GAO: Military propaganda efforts flawed

By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: May 24, 2013

Washington —  Pentagon propaganda programs are inadequately tracked, their impact is unclear, and the military doesn't know whether it is targeting the right foreign audiences, according to a government report obtained by USA TODAY.

Since 2005, the Pentagon has spent hundreds of million of dollars on Military Information Support Operations (MISO). These propaganda efforts include websites, leaflets and broadcasts intended to change foreigners' "attitudes and behaviors in support of U.S. Government" objectives, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office. Some of them disclose the U.S. military as the source; others don't.

The Pentagon's response noted that it partly concurred with the GAO criticism. Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday the military is revising its tracking requirements for propaganda programs, has a pilot program to assess their effectiveness and will soon publish revised guidelines that emphasize better planning.

The report offers a rare glimpse inside the cloaked world of military propaganda, much of which is held secret by the Pentagon. It shows the effort extends from Southeast Asia to South America, with special operations troops deployed to embassies to "erode support for violent extremist ideologies."

The stakes are high. Used effectively, the programs can dampen extremism and increase support for U.S. military operations. However, "if used ineffectively, MISO activities have the potential to undermine the credibility of the United States and threaten (Pentagon) and other agencies' efforts to accomplish key foreign policy goals," the report says.

While the report says some of the military's propaganda teams have succeeded in the 22 countries, "it is unclear whether MISO activities are effective overall."

"Once again we are seeing a misguided spending approach by the government," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the non-partisan watchdog the Project on Government Oversight.

Military propaganda and marketing efforts have been the focus of a series of USA TODAY stories. In 2012, the newspaper found that the Pentagon had spent as much as $580 million per year on propaganda programs at the height of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but had trouble gauging their effectiveness. It spent $54 million last year, according to the GAO. The GAO refused USA TODAY's request for the report, which was obtained from another government source.

The GAO found three "weaknesses" in the Pentagon's tracking of its propaganda programs:

  • The Pentagon and Congress "do not have a complete picture" of the efforts and the funding used to pay for the programs.
  • The Pentagon can't measure the effects of propaganda programs well enough to know where to allocate funding.
  • Lacking goals, the Pentagon does not have "reasonable assurance" that it is putting resources into countries that need it.

Gregory noted that the Pentagon already provides Congress with substantial data on its MISO programs every three months.

The Pentagon "submits an exhaustive report of all MISO activities to key congressional staffers," Gregory said.

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