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Posted at 1:25 PM ET, 08/17/2010

Pentagon psy-ops unit also does domestic disaster aid

By Jeff Stein

If a conspiracy theorist wanted to level a finger at preparations for a government take-over in the United States, he could do worse than visit a little-known air base at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., about a two-hour drive across the rolling hills northwest of Philadelphia.

It’s home to the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania National Guard. On any given day, a visitor can see one of the unit’s big gray, four-prop EC-130s lumbering down a runway.

The “E” in the plane’s designation stands for electronics, and in fact the aircraft are crammed with sophisticated electronics. The unit’s mission is psychological operations -- propaganda, in a word.

Or at least it was until June, when the name of the mission was changed to a more civilian-friendly “Military Information Support Operations,” or MISO.

Under any name, the planes are equipped to broadcast radio and television messages to target audiences, including in the United States.

Although the unit’s main mission is foreign, to counter an adversary’s propaganda or propagate our own (such as all-is-lost surrender messages aimed at Iraqi troops), the 193rd is also ready to spring into action domestically under the Defense Department's Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, which was established in Colorado Springs, Colo., after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The 193rd's planes are code-named Commando Solo -- which is as close to a black-helicopters fantasy as one can get.

NORTHCOM officials insist that when the planes are launched domestically, their mission will be only to assist in a dire emergency -- either natural (hurricanes, vast floods) or military (a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. with a nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological weapon).

The command's “Civil Authority Information Support Element,” or CAISE, is meant “to save lives and mitigate human suffering and property damage,” says John Cornelio, a spokesman for both NORTHCOM and NORAD, the North American Air Defense folks.

And nothing more.

“A CAISE is a group of trained military personnel who, during a domestic crisis, and in response to a properly-vetted federal request for assistance, can take information supplied by local, state and federal authorities and quickly distribute it to the public by a variety of military assets, which may include mobile public address systems, leaflet drops from aircraft, airborne radio/TV transmission and other capabilities,” Cornelio said.

A CAISE team, he said, was dispatched to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, where it deployed “mobile public address trucks from the 82nd Airborne Division … to communicate with local residents who could not use radios or TVs when power was lost.”

“Commando Solo has the capability to broadcast TV, radio, you name it, precisely what is needed after a hurricane, an earthquake -- whatever it takes to get out the information,” said Joel Harding, of the Association of Old Crows, the electronic warfare veterans association.

“They also have loudspeaker teams which put out information like, ‘Go to Jefferson High School for fresh water and blankets...’ ” he says.

Occasionally, however, information surfaces to suggest that NORTHCOM has co-mingled civil defense and domestic psychological warfare functions, raising Orwellian suspicions among some.

In 2004, for example, a Congressional Quarterly Homeland Security reporter, Justin Rood, stumbled across an employment opening for a NORTHCOM “influence operations specialist” that seemed to blur the lines between civil relief aid and propaganda operations.

“One section of the Air Force job description said the influence operations specialist was to coordinate with the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group (POG), as well as with NORTHCOM public affairs, ‘deception planners’ and other agencies,” wrote Rood.

“The position would ‘coordinate [Air Force] inputs to NORAD-NORTHCOM influence operations,’ according to the ad. It defined those operations to include ‘PSYOPS themes and messages for use in foreign countries, public affairs themes and messages’ as well as ‘deception plans.’”

Rood got a raft of conflicting explanations from NORTHCOM, including one from a spokesman who said, "Trust me, there's nobody from psyops here in my office.”

"We do not do information operations against the American public," Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly told him.

Yet the work of NORTHCOM's psyops unit, now re-branded MISO, also included operations "designed to influence and deter foreign enemies from attacking the United States."

Which begs the question of why a domestic Defense Department command co-mingles "influence operations" with civil affairs functions.

"I think what we’ve tried to do is simply provide a capability that may save lives or, at least, increase information flow in a disaster (and only with the complete approval of civil authorities)," spokesman Cornelio said in an e-mail. "I would hope that most people see that as a good use of taxpayer’s dollars."

“All this is under the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, which by itself is confusing and scary as heck if you don’t understand how they are organized,” concedes Harding, director of the Old Crows Information Operations Institute.

“That's the world that I come from, so the incongruity of it all makes sense,” he adds, “if you scrunch your face up.”

By Jeff Stein  | August 17, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  Homeland Security, Intelligence, Military  
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this "article" seems like nothing more than fanciful speculation and half-baked musings from someone with nothing much to write about. slow news week?

Posted by: DCguy7 | August 17, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

The absurdity of this "article" is a great example of why the liberal press has no credibility with anybody but the Teleprompter Left. I would sooner trust my life to any man or woman in the 193rd Special Operations Wing than to anybody in the Oboobma administration. Get a life, Jeff - your column is turning into Eugene Robinson.

Posted by: hill_marty | August 17, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

For hill_marty: just a hint, in case you missed the last presidential election, clearly the "teleprompter left" includes significantly more Americans than those on the clueless right...who clearly don't mind the military wasting even more millions on just loony pointless excuses to continue throwing our taxpayer money away.

I've worked with veteran "propaganda" experts...not a one could point to a single instance in history where our propaganda could be clearly determined to have changed anything in a foreign country.

If Jeff's article helps to throw light on this complete waste of money, good for him. We need many more like it. "Speculation"...on the contrary, he clearly has some specific details.

Posted by: Rigged | August 17, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Could the topic of this piece have been something a little better researched. First of all, it's PSYOP not PSYOPS. Second, nothing spooky about COMMANDO SOLO, it entered service in 1978 as the EC-130E Coronet Solo with the Tactical Air Command (TAC). In 1983 the Coronet Solos mission was transferred to the Military Air Command (MAC) and redesignated the EC-130E Volant Solo. With the formation of the US Air Force Special Operations Command, the mission was transferred to AFSOC and redesignated Commando Solo. In the early 1990s the aircraft were upgraded and designated Commando Solo II. The EC-130E variants were replaced with new EC-130J Commando Solo III aircraft beginning in 2003. Third, a little more research would also tell you that it's the mission of every combatant command to conduct operations "designed to influence and deter foreign enemies from attacking the United States." not just NORTHCOM. If you can influence your adversary without firing a shot, you still win!

Posted by: Batman56 | August 17, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The fact that this type of effort may have a long history doesn't make it worth the money. Why we want to continue to pour money into something that doesn't work...that's a mystery, except to our military (well, and politicians). Even the "Historical Profile of The 14th PsyOp Battalions and 7th PsyOp Group" doesn't claim that any of the propaganda efforts had the slightest beneficial impact.

"Influence and deter foreign enemies from attacking the US" -- what a noble goal...and what utter nonsense in practice. So many people cite "our enemies" without being able to name exactly who those supposed "enemies" this case, the ones who might be influenced by our propaganda. Convenient that way...people can just spout this stuff without any basis.

Sure, influencing "your adversary without firing a shot" might be nice...except we've never done it successfully, from all indications. (As I said, I worked with veteran "propaganda" experts...and they had no concrete evidence any of it "worked.") And why is this command, apparently, flying propaganda "missions" in the US?

No one seems to have gotten the message: we have a $1.4 trillion budget deficit this year alone. Why we have our military piddling away millions on useless efforts...well, or billions in other a sad disgrace. Did anyone notice: we have a seriously looming budget crisis. Something that "oh, may come in handy...or may not" is hardly crucial to defense...or anything else. Just because commands have long had a propaganda "mission" doesn't mean that that can't be changed...well, except in America where we'd rather spend ourselves into bankruptcy.

Posted by: Rigged | August 17, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Good piece! What you attempted to write about is confusing, but in the short amount of space you devoted to the issue, you did well. USASOC owns the 4th PSYOP Group, but they also own the Rangers and Special Forces, which to some is very scary. Why would USASOC own them? Historically, the conventional Army would have never funded them; if it's not a tank or a bullet it almost has no purpose, so the unconventional thinkers in Special Forces took care of 4th POG.

Batman56 is correct, AFSOC owns Commando Solo. But, for an added twist, Commando Solo is a Pennsylvania Air National Guard asset as well! Now, throw in another twist, AFSOC and USASOC are Service components of SOCOM (also include NAVSOC and MARSOC), one of the combatant commanders, but they have a global mission and MFP-11 funding. The personnel are Air Force and Army with yet another line of funding.

The genius of this is that it all works despite the spiderweb of organizations. The wonderful people of the 193rd are dedicated professional who spend far too much time away from their families in support of global operations, not just combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A large part of their missions include humanitarian aid, peace keeping and other disaster relief roles.

Jeff, this is a highly complex issue and I'm glad you wrapped your arms around it. Good job!

Posted by: joelhar1 | August 20, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse


Interesting... I check Jeff Stein's column almost daily, and this item did not appear over my connection until today (Tues., Aug. 24th). A "ping" site tells me my internet is being routed through the Allentown, PA area (not far from Ft. Indiantown Gap) when I live in the Philly suburbs.

When I tried to read this item, the page jumped around on my display, scrolling up and down on its own accord. Several minutes elapsed before I could read the entire story. And my comments to political blogs appear to be re-directed to "spoofed" websites in a constant "man in the middle attack," which I have written about here:

And finally, I unmasked an apparent lame psyop apparently aimed at readers of The Washington Post's website, in this opus, which reads like a bad joke:

Am I putting two and two together and getting five? Or has Jeff Stein opened my eyes to a possible source of my psyop tormentors and censors -- forces that have tried to suppress dissemination of this expose I first published last December:

193rd, is this your "tradecraft" at work here in Bucks County, PA? Do you read? If so -- DON'T TREAD ON ME: YOU ARE VIOLATING MY CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.

And if it's not the 193rd doing this, perhaps in the interest of American liberty, you could tell me -- who is?

Posted by: scrivener50 | August 24, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

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