Secrecy News

DoD “Clarifies” Doctrine on Psychological Operations

The Department of Defense has issued a new publication (pdf) to update and clarify its doctrine on “psychological operations.”

Psychological operations, or PSYOP, are intended to “convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”

PSYOP is among the oldest of military disciplines, but the new DoD doctrine continues to wrestle with basic definitional issues.

It endorses a new, negative definition of the term “propaganda,” which had formerly been used in a neutral sense to refer to “Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.” From now on, propaganda will refer only to what the enemy does:  “Any form of adversary communication, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”

The new doctrine also dictates that the term “perception management” shall be eliminated from the DoD lexicon (pdf).

DoD acknowledges that PSYOP is limited by legal constraints, including statutes, international agreements, and national policies. Among other things, the DoD doctrine states, there is a “requirement that US PSYOP forces will not target US citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any circumstances.”  Yet in a near contradiction, the doctrine also states that “When authorized, PSYOP forces may be used domestically to assist lead federal agencies during disaster relief and crisis management by informing the domestic population.”  Perhaps the PSYOP forces are supposed to inform the domestic population without “targeting” them.

Fundamentally, psychological operations are tethered to the reality of U.S. government actions, for good or for ill.  As the new doctrine notes, “Every activity of the force has potential psychological implications that may be leveraged to influence foreign targets.”  But PSYOP cannot substitute for an incoherent policy or rescue a poorly executed plan.

See “Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.