Pincus article on military information activities is part literature review, part ignorance

Once again, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post writes about military information activities. Once again, the esteemed Pincus exposes his lack of knowledge and ability to really investigate and qualitatively report on military information activities. Just as Pincus criticizes the military for expanding into areas it lacks expertise in, the same can be said about Pincus, an internationally influential reporter at a major media outlet.

In a June 29, 2010, article titled “Fine Print: Contractors’ roles in psychological operations raise concerns,” Pincus links the recent debacle of the Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal with the use of contractors in information-related roles while unfairly mocking the Defense Department’s effort to address fundamental organizational, doctrinal, training, and resourcing challenges.

Pincus suggests if Duncan Boothby, the senior media advisory to McChrystal who setup and ran point on the month-long interview with freelancer Michael Hastings, had not been a contractor perhaps the Rolling Stone would not have had a “runaway” story. Conspiracy theories not withstanding, there is the matter that McChrystal and his staff are some of the smartest guys there are in information activities. There is also the question of the apparently absent, or overruled or ineffective, advice from the general’s public affairs officer – which Boothby was not.

Pincus suggestively conflates strategic communication, Psychological Operations (PSYOP), and public affairs, while oddly leaving out “Information Operations.” The failure to mention Information Operations is noteworthy, and a bit humorous, as this was the focus of his two poorly written, inaccurate, and highly influential articles last year on the Defense Department’s budget request for information activities last year. Perhaps Pincus still cannot differentiate between “IO”, as in “Information Operations”, and “10”, as in the number ten (see the correction at the top of this article and the lack of correction in this early article on the same subject with the same error. I use both of these articles as examples of the failure of the news media to fact check and correct errors in presentations, including the one I gave this week at the European Information Operations (not Ten) Conference, next week at the seminar I’m hosting, and in the graduate course on public diplomacy I teach, so I should actually thank Pincus, and The Washington Post’s correction policy, for readily giving me material.)

The realities of modernity and the realities of organizational structures and internal debates over, roles, responsibilities, capabilities, and capacities, are largely if not completely ignored by Pincus, despite being highly relevant. For example, Pincus states PSYOP is a “favorite of Special Operations Command” that “with the program’s new popularity… has spread within the Army.” The reality is PSYOP was an Army capability that former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld inadvertently crippled when he shifted some of the components to Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The result was the dividing of mission support, doctrinal development, budgets, training, and resourcing between the Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, which originally “owned” and provided PSYOP support, and SOCOM. Further, there was a division of capabilities within the force that established certain capabilities as coming from active duty military and other capabilities to come from reserve components, rather than a mix of both. Further, SOCOM is a not a geographic combatant command charged with covering a specific area of the world, as is the case with Central Command, Pacific Command, European Command, and the others.

The impact of these and other organizational and doctrinal and leadership issues within the Defense Department and across the executive and legislative branches are significant but far too deep for Pincus. The money the Pentagon receives for information activities are a symptom of the problem, they are not the problem itself, but addressing that is clearly too messy for this particular reporter.

It would benefit readers of The Washington Post greatly if past, current, and likely future articles by Walter Pincus on military information activities (and likely State Department communication and engagement activities as well) were properly and clearly labeled as opinion. He has shown a lack of depth, knowledge, and curiosity, and a possible willingness to reprint opinions of others without due attribution and research, all of which are fine for an op-ed but not for a factual and analytical news story.

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