Selling Peace: Why Canada Needs to Get Serious About PSYOP

by Holly Porteous  (Source )

When it comes to understanding the meaning and application of information operations (IO) in peace and war, we Canadians owe a lot to our American cousins. They’ve been thinking out loud about these issues for some time, arguing about "lessons learned" from recent military operations such as Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf and Allied Force in Yugoslavia. In so doing, the United States sets the parameters of the international debate. Because our military is many times smaller and because we lack a tradition of strategic analysis, Canadians have tended to opt out of these doctrinal discussions. This is not to say Canada has never put forward a strategic security vision. Surely Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s pronouncements on Canada’s "human security agenda" have far-reaching ramifications for information operations. Rather it is to say that we do not go far enough in exploring the practical implications of our stated world-view.

This discussion paper will address one of the least developed, but perhaps most important aspects of IO, psychological operations (PSYOP). Although there has been intense interest in the technical dimension of IO – especially in respect of developing countermeasures to defend our computer systems against rapidly evolving Internet-based threats – the information revolution has also impacted on how we get a message across to others around the world. While is true that much of the world has yet to place a telephone call, let alone surf the Net, there is evidence that authoritarian governments are exploring the potential of 'wired" propaganda. Given that these authoritarian governments are as interested in reaching our own computer-saturated public as they are in garnering support from their domestic constituencies, their efforts should not be dismissed out of hand. More importantly, these new techniques of eliciting emotional responses in a target audience are being underpinned by traditional propaganda methods that continue to work and remain difficult to counter.[1]

For this reason, an argument will be made why Canada, despite its limited resources and increasing emphasis on constabulary-type roles for the Canadian Forces, should develop a rudimentary PSYOP capability. Perhaps, more to the point, Canada should stop dealing with PSYOP issues in an ad hoc fashion and formalise what is already a latent capability. Without a formalised approach, Canada’s contribution to United Nations and NATO operations will be further diminished and its implementation of NATO Psychological Operations Policy, MC 402 questioned. This is not to say that we would ever be in a position to plan PSYOP at the international level. Given our diminutive size, Canada can only expect to support the PSYOP plans of larger allies like the United States. With a national joint doctrine, however, we can perhaps exercise some small measure of influence over an activity that has become a key element of the multinational operations other than war (OOTW) that Canada participates in.[2]

Of all our allies, the United States has done the most to articulate and develop PSYOP. This is because they have come to see its value. But, exactly what PSYOP are – conventional operations, unconventional operations or both – has been the subject of heated debate. Indeed, in the late eighties, when the Department of Defense was pondering the consolidation of PSYOP and Civil Affairs (CA) assets under the newly established Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), battlelines were drawn over just this issue. Proponents of consolidation argued that, as unconventional capabilities, PSYOP and CA needed the mentoring and advocacy of USSOCOM. Surprisingly, some opponents to consolidation came from the PSYOP/CA community. Having developed a role in conventional warfare, albeit one whose potential was not fully realised, some in the PSYOP/CA community were loath to be reassigned to a new command whose future and claim to an unconventional warfare mission were strongly contested. Whatever side one chooses on the question of conventional versus unconventional, it is clear that, given the frequency of OOTW and the need for the full range of USSOCOM capabilities in these missions, the decision to consolidate PSYOP and CA has had positive results. Dispersed throughout the services and lacking a command focal point, it is doubtful that these two trades would have been developed as well as they have. The point we need to take away is that, as the incidence of ethnic conflicts and civil wars has increased, so too has the perceived value of PSYOP.

According to the 1996 US publication, Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations (Joint Pub 3-53), PSYOP "are operations planned 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." We might note that, if this definition addressed real-world needs, it would include non-foreign audiences as targets. That’s because PSYOP can also be used to bolster our own morale against the PSYOP efforts of others. However, broadening PSYOP’s scope in this manner would risk tainting government public affairs (PA) channels by admitting to their propaganda function. US joint doctrine has gone to great pains to draw a distinction between PSYOP and PA, assigning to the latter the role of "objective reporting without attempt to propagandize."

The Americans have gone on to identify four types of PSYOP – strategic, operational, tactical and consolidation. Strategic PSYOP incorporate international information activities to influence foreign attitudes. Activities associated with this dimension of PSYOP are most likely to be carried out by mainly civilian agencies, but can be supported by military PSYOP assets. Operational PSYOP are conducted in a defined geographic area in the weeks and months leading up to war, during a war or operation other than war (OOTW), and after an operation has ended. This dimension focuses on reinforcing campaign effectiveness, making sure that the broader goals of the mission are met. In this connection, it is noteworthy that NATO policy (MC 402) highlights operational PSYOP's contribution to peacekeeping by designating a separate category, "Peace Support Psychological Activities (PSPA)." Tactical PSYOP are carried out in areas that have been assigned to a commander in a war or OOTW and are intended to support tactical missions against adversary forces. Finally, consolidation PSYOP are mounted in areas where one’s own forces are located in foreign areas inhabited by enemy or potentially hostile populations.

Although trying to influence others may sound like a straightforward proposition, in reality, to do so requires a deep understanding of the history, language, culture and motivating myths of target audiences. Just dropping pamphlets and broadcasting information in the hopes that the right message will get across is not good enough. Targeted by the PSYOP of a belligerent, local populations may have been misled into believing that NATO or UN peacekeepers are an invasion force. And, as American military observer Ralph Peters points out and we Canadians know all too well, Hollywood is constantly broadcasting a false image of the West to others around the world. Sometimes this works in our favour, sometimes it does not. To conduct PSYOP, then, it is necessary to know the purpose of the mission, who the "audience" is, and how best to reach this audience. Within the context of a coalition, such considerations become increasingly difficult to navigate. For instance, all must agree on whose "truth" the coalition will project.

Although we lack an articulated policy, Canada has in the recent past conducted a sophisticated, albeit largely unconscious, form of PSYOP. Our alliance with the Internet-savvy International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is being viewed by analysts the world over an example of new wave strategic PSYOP. Canada influenced leaders and changed their minds by breaking with the normal state diplomacy model and working directly with a non-governmental organisation, the ICBL. The ICBL was particularly attractive not only because it shared Canada’s goal of banning landmines, but because it was also a highly networked, "grass roots" movement. The ICBL was a worldwide "eyes and ears" that strengthened Canada’s voice and speeded up communications with the media to a break-neck pace. Without this innovative approach to PSYOP/diplomacy, one that offers a compelling argument for the strategy of syndication, it is doubtful that Canada would have been able to wire around the stalled UN negotiations and convince as many nations as it did to join the Ottawa process. We would be disinclined to label the landmine campaign as "PSYOP," of course, but that does not mean Canada will not attempt to repeat the experience. Indeed, as Canada promotes the concept of "human security," which seeks to address the underlying humanitarian issues of conflict, there are indications that we intend to build on this initial foray into wired PSYOP.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s recent speech to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Relations in Princeton provides some insight into this new direction. Lamenting "the abuse of information and the misuse of the means of communication," Axworthy noted that "state-controlled media [in the Balkans] have been misused as an instrument to prey on traditional fears, to foment prejudice, to reinforce stereotypes and to promote extreme exclusionary nationalism. We need look no further than today’s reporting from Belgrade’s controlled media to see how mass communication can [be] and is used to distort the truth and manipulate the public." Axworthy went on to say "Pursuing human security involves using a variety of tools. Some rely more on persuasion – as with the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines, or with peacebuilding initiatives – while others are more robust, such as sanctions or military intervention."

At this point, it is necessary to inject a measure of realism. There is a world of difference between using non-governmental organisations and the Internet as global "loudspeakers" for an arms control issue and attempting to influence belligerents with a long and complex history of hatred to lay down their arms. With this in mind, Canadians can learn the right lessons from the Kosovo experience. Looking beyond the US Army-Air Force squabble over ground forces versus air power, we see that some of the most important battles in Kosovo were over whose message would be heard. And, on this battlefield even the little guy, if he is clever enough, can cause some grief. Witness the sad sight of Belgrade’s teenagers enjoying the carnival atmosphere of a patriotic rock concert, waving their fists in youthful defiance at NATO. Who can dismiss the visual impact of Serb civilians of all ages parking themselves in front of anticipated NATO targets with bull’s eyes pinned to their chests? Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic pursued his PSYOP campaign with a mix of high-tech cyber-tactics and time-worn, jack boot-style ploys. Computers were hacked, the fifth estate was gagged.

Contrast this to NATO’s feeble attempts to reach Serb audiences by sprinkling poorly written pamphlets from the skies over Belgrade and broadcasting messages from Secretary of State Madelaine Albright. Such tactics did not put much of a dent in the nationalistic sense of righteous indignation that Milosevic had spent years building up in the Serbian people.

Of course, we might question the relevance, or even the extent, of Milosevic’s PSYOP successes. As William Arkin pointed out in a recent Washington Post article, the Yugoslav government pumped out a lot of potentially damaging website material about NATO airstrikes that was steadfastly ignored by a Western media suspicious of both the Internet and Serb sources. Furthermore, it does not look like Milosevic can even hold onto his natural audience. Now that his troops have had to pull out of Kosovo, many Serbs are once more taking to street to demand his removal from office. But does this seeming defeat take away from the initial success he had in whipping up a nationalistic fervour among Serbs? Will it make it any easier for Kosovar Albanians and Serbs to live side by side once more?

Although we may all recognise the importance of PSYOP in the conflict over Kosovo, Canadians did not have a significant role in crafting NATO’s strategy for countering Milosevic’s aggressive propaganda campaign. In part, this is because our meagre contribution to Operation Allied Force did not warrant full participation in NATO’s military planning process. Eight hundred troops and 18 CF-18s may seem like a major deployment for us, but these were merely a symbolic gesture beside the contributions of the United States, Britain and Germany. But, even if we had a voice, our lack of a properly enunciated doctrine means Canada would have little to say on this matter. Yet, as NATO now tries to restore a semblance of normalcy in Kosovo under Operation Joint Guard, Canadian Forces peacekeepers (who are deployed as part of KFOR) cannot escape the fact that they will face PSYOP and Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC) issues from the outset.

For example, KFOR peacekeepers must now project themselves as neutral protectors of both Serb and ethnic Albanian alike. Given the brutality of the war in Yugoslavia and the antagonism of many Serbs towards NATO, their campaign of persuasion will be challenging. This task is bound to become increasingly difficult as still-armed elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the leadership of which is reputed to have links with organised crime, continue to take revenge on Serbs and on moderate elements of the local ethnic Albanian population. The inclusion of Russian peacekeepers, who have a distinct pro-Serb bias, adds yet another twist to this complicated situation.

As with all OOTW, Joint Guard will place a premium on PSYOP. Persuasion, not violence, must be the first course of action. In light of this, and even if it intends to equip the Canadian Forces to be nothing more than an international gendarme force, Canada should at least be able to conduct PSYOP at the tactical level. That is to say Canada should, at a minimum, be prepared to provide brigade-level PSYOP support. Working with G-2 (Intelligence) personnel and other relevant trades, PSYOP-trained G-3 (Operations) personnel would evaluate intelligence for information relevant to psychological measures (such as recommended targets and communications media) and conduct PSYOP planning. These steps should be taken in recognition of the fact that peacekeeping requires more than guns. Guns don’t change beliefs.

Although this proposal is modest, the obstacles to its implementation remain daunting, perhaps insurmountable, given the current funding environment. Were Canada to set about developing a new capability in the traditional manner, it would establish a new PSYOP trade. This means creating a separate PSYOP career track and growing a new generation of officers and NCOs to provide training. A more realistic approach, however, would be to draft a joint doctrine and provide select personnel with specialised training at foreign military institutions. [3] The United States would be a prime candidate to provide this training. Alternatively, there may also be courses available from other PSYOP-inclined allies such as the United Kingdom.

In Canada, the debate about PSYOP has been muted. In a 1987 edition of Canadian Defence Quarterly, a Major A. Black lamented that no action had been taken to implement the 1983 Land Forces Requirement Study, Psychological Operations 1985-1995, which called for PSYOP support to the Canadian Forces. Black envisioned that, like the United States, the bulk of Canada’s PSYOP capability would reside in the militia, where he believed most of military’s expertise in media techniques, languages, foreign affairs and psychology could be found and cultivated.

Much has changed since Black wrote his article. For one thing, in 1987 the Department of National Defence (DND) was still focusing its attention on conflicts requiring full mobilisation. It was, therefore, feasible to consider assigning important roles to the Reserve Force without implementing job protection legislation. Since that time, both the CF Regular and Reserve Forces have been greatly reduced, a process that has left units severely undermanned, underequipped and demoralised. At the same time, however, a decidedly unpeaceful international environment has resulted in a grinding peacetime operations tempo. Scrambling to meet its rotational requirements, the Regular Force has come to view the Reserve Force as a "spare parts" bin whereby individuals can be used to plug holes in outgoing contingents. From this perspective, the ideal reservist is under-educated and unemployed, meaning they are usually placed in support roles (thus freeing up Regular Force personnel for more dangerous or demanding duties) and they are available on demand for short-term contracts. Experienced reservist officers at the rank of captain or major – in other words, the ranks that would form the backbone of a new PSYOP trade – are not necessarily available for peacetime deployments because they are generally professionals with day jobs. In short, then, the Reserves are not the reservoir of PSYOP talent Maj. Black had hoped for.

Despite this grim manning and resource situation, the Kingston-based Directorate of Army Doctrine (DAD) has quietly begun work on drafting Canada’s first PSYOP doctrine. Presumably, this document will support our newly minted doctrine on information operations, B-GG-005-004/AF-033 CF Information Operations. One hopes that the DAD document is being written with an eye to "jointness." Canada is hard-pressed to cobble together a fully manned battalion, so service-specific doctrine would be folly. Even though the Land Force is most likely to be engaged in civil-military encounters requiring PSYOP training, it is not inconceivable that our air force would be involved in leaflet drops or our naval personnel used to provide post-natural disaster assistance abroad. As well, Canada is unlikely to be deploying its forces outside of a coalition context, so it would make sense to be prepared to work jointly with other nations.

As outlined above, PSYOP are based on knowing what the message is, who needs to hear it and how it will be communicated. Our ability to identify and package this kind of information is diffuse throughout the private and public sector. A novel approach might be to outsource some aspects of PSYOP, such as intelligence support. For example, although Canada does not have an established foreign intelligence service, we do have a range of information sources such as the Communications Security Establishment that are used to fulfil this function. Additional insight can also be gained by tapping academic area specialists or public relations firms, although the process of providing security clearances for these people might be prohibitively slow and costly.

While we may not be inclined to expend effort on devising full-blown PSYOP plans, we would be ill advised to ignore this unconventional means to create a more permissive environment for our peacekeepers. At the very least, Canada should undertake a more disciplined approach to an activity it has been engaging in unconsciously for some time. All PSYOP actors, not just DND, should be capturing the various lessons learned from international activities that have called on our persuasive skills. As well, we should not shrink back from examining circumstances where the psychological well being of our own side has been placed at risk. Above all, let’s not let its unfortunate label stop us from reaching for this tool. PSYOP is a cost-effective policy reinforcer, not a black art.


1. RAND scholars, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt suggest that PSYOP-type activities are part of "netwar." According to Arquilla and Rondfeldt, the IO spectrum runs from cyberwar, which aims to destroy interconnectivity through physical or cyber-attack, to netwar, which instead seeks to maintain connectivity to win the "battle of the story." For a recent exposition on this thesis, see John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy, (RAND: National Defense Institute, 1999); and Michelle Hankins, "Social, Criminal Protagonists Engage in New Information Age Battle Techniques," Signal, July 1999, pp 53-54.

2. Those who are familiar with the intimate relationship between PSYOP and civil-military co-operation (CMIC) may question why the latter has been excluded from this consideration. Whereas PSYOP are concerned with formulating and disseminating a message designed to influence a foreign audience, CMIC have a domestic and foreign focus. In addition, CMIC are concerned with establishing Canadian Forces liaison with national authorities, civil and paramilitary organisations, and civilian populations to facilitate military operations such as peacekeeping or disaster relief. Each activity complements the other. Nonetheless, without a well-conceived message to convey, particularly in a foreign environment, CMIC can fail. For this reason, this paper will limit itself to PSYOP but note the importance of Canada’s efforts in developing CMIC. Indeed, the recent CF publication, "Lessons Learned in Civil-Military Cooperation (CMIC)," which is part of Army Lessons Learned Centre’s Dispatches series, offers some useful insights into dealing with non-military and non-Canadian cultures. These efforts should be further developed in the PSYOP context.

3. Obvious candidates would be G-3 personnel. It may also be possible to capitalise on the foreign language capability of Communications Research (COMM RSCH) personnel by developing PSYOP specialists in this area. However we implement a PSYOP capability, we need to do so with an eye to making the most of what already exists.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of EWA-Canada Ltd.


New Canadian Book Predicts a "Cyber Panopticon"

"The End of Privacy"

By Reg Whitaker

The New Press, New York, 1999

ISBN 1-56584-378-9, 195 pp. (incl. index)

US$ 25.00

York University political science professor Reg Whitaker has done an admirable job of arguing how information technology will transform the exercise of power. Central to his thesis is the unsettling vision of a cyber "panopticon," in which IT has become an all-seeing eye that renders the most intimate details of our life transparent and permits our personal dossier to take on a life of its own.

The idea of a panopticon originates with an architectural plan for a prison drawn up by 17th Century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham envisioned a circular prison in which each prisoner is housed in cells along the building’s perimeter. Inmates can neither hear nor see other prisoners. Their activities are monitored by an unseen inspector, located in an office at the centre of the building. By means of an elaborate series of communications tubes, each prisoner is kept painfully aware of the monitor's constant and total surveillance. Because they cannot anticipate the comings and goings of the inspector, and therefore cannot devise reliable methods of circumventing surveillance, prisoners self-regulate their behaviour. It’s not that hard to imagine why Whitaker likens new IT-spawned developments like "dataveillance" to a form of panopticon.

Whitaker has the good sense, however, to question those who make the facile argument that its increased surveillance capabilities places government, even liberal democratic government, on a par with the Orwellian state. At the same time, Whitaker does not side with IT optimists who suggest that the Internet will usher in a kind of wired utopia. Instead he posits the emergence of a "participatory panopticon," whereby both state and non-state entities are able to collect intelligence on each other. As a result, says Whitaker, "the state has been decentred; power is dispersed and diffused; surveillance has become multidirectional." Nonetheless, government intelligence gathering will not be completely pushed to the side. States will be called upon to create a global surveillance regime to ensure that "the dark side of globalization" – transnational organised crime – does not gain ascendancy.

A thought provoking read and worthy contribution to the debate on privacy.

Update on "What’s in a Scan?"

For those of you who are interesting in further reading on the debate surrounding Russia’s proposal for an international convention on information warfare, a subject touched upon in last issue’s "Focus" column, here are some excellent references. Of particular interest is the DOD paper, which outlines a US response to Russia’s proposal.

Department of Defense, Office of General Counsel, "An Assessment of International Legal Issues," May 1999. Available from site, under the information operations section <<>>

Lynn E. Davis, "Arms Control, Export Regimes, and Multilateral Cooperation," in Strategic Appraisal: the Changing Role of Information in Warfare, edited by Zalmay Khalilzad and John White, (RAND: 1999), pp 361-377. <>

Timothy L. Thomas, "Information Technology: US/Russian Perspectives and Potential for Military-Political Cooperation," in Global Security Beyond the Millennium: American and Russian Perspectives, edited by Sharyl Cross, Igor Zevelev, Victor Kremenyuk, and Vagan Gevorgian, (St. Martin’s Press, Inc.: New York, 1999), pp 69-89.

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