Not long after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched what it called the Office of Strategic Influence, which would seek to “counter the enemy’s perception management” in the so-called war on terror. But it quickly became clear that the office, operating under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, would be managing those perceptions with its own disinformation.
As the New York Times reported at the time, its work was to “provide news items, possibly including false ones, to foreign journalists in an effort to influence overseas opinion.” In the nascent Internet age, observers worried the propaganda could boomerang back on Americans.
“The question is whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official program that uses disinformation to shape perceptions abroad,” the Times reported in 2004. “But in a modern world wired by satellite television and the Internet, any misleading information and falsehoods could easily be repeated by American news outlets.”
Now, two decades later, “perception management” is once again becoming a central focus for the national security state. On March 1, 2022, the Pentagon established a new office with similar goals to the one once deemed too controversial to remain open. Very little has been made public about the effort, which The Intercept learned about through a review of budget documents and an internal memo we obtained. This iteration is called the Influence and Perception Management Office, or IPMO, according to the memo, which was produced by the office for an academic institution, and its responsibilities include overseeing and coordinating the various counter-disinformation efforts being conducted by the military, which can include the U.S.’s own propaganda abroad.
The memo contains a hypothetical exercise shedding light on the kind of work the IPMO does for the Pentagon:
Let’s say DoD wants to influence Country A’s leaders to stop purchasing a weapon system from Country B (because we believe the continued purchasing might jeopardize DoD’s military advantage, in some way, if the U.S. ever had to engage in armed conflict with Country A.) Assuming the IPMO has worked to establish the desired behavior change, how might key influencers be identified that have sway over these leaders’ thought processes, beliefs, motives, reasoning, etc. (including ascertaining their typical modes and methods of communication)? Thereafter, assuming an influence strategy is developed, how might the DIE or IC determine if DoD’s influence activities are working (aside from waiting and watching hopefully that Country A eventually stops purchasing the weapons system in question from Country B)?
The memo is signed by the IPMO’s acting director, James Holly. Holly previously served as director of special programs for U.S. Special Operations Command. He has an extensive intelligence background, having served as intelligence chief for an unnamed paramilitary in Iraq, according to publicly available biographies.
The Pentagon never publicly announced the office, which has not been reported on in any detail, but it was described in a budget document last year as a response to the shifting geopolitical environment away from counterterrorism and back toward great power competition, of the kind seen in the Cold War. Though the budget does not identify the office’s funding, procurement records suggest that it numbers in the multimillions.
The IPMO would “employ a broad scope of operational capabilities to address the current strategic environment of great power competition,” it states. “It will develop broad thematic influence guidance focused on key adversaries; promulgate competitive influence strategies focused on specific defense issues, which direct subordinate planning efforts for the conduct of influence-related activities; and fill existing gaps in policy, oversight, governance, and integration related to influence and perception management matters.”
Also established in 2022, according to the budget document, was the Defense Military Deception Program Office, tasked with “Sensitive Messaging, Deception, Influence and other Operations in the Information Environment.”
While perception management involves denying, or blocking, propaganda, it can also entail advancing the U.S.’s own narrative. The Defense Department defines perception management in its official dictionary as “[a]ctions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.” This is the part that has, historically, tended to raise the public’s skepticism of the Pentagon’s work.
The term “perception management” hearkens back to the Reagan administration’s attempts to shape the narrative around the Contras in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration sought to kick what his Vice President George H.W. Bush would later call the “Vietnam syndrome,” which it believed was driving American public opposition to support for the Contras. Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, directed the agency’s leading propaganda specialist to oversee an interagency effort to portray the Contras — who had been implicated in grisly atrocities — as noble freedom fighters.
“An elaborate system of inter-agency committees was eventually formed and charged with the task of working closely with private groups and individuals involved in fundraising, lobbying campaigns and propagandistic activities aimed at influencing public opinion and governmental action,” an unpublished draft chapter of Congress’s investigation into Iran-Contra states. (Democrats dropped the chapter in order to get several Republicans to sign the report.)
The Smith-Mundt Act, passed in 1948 in the wake of the Second World War, prohibits the the State Department from disseminating “public diplomacy” — i.e., propaganda — domestically, instead requiring that those materials be targeted at foreign audiences. The Defense Department considered itself bound by this requirement as well.
After the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon triggered backlash after U.S. propaganda was disseminated in the U.S. In 2004, the military signaled that it had begun its siege on Fallujah. Just hours later, CNN discovered that this was not true.
But in 2012, the law was amended to allow propaganda to be circulated domestically, under the bipartisan Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, introduced by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, which was later rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act.
“Proponents of amending these two sections argue that the ban on domestic dissemination of public diplomacy information is impractical given the global reach of modern communications, especially the Internet, and that it unnecessarily prevents valid U.S. government communications with foreign publics due to U.S. officials’ fear of violating the ban,” a congressional research service report said at the time of the proposed amendments. “Critics of lifting the ban state that it may open the door to more aggressive U.S. government activities to persuade U.S. citizens to support government policies, and might also divert the focus of State Department and the BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors] communications from foreign publics, reducing their effectiveness.”
The Obama administration subsequently approved a highly classified covert action finding designed to counter foreign malign influence activities, a finding renewed and updated by the Biden administration, as The Intercept has reported.
The IPMO memo produced for the academic institution hints at its role in such propagandistic efforts now. “Among other things, the IPMO is tasked with the development of broad thematic messaging guidance and specific strategies for the execution of DoD activities designed to influence foreign defense-related decision-makers to behave in a manner beneficial to U.S. interests,” the memo states.
As the global war on terror draws to a close, the Pentagon has turned its attention to so-called great power adversaries like Russia and China. Following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, which in part involved state-backed efforts to disseminate falsehoods on social media, offices tasked with combating disinformation started springing up all over the U.S. government, as The Intercept has reported.
The director of national intelligence last year established a new center to oversee all the various efforts, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force and the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.
The Pentagon’s IPMO differs from the others in one key respect: secrecy. Whereas most of the Department of Homeland Security’s counter-disinformation efforts are unclassified in nature — as one former DHS contractor not authorized to speak publicly explained to The Intercept — the IPMO involves a great deal of highly classified work.
That the office’s work goes beyond simple messaging into the rarefied world of intelligence is clear from its location within the Pentagon hierarchy. “The Influence and Perception Management Office will serve as the senior advisor to the USD(I&S) [Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security] for strategic operational influence and perception management (reveal and conceal) matters,” the budget notes.
When asked about the intelligence community’s counter-disinformation efforts, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress this month, “I think DIA’s perspective on this, senator, is really speed: We want to be able to detect that and it’s really with our open-source collection capability working with our combatant command partners where this is happening all over the world — and then the ability to turn something quickly with them, under the right authorities, to counter that disinformation, misinformation.”
The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Correction: May 19, 2023
Holly was previously director of special programs for U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, not the director of Special Operations Command.