Photo from Lt. Col. Davis' unclassified report

The unclassified version of a report on the war in Afghanistan that has been garnering wide attention in the past week was finally published for public viewing last Friday. The report is by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a seventeen-year Army veteran who just returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. It asserts military leaders in Afghanistan have lost much of their integrity and have routinely distorted the truth of the war. It argues this deception has been an act of dereliction that has cost billions of dollars in American taxpayer money and also resulted in risks to tens of thousands of American military service members.

Rolling Stone has published a full copy of the unclassified version of the report, which is titled, “Dereliction of Duty II:Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort.” Michael Hastings, author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, describes the report as an “assessment” that shows “the war has been a disaster and the military’s top brass has not leveled with the American public about just how badly it’s been going.”

Many will see the report and find the firsthand accounts of what is really happening on the ground to be what is revelatory about the report. I happen to think the biggest story in the report is Davis’ indictment of the military’s use of “information operations” against Americans. As Hastings has commented, “Tremendous amounts of resources are spent to shape the Pentagon (and White House) narrative. And yet, the war has grown increasingly unpopular. In fact, whenever the U.S. public decides to pay attention to the war, the more unpopular it becomes.”

The success of the Iraq War depended on the military’s ability to “co-opt” the media. The perpetuation of war in Afghanistan and the reputation it has held in politics throughout the past decade as the “Good War” has depended on the military’s ability to influence the media.

In the report, Davis describes the genesis of “information operations” and how the military began to develop training for public affairs staff on how to work the media. He says it all really began with “‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf” and the first Iraq War. Schwarzkopf was seen as someone, who had handled the media well during Desert Storm. The military developed the concept of “information operations” into a “core competency” after Desert Storm. Manuals began to teach military members the “importance of dominating the information spectrum.” Military members were taught “information operations” were an arena of military operations on par “with air, ground, maritime and special operations.”

According to Davis, an “unclassified doctrinal manual” published in 2006 clarified the need for an “information focus.”

[Information operations (IO)] are described as the integrated employment of electronic warfare (EW),computer network operations (CNO), psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception(MILDEC), and operations security (OPSEC), in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.” The manual also stipulates that an IO cell chief is responsible for ensuring that “IO planners are fully integrated into the planning and targeting process, assigning them to the joint targeting coordination board in order to ensure full integration with all other planning and execution efforts.

Davis finds “military deception and psychological operations” have blended with “information operations.” This is why generals are telling Americans stories of what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan that do not match the reality.

Now, “information operations” rely on “message saturation.” Through “repetition” and “constancy,” the “target audience”—the American public—is convinced of whatever they are being told.

Davis cites an essay written recently by Brigadier General Ralph O. Baker. The essay, which was titled, “Information Operations: From Good to Great,” argued “managing information that affects the population’s attitudes and beliefs is a decisive element of successful counterinsurgency.” They must be “incorporated into ‘every facet of a unit’s daily framework.’” And, “military commanders must ensure their ‘intended messages are driven home repetitively to the target audience.’”  According to commanders, “the most common mistake committed by units when executing information operations is the failure to achieve sufficient repetitious deliver of messages to their intended audiences.  Repetition is a key tenet of IO execution, and the failure to constantly drive home a consistent message dilutes the impact on the target audiences.”

All military engaged in “information operations” have to do is “frame” what they are telling a “target audience” properly. If done consistently and repetitively, the understanding within the military is that it will not matter what the reality is on the ground. Public affairs staff can suppress negative information. This way, as Col. Richard B. Leap is quoted in the report, the military can “safeguard national will.”

Military generals are not necessarily “lying.” They do believe in much of what Edward Bernays once wrote about propaganda, that there isn’t anything particularly underhanded about trying to develop a public’s relationship to an enterprise. In fact, “propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.”

Less controversial is the conventional wisdom in the military that this must be done to control “foreign target audiences” too. Davis points out military ”efforts” to sway “Afghan public opinion with words has in fact been an utter failure.” They do not buy the propaganda that military generals are having public affairs staff spoon feed US media.

Davis does not stop with describing how generals are manipulating the public. He also highlights the negligence and subservience of US media, which has made it possible for the gap between what Americans think is happening and what is really happening to be so wide.

America has long been proud of its open and free press, and we not infrequently boast about it to other countries around the world.  The Society of Professional Journalists (which boasts thousands of members in the United States) has a code of ethics that requires its members follow.  Key elements of that code include, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.” If today’s journalists believed that and actually acted on it, we would almost certainly have a more honest and accountable group of senior leaders.  Based only on observed action, however, too few of today’s journalists live their code.

Davis condemns the media for putting access to senior military officials ahead of challenging power. He describes how easy it is for the military to take advantage of reporters:

If reporter A does not cover a story the way senior military leader B desires, reporter A suddenly finds his access to B greatly reduced – or in some cases outright eliminated – even if A works for a major outlet.  If reporter X shows he or she will routinely give the slant that is supportive of the IO outlined in the section above, military leader Z will not only find time for them, but will from time to time give them a scoop. Other times reporter Z will be invited to a VIP-level tour of certain locations on the battlefield, sometimes with a three-star general as an escort.

The military’s ability to manipulate the press is not limited to taking advantage of reporters in this manner. Whole entire networks can be manipulated simply by offering air time to “former general officers” to provide “expert commentary.” They have Pentagon “sock puppets” come on to repeat Defense Department talking points. Officers that stray from the script are no longer to have contracts to come on and give commentary on military affairs and operations.

It is not news that the reality on the ground does not match what is being told to the public on a regular basis. Through the Afghanistan War Logs, released by WikiLeaks in July 2010, it was revealed: a US-assassination squad in Afghanistan had operated with a “kill-and-capture list”; drones used by the US are prone to system failures, computer glitches and human error; Pakistan had been actively arming the Taliban even as the US worked to keep the country as an ally; the CIA had expanded its paramilitary operations; intelligence agents were awash in data they didn’t know what to do with (a conclusion that theWashington Post‘s “Top Secret America” digital journalism project probably demonstrates as well); killings of civilians by forces were going unreported; the US had covered up certain Taliban activity and Iran was likely aiding the Taliban.

The US State Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks showed: Afghan President Hamid Karzai had pushed NATO to end night raids; corruption, such as money smuggling out of Afghanistan and how charging “handling fees” to military allies to build up the Afghanistan army produced tension.

In total, the revelations showed “the true nature of war.” They also proved, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, “militaries keep information secret to prosecute their part of a war but also to hide abuse.”

Davis appears to understand this dynamic well and this understanding seems to have played a large role in pushing him to submit a classified report to Congress that details how he thinks military generals are intentionally misleading America on what is happening in the war. He seems to believe that if the press reported the truth during a war soldiers serving at the lowest levels would be protected because military officers would not be able to engage in deception that put their lives at risk. There might not be such a loss of blood among Afghanis and US soldiers. So many US taxpayer dollars would not have been wasted.

The past decade of war would not have been possible if the military was not permitted to engage in gross media manipulation. Davis’ danger to the Pentagon is not simply that he names generals who have been deceptive including star general David Petraeus, now the head of the CIA. He is dangerous to the Pentagon because if his critique of the war in Afghanistan gained enough traction he would be significantly inhibiting the Defense Department’s ability to manufacture and perpetuate war. The ability to win support for future adventures that depend on the doctrine of counterinsurgency would be much more impossible.

This is why Davis said he could get “nuked” for releasing the report. He understands he is challenging how the military thinks it must handle public reports on war efforts. He should be invited to testify before Congress and inform them of how they have been used by military generals to perpetuate the war. But, the reality is his report is likely to be ignored and he may be the next victim in the Obama Administration’s war on whistleblowing.