CNN got nervous when reports in European publications (Amsterdam's Trouw, 2/21/00, 2/25/00; Intelligence Newsletter, 2/17/00) revealed that PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) specialists from the U.S. Army had worked as interns at the cable network's Atlanta news headquarters. The program was terminated after its existence was revealed in Trouw, and network president Eason Jordan appeared on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! (3/24/00) to play down its significance. But it was only after hundreds of media activists, responding to a March 27 FAIR action alert, wrote to CNN asking for an explanation that the media giant issued a formal statement acknowledging that the intern program had been "inappropriate."
CNN might have hoped the story would fade away quickly; at first, only Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn was pursuing it in mainstream U.S. media (San Jose Mercuury News, 3/23/00). But following FAIR's action alert, the story got a wider airing—finding its way into TV Guide (4/15/00), the Washington Post (4/10/00) and the London Guardian (4/12/00). TV Guide columnist J. Max Robins' reporting added new details to the story, revealing that National Public Radio had also hosted PSYOPS personnel, and finding indications that, contrary to their assertions, top CNN management may have known about the program all along. At that point, NPR aired a story too (4/10/00), reporting on the PSYOPS internships at both news outlets.
Most of the coverage of the PSYOPS story seemed to accept CNN and NPR's explanation that the interns worked only on routine administrative tasks and could not have influenced news coverage. News stories also described Army PSYOPS in relatively benign terms, depicting a unit engaged in little more than dropping leaflets over "enemy territory." But, as FAIR pointed out, neither PSYOPS nor the CNN/NPR internships are so innocuous.
PSYOPS is a division of the U.S. Army mandated to "develop and disseminate propaganda designed to lower the morale" of "enemy forces," and to "build support among the civil population" in other countries for U.S. objectives (U.S. Army Field Manual No. 100-15). Officially, PSYOPS is forbidden from operating in the U.S. and "is generally not employed against allied or friendly civilians or military." But its illegal domestic operations were exposed during the Iran-Contra scandal, when the public learned of the National Security Council's Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which was tasked with manipulating U.S. media coverage of the Reagan administration's Central America policies.
The OPD was staffed by officers from the 4th Army PSYOPS Group at Ft. Bragg—the same unit that later produced CNN and NPR's interns. Trained in "persuasive communications," the officers prepared "studies, papers, speeches and memoranda" supporting U.S. policy (Miami Herald, 11/20/85). The goal was to turn Nicaragua's Sandinista government "into a real enemy and threat in the minds of the American people, thereby eroding their resistance to U.S. support for the Contras and, perhaps, to a future U.S. military intervention in the region." In several cases, articles and television stories were planted directly in U.S. media outlets, including NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.
Described by a senior U.S. official as a "vast psychological warfare operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in enemy territory" (Miami Herald, 7/19/87), the OPD was shut down following an investigation by Congress's General Accounting Office that concluded that the propaganda agency was engaged in "prohibited, covert activities."
Comments made at a recent closed-door PSYOPS conference suggest that the military may still be violating, or at least stretching, laws forbidding domestic propaganda. Col. Christopher St. John, current commander of the 4th PSYOPS Group, "called for greater cooperation between the armed forces and media giants" in order to influence news coverage, according to Intelligence Newsletter (2/17/00). He also told the gathering that his CNN interns had "helped in the production of some news stories for the network."
Rear Adm. Thomas Steffens of the military's Special Operations Command —to which PSYOPS belongs—called for "feeding disinformation to the media," according to the newsletter's account, as well as for finding ways to "gain control over the Internet and commercial satellites." Disturbingly, two of the PSYOPS interns worked at CNN's satellite department.
An unofficial strategy paper published by the U.S. Naval War College in 1996 and written by an Army officer ("Military Operations in the CNN World: Using the Media as a Force Multiplier") urged military commanders to find ways to "leverage the vast resources of the fourth estate" for the purposes of "communicating the [mission's] objective and endstate, boosting friendly morale, executing more effective psychological operations, playing a major role in deception of the enemy, and enhancing intelligence collection."
What makes the CNN story especially troubling is the fact that the network allowed the Army's covert propagandists to work in its headquarters, where they learned the ins and outs of CNN's operations. Even if the PSYOPS officers working in the newsroom did not influence news reporting, did the network allow the military to conduct an intelligence-gathering mission against CNN itself?