Eurasianet editor David Trilling has a probing look in Foreign Policy at a really clumsy propaganda outlet focused on Central Asia:
Take a March story praising Tashkent’s effort to register religious groups. The story does not mention reputable organizations’ allegations about arbitrary arrests of Christians and Muslims from unregistered groups, but cites state-affiliated clergy lauding the country’s religious freedom and praises the feared security services for acting within the law. The story ends by saying, “Uzbekistan is doing everything necessary to ensure its citizens have the proper conditions to exercise freedom of conscience.”
That is patently not so, says John Kinahan of Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog: “The only thing harmonious in Uzbekistan is a constant picture of violations of just about every human right you can name, which is certainly not producing any meaningful exchange of views of what is going on or how people relate to each other.”
Trilling’s cataloguing of Central Asia Online’s misreporting is very well done, and he deserves praise for it. Unfortunately, Trilling also gets some substantial points in his criticism wrong.
First, there are some niggling language issues. The CAO website is administered by General Dynamics, a large DOD contractor. Trilling constantly invokes General Dynamics’ as a “for-profit contractor,” as if the website would be any less problematic if it were run by a non-profit contractor (like Battelle), or directly by the government. As an employee at a non-profit news and advocacy organization, I can understand Trilling’s discomfort with the profit motive, but the real problem with Central Asia Online is both its existence and its activities, not the use of a normal company to run it.
Similarly, Trilling describes this as a project of the Defense Department, as its run from the Pentagon and is a major program. Despite its hefty price tag — nearly $120 million — it is not. CAO is run by the Special Operations Command, the result of an attempt to operationalize many years of doctrinal studies out of the Joint Special Operations University, as a part of incorporating “Information Operations” into strategic planning. While Central Asia Online is an unclassified program, it is sequestered within SOCOM, part of the J-39 Global Operations group. It is buried within the bureaucracy and is therefore low visibility within the community. I’d be surprised if many people outside of the PSYOP universe even knew it existed.
That budget is also problematic. The TRWI project cost is $120 million, it’s true, but that is divided by 8 countries, so the cost per-country is more like $15 million. Still, spending $15 million a year on pro-Karimov propaganda is not a good thing for SOCOM to be involved in, so Trilling’s criticism still stands. I just wish he could have incorporated some recent budgetary caps (pdf, pg. 245) on the TRWI project and attempts to increase some oversight. These changes are germane to Trilling’s criticism.
Trilling also makes a curious omission in his discussion of CAO’s disclosures. He conceded that Central Asia Online states very plainly that it is an Information Operations project managed from SOCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Trilling complains that, despite this disclosure, some other news agencies mistakenly report CAO stories as journalism, rather than propaganda. And that’s fine. But look at who one of his big sources is for complaining about said propaganda:
“It’s disturbing, to say the least,” says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Barnard College who writes frequently about America’s military footprint in Central Asia. “I would not expect anyone who is otherwise involved as a contractor or a subcontractor for U.S. security agencies to provide objective news analysis of terrorism. Part of covering terrorism means covering both the emergence of legitimate threats, but also covering how the specter of terror is used as political cover for governments to clamp down on political opponents,” Cooley said. He called the “fluff” on Central Asia Online “just propaganda.”
I should make clear that I am not criticizing Cooley who is entitled to his opinion. But Trilling owes both his readers and Foreign Policy readers a full disclosure of his relationship with Cooley. Eurasianet, which Trilling manages, is funded by the Central Eurasia Program at the Open Society Institute. Cooley has not only been an Open Society Institute Fellow recently, he also sits on the Board of Advisers of the Central Eurasia Program at OSI. In essence, Trilling quoted his boss for a story without disclosing their relationship. In a story about how sneaky the DOD is in promoting its version of history, it is a curious omission to make.
But beyond that, Trilling seems to misunderstand the role of Information Operations in modern military doctrine. The DOD does not do a good job in this arena (in fact, criticizing the DOD’s propaganda is a major, recurring topic of this blog). But that doesn’t mean you can remove these efforts from context.
Digging into the kinds of doctrinal concepts (pdf) being pushed at the military post-graduate universities in the 2006-2007 time frame reveals a genuine struggle with the “information environment,” as they put it. Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, a key concept in the Military Decision Making Process, requires a fluency with things like the news environment and how ideas and reactions spread into host populations. One of the TMAs, or Traditional Military Activities, is in “shaping operations,” which are meant to prepare some abstractly defined “mental space” in the mind of a local population for a given policy.
These shaping operations often take the form of various types of propaganda — Information Operations like Central Asia Online, more direct PSYOP programs like distributing leaflets, and so on. Recall Major General Michael Flynn’s 2010 call to enlist journalists as intelligence collectors — the need for good information is there, but the top-thinkers of the military have no idea how to get it and often grasp at straws.
To repeat, this does not make the sketchy and unreliable reporting Trilling identifies okay (and in fact, I’ve also been a consistent critic online and in person of CAO’s terrible presence on the web). But it does mean that to blow the lid off this story requires more understanding of the years of conceptual planning and bureaucratic inertia that result in such a bizarre web presence. And unfortunately, Trilling just doesn’t know enough to present that.
Still, Trilling is definitely on the right path. Central Asia Online is the worst sort of clumsy trainwreck that has, sadly, come to define the military’s IO efforts the last few years. It is no less blatant or disappointing that Max Boot’s monthly helicopter tours of Afghanistan, but might be more insidious because these stories aren’t confined to the opinion pages of a newspaper. This program, and a plethora of crazier programs (like Duane Clarridge’s ridiculous program), need to be evaluated from the outside, whatever their compartmentalization, and either unified, constrained, or shut down entirely. And there are some initial steps to do that, and they should be encouraged. But to impose accountability you have to understand what they are and where they come from. We’re a step closer now, but only a step. There’s a lot more to be done.