediately observable,” he wrote. “Naturally, I am not authorized to divulge classified material to the public. But I am legally able to share it with members of Congress.”

Select members of Congress, then, can count themselves lucky for Davis. For the rest of us, there’s just been Manning.

Manning, though, needs our help: Here are the top five ways to help the conscientious soldier.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.