Confused Chickens Come Home to Roost

By Christopher J. Lamb, PhD, Director, Center for Strategic Research

This past month the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) announced that the term PSYOP, short for psychological operations, is being replaced by the term “military support to information operations” (MISO).  Stephen Walt writes amusingly in his July 7 blog for Foreign Policy that this is a classic George Carlin moment of euphemism trumping clarity.  Yes it is, but it also reflects a decade long lobbying effort from some PSYOP practitioners who are confused about the purpose of their own operations.   

 In 2003, after prolonged internal debate and review, the Pentagon approved the Information Operations Roadmap that focused PSYOP on “support to military endeavors in non-permissive or semi-permissive environments (i.e. when adversaries are part of the equation).”  Many PSYOP professionals refused to accept these constraints designed to draw a clear distinction between PSYOP and Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  They argued PSYOP could be benign and employed for a wide range of information purposes and that it could include friendly forces and populations. 

 In April, 2005, I was asked by senior PSYOP leaders in the Pentagon to comment on a proposal to change the name of PSYOP to something “more benign.”  These officials argued “PSYOP carries negative connotations that have persisted since WWII despite successful and honorable DoD PSYOP employments in numerous peacetime and conflict environments for the past 70 years.  Until the term PSYOP is changed, the problem of image will persist.”  In other words, they thought the problem was one of image rather than substance.  Here are excerpts from my response that attempts to clarify the real issue (using PA to refer to public affairs and PD for public diplomacy):

 …My major comment is that I would have to disagree with the underlying premise in the paper, which is the argument that the real problem is misperceptions about the nature of PSYOP that can be corrected with name changes….  In my view PSYOP is a real, substantive discipline that can be and should be distinguished from PA and PD.  It is not just “all true information” from different USG sources.  This is the key issue, one that the paper glosses over.  Let me try to make my case to you that PSYOP is substantively different from PA and PD. 

 PSYOP is distinguished from PA and PD by its purpose and its TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures].  The purpose of PSYOP is to support military operations, not promote American foreign policy.  It does the latter in support of the former, but the rock bottom reason we have military personnel conducting PSYOP is that other military personnel need their help, not because disseminating PA and PD in some environments is too dangerous and only military personnel are willing or asked to take those risks. 

 This is no minor issue.  Military operations are conducted primarily and ultimately to defeat enemies of the United States.  This means that in most, if not all situations, the purpose of PSYOP is to make military operations more effective, not look out for the interests of other parties.  Again, PSYOP may help others besides the US military, but this is incidental to their real purpose.  If you look at the professional literature on persuasive communications, most of the “ethics” discussion comes down to a question of whether you have the target audience’s best interests at heart.  PSYOP may provide information that is helpful to a target audience, but fundamentally it exists to further the interests of our military personnel and their endeavors, not those of the target audience.  This is why PSYOP is ethically suspect in PA and PD circles.  Both these disciplines can make a stronger claim to speaking in the interests of the audience; PD less than PA, but both much more so than PSYOP.  It is this real, substantive fact that makes PSYOP a problem for PA and PD, not just the label.  In short, the enduring image problem PSYOP has with PA and PD is related to its true nature, not just the edgy, manipulative implication of the PSYOP label itself.  (In fact, if you will forgive my saying so, I think we must keep the PSYOP name in the perhaps forlorn, even desperate hope that we can remind PSYOP personnel of their true calling!)

Concerning PSYOP TTPs, on the emotion-reason continuum PSYOP will be found to use more emotion, and on occasion deception, than PD or PA can tolerate.  There is no way to hide this fact.  It is possible to get around the minor deception problem by insisting that when PSYOP deceives, it is doing deception, not PSYOP.  This is the same argument the IO Roadmap makes for PSYOP doing PD by the way.  It is still a bit disingenuous.  Some PSYOP messages by their very nature lead the target audiences to untrue conclusions or conclusions that are not wholly true, and many would see a small element of deception (as in misrepresentation) in those tactics just as you would in much Madison Avenue advertising.  Obviously PSYOP avoids blatant untruths that would be counterproductive and undermine PSYOP credibility with the target audience. ….Again, changing the name to fool the other USG persuasive communication disciplines will not work.  As for the MIST team, it works not because the name is changed (although that helps), but because it is a free resource to help the embassy do PA and PD tasks for which it is not properly staffed.  The price PSYOP pays for giving the free resource away is not just less PSYOP talent focused on PSYOP, but confusion in the ranks of PSYOP about what PSYOP really is.

If PSYOP is substantively different than PA and PD in ways that require distinctions to be made between these disciplines, a name change will not solve the problem we have.  In fact, it will make the problem worse.  You won’t fool the PA and PD guys.  They may take free PSYOP resources if sufficiently disguised, but they will remain convinced that PSYOP neither understands nor intends to stay true to its purpose (or in its lane).  As a result, we will get less of the very important coordination that we need.

In short, this issue has been long debated, and apparently those within the PSYOP community who wanted the name change have finally prevailed.  It is unfortunate on several levels, but that would be the subject of a longer blog.  Here I just wanted to clarify the real issue that is behind the name change and share the lament of PSYOP icons like Alfred Paddock, Jr. who argued against the name change in Joint Forces Quarterly (“Legitimizing Army Psychological Operations” (JFQ 56, 1st quarter 2010) and in the pages of the Small Wars Journal: PSYOP: On a Complete Change in Organization, Practice, and Doctrine.  As a previous NDU Press blogger noted (at, “For Paddock and many others, MISO is likely to be a no-go.”  Ditto on the no go on MISO!



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