BOB GARFIELD:[ We're back with On the Media. I'm ... Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In his press conference on Thursday President Bush talked about getting his message out to the people of Afghanistan and the world.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am, I am, I am, like most Americans-- I just can't believe it -- because I know how good we are! And we gotta do a better job of making our case!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One way the president will make his case is through radio signals emanating from planes making slow figure 8's high above Afghanistan. It's part of the Psychological Operation or PSY-Ops efforts of the U.S. military.
BOB GARFIELD:Joining us now is Retired Major General Robert Harris, the former commander of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. General Harris, thanks for joining us!
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: Well thank you very much! I'm glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: During Desert Storm you ran Psychological Operations with the 193rd Special Operations Wing. Can you explain what you did during the Gulf War?
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: Well during the Gulf War, the 193rd was tasked to broadcast messages to the Iraqis. From time to time they would broadcast the fact that the B-52s were coming at such and such a time and now was the time to come out of their bunkers and surrender.
BOB GARFIELD:It wasn't propaganda per se; it wasn't a political message. It was: if you know what's good for you, you'll surrender and you might not die.
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: Basically that's correct, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: In Afghanistan I gather that the operation is a little broader than not just run for your lives.
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: I would imagine that the message is similar in that they want to save lives and they want to make sure that the Afghans know that we're friends. They have probably been given single channel radio sets -- small hand-held things -- and so when they turn it on they only get that particular channel. That was our task in Thailand when I was there in 1970 with the unit.
BOB GARFIELD: So no one in the 193rd necessarily can speak these languages that it's broadcasting to the populace below.
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: That's right. We have no linguists at all. We get the linguists from-- Department of Defense.
BOB GARFIELD: So you, you could be playing the wrong tape --you know you could be playing Drive Time Islamabad-- [LAUGHTER] and-- [LAUGHS] and not know it till it's too late.
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.:Yeah, we, we play what's given to in the order it's given, and they're marked, and if they're mismarked, then of course [LAUGHS] we are in trouble playing music or something, but that's-- unlikely.
BOB GARFIELD: Well General Harris, thank you very much for joining us!
GENERAL ROBERT HARRIS, RET.: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Retired Major General Robert Harris is the former commander of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. As for putting the tapes in the right order, and more importantly making them convincing, Jamie Metzel once held that job. During the Clinton administration Mr. Metzel worked both for the State Department and the National Security Team in the White House and spearheaded the president's initiative on international public information where he counted PSY-Ops among his duties. Jamie, welcome to On the Media!
JAMIE METZEL: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: How do you penetrate the suspicion, the anger, the distrust and the hatred with any kind of political message without just being dismissed out of hand.
JAMIE METZEL: Certainly there's a lot of distrust and there's a lot-- and, and ev-- there even could be hatred, but also from the people who I've spoken with and the contacts that I have there also seems to be a lot of hope! Nobody is as much a victim of the - of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban than the people of Afghanistan who are, are living in rubble! In any population -- I mean in a political campaign in the United States - a political candidate will separate out the various target populations. There are the people who are definitely going to vote for you, the people who are definitely going to vote against you, and the people in the middle who are what we call in, in politics "persuadables."
BOB GARFIELD: So you're broadcasting to the swing voters, basically.
JAMIE METZEL:To the sw-- broadcasting to the swing voters -- but there are a lot of, of swing voters in Afghanistan because it wasn't so long ago that Afghanistan was a, was a country that was a, a normal country like any other!
BOB GARFIELD: Now during the Gulf War there was a character named Baghdad Betty who--
JAMIE METZEL: Mm-hm.
BOB GARFIELD:-- was on the air trying to persuade U.S. forces to desert -- with zero success -- and, and during World War II of course Tokyo Rose was famously ineffective, actually.
JAMIE METZEL: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Why does it seem like PSY-Ops work so well for American causes but are so grossly ineffective against Americans?
JAMIE METZEL: First let me, let me tell you a funny story about Baghdad Betty. During the Gulf War, Baghdad Betty was r-- telling the, the troops that while you're here fighting Iraq and Kuwait your wives are back in America having affairs with Tom Selleck, Tom Cruise and Bart Simpson, [LAUGHS] and [LAUGHTER] now-- but what this underlines is the enormous amount of cultural sensitivity that's required to do psychological operations effectively.
You really need to understand your targets, because even language is so sensitive, and getting the, the angle right and getting the words right so that people hear a message and it resonates -- because when you hear something that your, your wife is home sleeping with Bart Simpson, you turn off and you think that this is, is ridiculous, and all you need to do is hear that once and a news source is discredited.
So I would -- I don't think it's that American troops aren't susceptible to, to manipulation by - through media efforts by foreign governments, but it, it requires a l--extremely high level of cultural awareness and sensitivity.
BOB GARFIELD:So how do we know what they'll buy and what they won't buy? How do we keep our finger on the pulse of what will appeal to these various constituencies within Afghanistan?
JAMIE METZEL: We need to-- keep our ear - our ear to the ground! We need to, you know, be talking to the refugees. We need to be monitoring the information that's coming out of Af--of Afghanistan. It requires a lot of testing and a lot of give and take.
BOB GARFIELD: So it's just not unlike putting together an advertising campaign or a PR campaign?
JAMIE METZEL:It requires the same skills. It has many of the same pitfalls, and just as we're coordinating our activities in the military campaign, we need to, to coordinate and have the same level of focus and the same level of precision in the information campaign.
BOB GARFIELD: Jamie Metzel, thank you very much!
JAMIE METZEL: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Jamie Metzel served in the State Department and on the National Security staff in the Clinton administration where he coordinated PSY-Ops efforts.