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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 04/ 5/2010

Untold millions spent on intelligence deception ops

By Jeff Stein

I’ve been reading a fascinating new book about British intelligence’s deception operations against the Axis powers and wondering whether anything so effective could be applied against al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists.

Even putting aside the obvious joke that we’ve spent much of the past decade deceiving ourselves about the Middle East, it seems late in the game to contemplate fooling al-Qaeda or the Taliban about much of anything we’re doing.

Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be taking place in Afghanistan, where NATO announced its offensive in Marja and is telegraphing the same now about Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold. Is this some obscure new twist to psychological warfare, or just submission to the obvious -- telling the Taliban what they’ll soon enough know? The only surprise left in our quiver seems to be drone attacks.

Many of the most entertaining stories in Nicholas Rankin’s “A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars,” would seem to have little applicability today. It’s laughable, for example, to contemplate using one of the Brits’ most successful tricks, deploying wooden tanks and aircraft, to deceive al-Qaeda’s spies, as the Allies did with great success against the Germans and Italians in World War II, culminating in the phony army assembled under Gen. George S. Patton’s command to mislead the Germans about the invasion of Europe. Then there was the famous “Man Who Never Was,” a corpse with phony orders meant to be discovered by the Nazis.

It would seem difficult to trick al-Qaeda or the Taliban about much today. But it turns out we are spending hundreds of millions on psychological warfare, if you read past last month’s lurid headlines about a “rogue” Pentagon official using “information operations” as a cover for targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders for assassination.

So either something big is going on in psychological warfare that is far from obvious -- which, I suppose, is the way it should be or it wouldn’t work -- or we’re being bilked of ungodly millions by psycho-warriors whose target is less the Taliban than the American taxpayer.

Important clues on this could be found deep in a March 29 story by Walter Pincus, The Washington Post’s venerable reader of fine print.

According to Pincus, the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas has a 435-person unit that "plans, integrates and synchronizes information operations in direct support of joint forces commanders . . . across the Defense Department," according its mission statement, which include "psychological operations . . . and military deception."

In just Iraq between 2006 and 2008, Pincus found, the U.S. Central Command alone had 172 contracts worth $270 million.

They included the “development of television commercials and documentaries, focus group and polling services, television air time, posters, banners, and billboards, " according to the Defense Department’s inspector general. Other items included "magazine publishing and printing services, newspaper dissemination, television and radio airtime, text messaging services, internet services and novelty items.”

Novelty items?

Let’s presume for the moment that all this money was secretly funneled to favored Iraqi publishers, broadcasters, political parties and activists between 2006 and 2008 -- back in 2005 it was revealed that the Pentagon had paid a Washington p.r. group tens of millions of dollars to manufacture upbeat propaganda on the Iraq war for Baghdad newspapers -- and that we’re doing the same in Afghanistan, for similar amounts of money. And in Pakistan, almost certainly, and any other cockpit of extremist Muslim ferment.

As Daniel Shulman and David Corn reported March 19 in Mother Jones, an outfit called International Safety Networks, piloted by the same execs caught up in last month’s “rogue” controversy, “has offered to perform information operations for clients, touting its ability to 'shape, produce, place and monitor media and messages' in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region."

The Pentagon’s total budget for “global strategic communications … to help advance military objectives … is nearly impossible to determine,” the Stimson Center reported last month, “because these sums are buried within very general Operations and Maintenance budgets.“

Stimson’s best guess for fiscal year 2010 was “at least $626 million – and there is no indication of how or to what end it was used.”

Which may be appropriate -- after all, how can it work if it’s public? Or as Winston Churchill famously said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

But in a war where we’re already telling the enemy when and where we’re coming, and the man on the street in Kandahar knows the score, what’s the multi-million dollar point?

By Jeff Stein  | April 5, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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Fake planes and tanks are pointless against an adversary whose biggest weapons are land mines (IDEs) and RPGs. If you believe the newspapers al Qaeda and the Taliban fear drones and spies. A misinformation campaign, about our capabilities both technical and human, could force them to spend resources avoiding technology we do not possess and witch hunting for spies we do not pay. If they sleep in tunnels every night because we can "see through roofs and walls", then they waste time digging tunnels and limiting their movements. If they are randomly cutting off local's heads as American spies, we win on the hearts and minds front.

Remember, we tried to deceive the Nazi's about D-Day, because they could have stomped us on the beaches if they knew. There is nothing the Taliban can do to keep us out of Kandahar. Obviously jump off and rally points should be kept secret, but their is no value in keeping strategic military ops secret. But there is always value in making them defend against ghosts.

Posted by: caribis | April 6, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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