Mind Games

By Lieutenant Colonel Steven Collins

An assessment of the Coalition's perception-management operations before, during and after Operation Iraqi Freedom and their implications for NATO.

In the coming months and years, analysts will no doubt examine every aspect of the 27-day period from the attempt to decapitate the Iraqi regime on 20 March to the fall of Tikrit on 15 April to draw as many lessons from it as possible. One area worthy of attention with clear implications for NATO is the way in which the Coalition sought to influence the attitudes and reasoning of foreign audiences and especially those in Iraq in the run-up to, during and after Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Both Operation Iraqi Freedom and NATO’s own experiences in the Balkans have shown the importance of so-called "Perception Management". They have highlighted the necessity of developing the means to exploit this aspect of power, while taking measures to protect against its use by the enemy and other asymmetric political and military capabilities. As NATO re-organises its military structure and takes on missions beyond its traditional areas, such capabilities are becoming increasingly important to Alliance operations.

Perception management includes all actions used to influence the attitudes and objective reasoning of foreign audiences and consists of Public Diplomacy, Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), Public Information, Deception and Covert Action. Of special interest in the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom are public diplomacy, the deliberate attempt to persuade foreign audiences of the content and wisdom of one's policies, intentions and actions, and PSYOPS, the use of activities, predominantly media, to influence and persuade foreign audiences.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States has sought to revamp its public-diplomacy capabilities. These had been allowed to atrophy during the 1990s as Washington had not felt the same need to explain its policies globally and build up international good will as it had during the Cold War. Today, the White House Office of Global Communications provides top-level direction for efforts designed to create an overall positive perception of US policy and defence activities. And the US National Security Council Policy Group coordinates the policies and messages developed by the White House between it, the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy and the Pentagon. Together, these bodies have put in place the most coordinated, best-funded, US strategic perception-management structure since the 1980s. It is focused on the Islamic world and has funding of more than US$750 million for the Middle East alone.

Despite this massive effort, there was little demonstrated success in US public-diplomacy efforts prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 78-minute speech to the UN Security Council broadcast live around the world on 5 February failed to convince representatives from the key nations on the Security Council — France, Germany, and Russia — that military action needed to be taken immediately against Iraq. By contrast, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s subsequent speech before the United Nations, casting doubt on every aspect of Secretary Powell’s presentation, was greeted with cheers and wild applause. As a result, the United Kingdom and United States made little headway in gaining support among their traditional allies, and a second UN Security Council Resolution authorising military action against Iraq was never put to a vote, as it was obvious it would fail to garner the required support.

Within the Islamic world, US public-diplomacy activities have to date failed to generate much return. Immediate, positive results may be impossible to achieve. Effective public diplomacy takes a sustained effort and a long-term view. For the foreseeable future, as Osama Sibliani, the publisher of Arab American News noted: "The United States could have the Prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn’t help." One instrument with a great deal of promise for the future could be Radio Sawa (Radio Together), a US Congress-funded station covering the Arab world and featuring both Arab and Western pop music, interspersed with news from a US perspective. Within months of its debut in 2002, Radio Sawa's advocates announced that it was one of the most popular radio stations among young Arabs.

During the conduct of the military campaign, the Coalition attempted favourably to shape the world-wide perception of the conflict by a variety of measures, including that of "embedding" reporters with military units scheduled to deploy. Although initially controversial, the decision to embed was, in retrospect, a brilliant move for several reasons. First, reporters who wanted to be embedded were forced to undergo a mandatory mini-boot camp, which gave many their first appreciation of the challenges faced by the average soldier. Second, embedding created an inevitable bond between reporters and the units they covered. And third, embedding made sense because it ensured the safety of the reporters and gave the world its first "real-time coverage" of a battlefield. Because of the fluid nature of Iraqi Freedom, many more reporters would likely have been killed and captured had they been allowed to roam the battlefield freely.

One factor undermining efforts to have an effect on world opinion today is the proliferation of news sources. In particular, the increase in the number of satellite television news services and internet connections makes it ever more difficult to influence opinions and attitudes globally, or even regionally. The explosion in the number of news providers allows viewers to read or see the news that reinforces their own prejudices and fixed opinions. An Arab viewer who finds the reporting on CNN to be contrary to his own news bias can switch to al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel, and see a perspective of the world perhaps more consistent with his own.

Reportedly, during the conflict, the Iraqi Information Agency recognised the power of al Jazeera and went so far as to infiltrate that organisation with its agents in order to help slant the coverage to be more pro-Iraqi. Likewise, the Coalition attempted to take Iraqi television news service off the air through both bombing and electronic jamming – as much, if not more, for the impact it was having outside Iraq than for the impact it was having within the country.


While public diplomacy at the strategic level generated mixed results at best, the employment of PSYOPS within Iraq at the military operational and tactical level was more successful. The use of mass media like radio, leaflets, and targeted media like e-mails against key decision-makers, and loudspeakers during ground operations, seems to have had an important impact.

More than 40 million leaflets were dropped on Iraq before the first attack on 20 March, and another 40 million plus were dropped during the campaign. Some leaflets threatened to destroy any military formation that stood and fought, while others encouraged the Iraqi populace and military to ignore the directives of the Baath Party leadership. In retrospect, they did seem to have the effect intended. The problem, as with all PSYOPS actions, is the difficulty in determining the causal link of an action during a war. Did the Iraqi military melt away in the face of the Coalition military primarily as a result of PSYOPS, or as a result of bombing by Coalition aircraft, or as a result of a lack of logistical support – or as a result of a combination of all three? Quantifying the part PSYOPS played in swaying Iraqi attitudes and behaviour in a manner favourable to the Coalition remains an important variable to determine.

Certainly the Coalition did not see the level of Iraqi surrenders during the 1991 Gulf War, which reached 70,000. Although 250 Iraqis surrendered the first day during the seizure of Umm Qasr, this initial trickle did not turn into a flood. During the first days of the conflict, the manner in which the Coalition approached the entire military campaign was arguably psychological — the hope that the use of overwhelming force and precision munitions would "shock and awe" and the Iraqi regime would collapse like a house of cards. The failure of "shock and awe" forced the conventional US military forces to change their approach — and no doubt also caused the PSYOPS forces to re-examine their themes and messages — to one relying more upon steady activity and pressure from one hoping a single knockout blow could do the job.

In addition to leafleting, the other PSYOPS mass medium used heavily by the Coalition was radio. Broadcasting from fixed transmission towers as well as from the flying airborne broadcast platform, the EC-130E aircraft Commando Solo, the Coalition used a similar format to Radio Sawa with a great deal of popular music interlaced with news and a few announcements. The name for this Iraq-wide station was the rather uninspiring Information Radio. Local PSYOPS radio stations were also set up outside of major population centres – one being the UK PSYOPS radio station, Radio Nahrain (Two Rivers), an FM radio station established on the outskirts of Basra. In addition to setting up its own radio transmitters, the Coalition attempted electronically to jam Iraqi radio stations, in order to gain a monopoly on the information available to the Iraqi people through this medium.

The PSYOPS tactics described to date are all examples of so-called "White PSYOPS", which openly and accurately declares who is sponsoring the product. During the Iraqi conflict, so-called "Black PSYOPS" — PSYOPS that purportedly is produced by one source, but is actually created by someone else — was also deployed. The US Central Intelligence Agency reportedly set up Black PSYOPS stations as early as February 2003. One such station, Radio Tikrit, tried to build up its credibility by claiming to be managed by loyal Iraqis in the Tikrit area and by maintaining an editorial line slavishly supportive of Saddam Hussein. Within a few weeks, however, the tone changed and the station became increasingly critical of Saddam. The hope of Black PSYOPS is that the target audience does not see through the ruse and believes the information is coming from the wrongly attributed source, which it sees as more credible. The risk, of course, is that if the ruse is discovered, the trustworthiness of the entire PSYOPS effort, both White and Black, is damaged.

One of the more innovative means used by Coalition PSYOPS in the build-up to Iraqi Freedom was the use of mobile phone text messaging and e-mails sent directly to key decision-makers in the Iraqi regime. At the start of 2003, there were only 60 internet cafes in Iraq, and the connection fee of US $25 per home was beyond the means of most ordinary Iraqis. Also, the Iraqi regime was wary of allowing access to the internet throughout Iraq. So, while many ordinary Iraqis did not have access to the internet, most of the Baath Party leadership did, and the Coalition used this means specifically to outline to each the cost of their continued support for Saddam both for Iraq collectively and for themselves personally.

Tactical PSYOPS elements — PSYOPS troops with a loudspeaker vehicle and a translator attached directly to army and marine units — were also active. As in past conflicts, these units proved their worth by helping to persuade isolated Iraqi elements to surrender, helping to maintain control of Iraqi prisoners, and even conducting deception operations against Iraqi military elements by playing sound effects of tanks and helicopters through loudspeakers.

Strangely, it appears that the Iraqi Freedom military planners gave little thought to developing a post-conflict PSYOPS capability in advance. As a result, Iranian agents, especially in southern Iraq, were in some instances able to fill the information vacuum, and the United States contracted companies to put virtually anything on the air rapidly to fill the void. This has led to some unintentionally amusing moments as the attention of the US media turned away from Iraq and contracted companies beamed parochial US news stories to bemused Iraqis.

Preliminary Conclusions

The effort to win hearts and minds by all sides continues unabated in Iraq today, and will continue for years to come. Indeed, it is in part the outcome of this struggle that will ultimately determine whether the conflict was worth the effort in the first instance. Some preliminary conclusions can, nevertheless, already be drawn from Coalition perception-management operations during Iraqi Freedom. NATO should study these lessons carefully and determine if changes should be made as to how NATO plans and resources its own perception-management efforts. Conversely, there are lessons the United States and United Kingdom could learn from NATO's experience in post-conflict perception management.

Public Diplomacy Is Difficult and
Results May Take Years To Realise

Public diplomacy does not generate overnight results. Even when large sums of money are allocated to the task and skilled personnel recruited, as in the United States during the past couple of years, positive achievements may be scanty. But this does not mean that public diplomacy should be ignored. Changing ingrained attitudes takes sustained effort over an extremely long time.

There is a PSYOPS gap and it is growing

There is a gap growing between NATO and its member nations with respect to the attention and resources devoted to PSYOPS. The United States is spending impressive amounts of money to strengthen its PSYOPS capability. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom are also bolstering their PSYOPS capabilities. Meanwhile, while NATO nations are making commitments to PSYOPS, NATO headquarters and the NATO Strategic Military Commands have done little to bolster their PSYOPS capabilities within their staffs. PSYOPS is an activity NATO could and should become better at, but it needs to make the commitment.

PSYOPS can shine in the post-conflict phase

PSYOPS must not be forgotten in the post-conflict phase. Since there is often an informational gap to be filled and people psychologically need reassurance and comforting, this is where PSYOPS can make a great difference. This is also an area where the United Kingdom and United States can learn from NATO. NATO’s experience in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo give it considerable post-conflict PSYOPS expertise. Moreover, the posts in the PSYOPS branches at SFOR and KFOR headquarters are filled by individuals who have become skilled in this field, which can differ greatly from PSYOPS conducted during conflict. The United Kingdom and United States would do well to study NATO’s experience with perception management in the Balkans and apply it to their current activities in Iraq.

It’s alright to use the "P" word

It was surprising, even to PSYOPS practitioners, how often the term "PSYOPS" was used in military briefings and by the press during Iraqi Freedom. In recent military operations, there has been a tendency to blur connotations and meanings by using fuzzier terminology, avoiding terms like psychological operations and opting for what is deemed by some to be more acceptable expressions like "Information Operations" (INFO OPS). While the term "INFO OPS" might not have the hard edge, semantically, of the term PSYOPS, its increased use over the past five to six years and the vague interpretations of the term have sown the seeds of confusion within the ranks of military planners, to the point where the terms PSYOPS and INFO OPS seem synonymous. This can lead to embarrassing consequences. Because of its ambiguous nature, INFO OPS has become a convenient expression to characterise military functions that have hitherto defied attempts to pigeonhole them. Placing PSYOPS under the rubric of INFO OPS often leads to a reduction of PSYOPS’s importance. This undermines the direct access that PSYOPS practitioners need to the commander they are supporting to be effective.

Of greater concern is that the press and the public have caught on to this word game, expressing concern about how the use of the term INFO OPS seems to be a deliberate attempt to allow PSYOPS to be used by politicians in order to manipulate domestic audiences to support weak, unpopular policies. This may be a case of military terminology being too clever by half. Critically, there is no connection between PSYOPS and public information activities aimed at global public opinion and home audiences, which seek to provide an accurate and thruthful account of events. Recent activities in Iraq have shown that the public will accept PSYOPS activities being called PSYOPS, as long as it is directed, as intended, towards audiences in combat zones or in those countries affected by crisis-management operations. Using politically correct terminology, like INFO OPS, may brief well, but the use of watered-down terms of this nature add little except confusion and misunderstanding.

Given that the Alliance can expect to operate for an extended period in areas where sophisticated, indigenous media will compete with NATO for influence over the perceptions of local and international audiences, the importance of public diplomacy and PSYOPS has risen dramatically. Both are relatively inexpensive capabilities but can provide extraordinary results. Incorporating lessons learned from Iraqi Freedom into the ongoing restructuring of the NATO military organisation offers a unique opportunity to strengthen NATO perception-management capabilities and prevent these same aspects from being used effectively against the Alliance by future adversaries.

Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Collins is chief of PSYOPS in the Operations Division at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium.