Half-truths and hidden agendas in the bin Laden narrative

Brian Stewart on the White House plan to dominate the bin Laden story for its own strategic purpose.

When President Barack Obama gave the word to launch Operation Neptune Spear, the daring assault on Osama bin Laden's compound, there were actually two combined operations set in motion.

We've heard much about the first, the Navy SEALs' raid to eliminate bin Laden; almost nothing about the second.

The second was the use of what the White House and Pentagon call "Strategic Communications," a PR strategy to dominate the narrative of an event for broad political aims worldwide.

I'm not critical of the raid itself, which I believe was masterfully directed. But I do have concerns about the current trend toward what is being called the "operationalization of information."

As we saw when a number of false, or at best half-true, statements poured out of the White House in that first day of the bin Laden drama, we now must parse news statements from supposedly authoritative sources with ever greater care for hidden agendas.

Forget traditional government PR, this is a much more muscular doctrine to combine many pointed information flows into a very solid arm of U.S. policy.

President Barack Obama walks through to the Blue Room to deliver the news that the U.S. has killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

In the case of the bin Laden raid, the purpose was both to fix the view of the U.S. triumphant against terrorism as well as to simultaneously advance the image of a skulking and floundering bin Laden and al-Qaeda. 

Just recall how, in the first hours, we were told bin Laden was found in a lavish million-dollar compound; that he was reportedly defended furiously by guards for 40 minutes; that he hid behind women; and that he was shot while armed and seeming to resist.

Yet within 48 hours it turned out the compound was in fact a dreary concrete pile in a garbage-strewn field worth no more than $200,000 by local real estate estimates. The resistance amounted to only one or two shots fired by a courier, soon killed, as bin Laden's expected bodyguards were nowhere to be found.

Nor did he try to hide behind women, nor was he armed. In fact, he appeared to be retreating rather than resisting just as he was shot.

Very wobbly

The thing to keep in mind here is that none of these very wobbly — or very wrong — early details just slipped out. They first had to pass through a high-level committee headed by Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes.

The White House must have known these claims were questionable at the very least. But it was clearly prepared to take some hits to its credibility as long as it could get its preferred version of events out there first.

Given today's technology, the old line that "a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on" is more valid than ever.

In Washington's eyes, telling half-truths was preferable to being put on the defensive by al-Qaeda stories of, say, their heroic leader being killed while trying to defend women and children against U.S. monsters.

In the next phase of this strategy, material was put out to portray bin Laden as an "aging and isolated" figure who seemed to like watching himself on TV.

In fact bin Laden is only 54, barely four years older than Obama, and, it was later said, more in command of al-Qaeda than Western intelligence had thought.

We might want to hold onto that thought for a bit, too. In the "battle for hearts and minds," Strategic Communications never rests and is rarely above taking some liberties to sell its case.

Focus on the 'end game'

First developed by the Pentagon in the early stages of the Iraq war, Strategic Communications is one of the least understood command innovations of the post-9/11 years.

A Pakistani soldier keeps watch over a different 'white house,' the compound where Osama bin Laden had lived in Abbottabad for a number of years. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Yet it is a profoundly important one designed to shape a news story's narrative to fit U.S. policy objectives and to see traditional public relations as just part of a larger objective.

A mix of a number of disciplines — from public affairs to diplomacy, intelligence gathering, psychological warfare and propaganda — SC is meant to focus on "end game" or the total battle against a terrorist or insurgent foe.

It therefore demands that all relevant departments get on board with the current narrative.

This doctrine would have ensured that a select team of communicators was involved in the planning for the bin Laden raid over months, consulting on every detail from the president's speech to the first rushed news releases.

Every conceivable outcome from best- to worst-case scenarios would have been planned, with different strategies prepared for different outcomes, such as if bin Laden had not been found, or the SEALs had been beaten back.

We can be sure the decision about whether or not to show a dead bin Laden's picture was discussed well beforehand, as with the choice of the wide ocean as a burial site (likely viewed as a no-brainer by the president and generals alike).

Stinging Pakistan

Both the CIA and State Department are also part of the Strategic Communications effort and it would be worth knowing how much they influence the chorus of leaks about Pakistan's "incompetence or collusion" in the bin Laden affair.

It looks as if Washington is resorting here to global ridicule to sting the Pakistani leadership into purging its ISI intelligence service of its links with jihadist groups.

Pakistan leaders were clearly shaken by the U.S. onslaught, but, so far as we can tell, its intelligence priorities are still intact.

According to Comops, an online journal of academics and researchers that specifically analyzes Strategic Communications, other U.S. objectives were also being served through the narrative of bin Laden's death.

In his speech the president carefully kept focus on al-Qaeda and not the closely related war in Afghanistan, Comops analysts noted. This has increased speculation that the Obama administration wants to use this singular victory to start winding down its counter-insurgency war.

Strategic Communications does have its positive elements. For example, it has forced the U.S. to take a more sophisticated interest in those other cultures that it seeks to influence; it has also brought more points of view into top-level policy discussions.

However, the expanding clout of this new doctrine has to be watched closely.

As of last year, Pentagon spending to influence "global public opinion" was running at close to $5 billion annually — roughly a quarter of Canada's entire defence budget — while spending on "psychological operations" abroad, or propaganda, had doubled in just six years.

Already Strategic Communications has become a senior partner in policy making and we may be approaching the point where we ought to worry about the communications tail wagging the dog.

Words and slogans do carry meaning. Remember, once the U.S. decided to term its fight against al-Qaeda a "global war on terror," what followed were two very real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.