Info or Propaganda? Pentagon Efforts Reviewed
But the Pentagon's efforts to influence foreign public opinion are again being scrutinized as part of a new review. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week ordered the two-week review of the military's information operations -- a term used to describe media and information campaigns targeted at foreign audiences but also sometimes referred to as propaganda.
The review comes amid allegations that a civilian employee of the Defense Department used money allotted for these efforts to hire private intelligence operatives.
Despite its controversial history, the scale and scope of the Pentagon's information operations has grown rapidly since 9/11. Military officials have argued for an aggressive strategy to counter what they characterize as extremist propaganda. The Pentagon's budget for information operations was $528 million for fiscal year 2010; the Defense Department has requested $384.4 million for fiscal year 2011.
More recently, the Defense Department has even organized its information operations into named "operations," similar to the names given to specific military operations, a senior Pentagon official -- who agreed to speak only on background -- told AOL News.
The concept for establishing named operations for information campaigns came up a few years ago as a way coordinate various activities and ensure steady funding, the official said. Today, the "named' operations include Operation Earnest Voice, which covers U.S. Central Command; Assured Voice, for European Command; and Operation Objective Voice, for U.S. African Command.
Those campaigns include such broad efforts as news Web sites designed to promote the U.S. military's message abroad, and specific efforts to counter foreign misinformation. The official said, however, that unlike the oft-disparaged view of propaganda, the U.S. military's information operations are rooted in telling the truth.
In some cases, information operations have specific tactical and strategic goals in mind. The official described one operation where the military got word that a terrorist-linked organization was trying to keep a low profile so that it could raise money from companies sympathetic with its goals.
"We profiled the heck out of these guys," the official said, adding that they later received intelligence that as a result of those information efforts, it had been difficult for the organization to raise money. The official declined, however, to specify the organization involved or specific details of the operation.
"The bottom line," the official said, "is we have military objectives."
But the diverse scope of activities funded under the rubric of "information operations" has also in some cases created confusion. In particular, allegations that Michael Furlong, a senior Pentagon officials, once used private contractors funded by the information operations budget to collect intelligence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, brought new scrutiny.
The Gates-ordered review is not designed to look into that specific case, but it will examine the broader efforts funded under information operations. "[I]f it's necessary to make some changes, I'll do that," Gates said during a press conference.
Retired Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli, the former chief of information for the Navy, said that part of the problem in recent years has been the lack of clarity among the missions of public affairs, strategic communications and information operations. "These words and these phrases are bandied about and nobody has a good understanding of what they mean," he told AOL News.
The Pentagon does have a legitimate interest in communicating with foreign audiences, said Pietropaoli, who is now at the National Defense University. "The one thing that is good about named operations is that it provides greater transparency and visibility," he said.
In the meantime, information operations remains popular in the military; the head of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan recently expressed support for expanding information operations through the creation of a regional task force.
"We desperately need to build the capabilities of a regional information operations task force to complement the operations of the superb task force in Iraq and the now-growing task force in Afghanistan," U.S. Army General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress earlier this month.