Pentagon psy-ops unit also does domestic disaster aid
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.”
| August 17, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
Categories: Homeland Security, Intelligence, Military
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