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The backflow of misinformation can also be a serious problem. Though the Pentagon and the CIA are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States, during the mid 1970s increased scrutiny of military intelligence operations revealed that programs planting fake leaks in the foreign press had resulted in false articles running back through the U.S. media. But sometimes the false articles are intentional. When the American public seemed to be developing weak knees about the Nicaraguan contras, the Office of Public Diplomacy, part of the Reagan-era State Department, quickly leaked fake intelligence to The Miami Herald that the Soviet Union had given chemical weapons to the Sandinistas.
Distribution of misinformation overseas can be trickier. In 1999, during the NATO air war in Yugoslavia, more than 100 million leaflets were to be dropped on Kosovo. But at the designated time, there was too much ground-to-air fire for planes to fly lower than 20,000 feet. Swept by strong winds, many leaflets landed in the wrong country, according to press reports.
Sometimes, though, the packages land in the right place, and the enemy is quite happy about it. During World War II, the Japanese utilized the standard tactic of telling American soldiers that their girlfriends were getting busy while they were away from home. But on the air-dropped handbills the Japanese illustrated their point a little too well, using graphic pornography that was otherwise tough to come by on the front lines. According to military historian Stanley Sandler, "Our guys loved it. They'd trade them like baseball cards . . . five for a bottle of whiskey."
But there are also some psy-ops success stories. In Vietnam, U.S. planes sprinkled enemy territory with playing cards, but prior to carpet bombing, they dropped only the ace of spades. Before long, the Pavlovian technique took hold, and just the dropping of aces was sufficient to clear an entire area. Incessant rock music did the job in Panama, getting Manuel Noriega to surrender from his presidential bunker. During the Persian Gulf War, many Iraqi soldiers surrendered with U.S. leaflets in hand. Throughout that war, American forces also cleverly floated 10,000 bottles with intimidating notes in the gulf toward Iraqi shores. According to subsequent interviews with captured Iraqi soldiers, the bottled messages effectively increased concerns in Baghdad over the possibility of a massive amphibious landing. No such landing took place. Enemy psy-opers occasionally brag, too. The North Vietnamese peppered American soldiers with leaflets using anti-war slogans from the States. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was a particular favorite appropriated by Vietcong leafleteers. When American soldiers finally came home, many commented that the printed reminders of stateside opposition to the war really wore down morale. Last decade, the Iraqis made occasionally smart use of disinformation, often disseminated through their old enemy, Iran (making it more believable). According to U.S. military sources, leaflets were circulated in Bangladesh citing a Tehran radio report that U.S. troops had opened fire on Bangladeshi troops who refused to join the military strike on Iraq. The incident, allegedly leaving hundreds dead, was a complete fabrication.
Less than an exact science, psy-ops is a clumsy art that has seen few real innovations over the years. Alexander the Great ordered his metalworkers to craft giant helmets to fit men the size of 20-foot monsters. His soldiers would then leave the helmets strewn about in conquered villages, hoping to inflame the wildest imaginations of enemy armies passing through the area. Folklore has it that along the same lines, though pitching at a slightly lower angle, American psy-op specialists in Vietnam left foot-long condoms along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, presumably to preoccupy the enemy soldiers with hiding their wives and daughters.
The laundry list of actual psy-ops bloopers is certainly long and dirty, leaving some in the U.S. military skeptical of whether the American forked-tongued brigades are keeping up with the enemy. A May 2000 report by the Defense Science Board Task Force, an advisory panel to the Defense Department, concluded, "While the United States is years ahead of its competitors in terms of military technology, in terms of psy-ops there are already competitors on par with, or even arguably more sophisticated than, the U.S." But in other circles, confidence is unwavering. At a recent press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "If Saddam were to issue such an order to use a chemical or biological attack, that does not necessarily mean his orders would be carried out." Rumsfeld's oblique speculation rested on the dubious hope, gaining popularity on Capitol Hill, that psychological operations might just do the trick on Saddam's key weapons handlers. But as one unnamed senior defense official pointed out to USA Today, the men in charge of the supposed Iraqi chemical or biological weapons and missile forces are likely Saddam's most loyal soldiers. In fact, if our psy-ops people are left to their old devices, the Iraqi commanders might just hit those red buttons all the faster.
Ian Urbina is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project in D.C.