Psychological Warfare: Principles for Global Competition
By MAJ Robert Coombs
Principles of PSYOP
We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war, by a tendency to view war as a sort of sporting contest outside of all political context by a national tendency to see a political cure-all, and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations – the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.
- George Kennan, The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare, 1948
NSC 4, 1947, identified the United States “is not now employing strong, coordinated information measures to counter this [Russian] propaganda campaign or to further the attainment of its national objectives.” The United States once again finds itself in the same predicament following the Second World War; we are in a global competition with revisionist states that seek to exert power through non-military capabilities. Captain Charles Smith stated in 1952, “Modern warfare has become total; it involves not only the man who fires the gun but every man and woman who can help build the gun or who can help make the man want to fire the gun… Therefore, military strategy must not only deal with overcoming the physical ability of the enemy to resist, it must also deal with the minds – to destroy the morale – of the whole population in order that military victory is made with the least cost to us in men, money and materials.” The United States is realigning our military obligations once again, developing a scenario reminiscent of the 1950s when physical force was insufficient to achieve national strategic goals. This environment is ripe for the renaissance of psychological warfare, where soft power and influence through is the coin of the realm. To operate in an environment where influence takes primacy over physical prowess, we must understand the principles of psychological warfare that make up this environment.
This analysis of the principles of psychological warfare is rooted in a study of history and modern approaches to the craft. It incorporates various concepts of psychological warfare and common threads that make-up successful military and political warfare, in order to universalize a set of principles for military leaders to incorporate into operations. Prima facie these principles are rather obvious to military planners, but violated during execution to the detriment of US national strategy. The principles argued here are simple and work regardless of the operational environment or technological improvements. They are: psychological warfare is the first activity in conflict; psychological warfare is continuous and active; psychological warfare produces effects in the “real” world; the target audience will always dictate time; everything is a psychological warfare tool; psychological warfare occurs at every echelon; and psychological warfare is unrestricted. Psychological warfare plays a key role in competition, and when analyzed within the framework of Clausewitz’s three criteria for success, namely, the enemy’s physical losses, his loss of moral power, and the enemy’s open avowal of defeat and relinquishment of his intentions.
John Foster Dulles commented in 1955 during his “Address on Peace” that, “Divisions of land and water, of desert and mountain range, of river and plain have lost much of their significance.” He depicts a dilemma where maps and populations are no longer contiguous, leading to new competitions in international politics. We have now entered a new phase of the digitally interconnected world where physical topography has given way to a digital topography. In this landscape, the effects of psychological warfare achieve greater prominence due to the speed of communication and the ease of connecting networks of populations like never before. Yet, while the environmental conditions for warfare appear to be changing, the principles of psychological warfare are not. The goal of all operations, regardless of the topography in which we find ourselves, remains constant to Clausewitz’s three requirements for success listed above. These principles direct the state’s energy against the moral and physical power of the enemy force; but more importantly, it works to force the enemy to abdicate their intentions and acknowledge their relative position in the global environment.
Before analyzing the principles of psychological warfare, we must acquaint ourselves with a proper lexicon for psychological warfare. Over the years, the military has changed and obfuscated the terminology of psychological warfare to appeal to a greater audience. Paul Linebarger, one of the foremost theoreticians on psychological warfare in the United States, stated, “When ‘Psychological Warfare’ in its turn became disreputable, ‘information services’ took its place. If ‘information services’ get to be recognized for the propaganda which they are, I have no doubt that some careful and pious scholar or official will find an even prettier label to apply to the same old activity.” As the warning entailed, we have now ended up with the term Military Information Support Operations (MISO) as some strange overarching name to classify the multitude of activities modern psychological operations, or PSYOP, soldiers find themselves conducting. MISO activities now include everything from cyber warfare, deception, and social manipulation, to kinetic actions for psychological effect. This MISO terminology supports two false narratives, first that it is merely informational, and secondly that it is just a support activity. However, it did achieve the government’s official goal under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates trying to change the concept of an ancient governmental activity into something more palatable and benign. Thus, as part of the goal of understanding the principles of psychological warfare, this work posits the following terms associated with this activity in which modern psychological warfare practitioners operate.
Figure 1: Echelons of Political and Psychological Warfare
Political Warfare: The use of political means to compel an opponent to do one’s will, political being understood to describe purposeful intercourse between peoples and governments affecting national survival. Political war may be combined with violence, economic pressure, subversion, and diplomacy, but its chief aspect is the use of words, images, and ideas, commonly known, according to context, as propaganda and psychological warfare.
Psychological Warfare: Psychological warfare is the use of operations, actions, and activities with the primary goal of targeting, influencing, and changing the behavior and attitudes of a foreign adversary in an area of declared or potential hostility. Psychological warfare encompasses the use of information, cyber, military, intelligence, and economic components of political warfare. Psychological warfare is a component of political warfare and an interagency activity. Its military component is typically comprised of psychological operations, psychological harassment, and military information support operations.
Psychological Operations: The military application, at the operational and tactical level, of psychological warfare in support of operations in a declared or anticipated area of hostilities under a military command.
Psychological Harassment (PSYHAR): PSYHAR are activities conducted to create time and space for a maneuver elements to operate. These activities obfuscate US intentions while creating confusion in a variety of target audiences. PSYHAR does not focus on a behavioral outcome. PSYHAR requires the analysis of measures of performance and measures of effects. The US Military conducted PSYHAR during the Vietnam War to facilitate offensive operations by disrupting enemy’s ability to organize and focus, while allowing for offensive maneuver.
Civil Authority Information Support: MISO forces execute the CAIS mission as part of defense support of civil authorities (DSCA) when DOD information dissemination capabilities are requested by a lead Federal agency in support of relief operations in the wake of natural and man-made disasters within the geographical area of the United States territories.
Interagency-Intergovernmental Support Operations (ISSO): MISO forces conduct the ISSO mission to support interagency and intergovernmental operations and activities. Interagency-intergovernmental support shapes and influences foreign decision-making and behaviors in support of U.S. regional objectives, policies, interests, theater military plans, and contingencies. Interagency-intergovernmental support is a special operations MISO forces’ mission that leverages their regional and language expertise, planning capability, and media knowledge and capabilities.
Military Deception: PSYOP forces conduct military deception actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary military, paramilitary, or violent extremist organization (VEO) decision makers, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission.
These definitions of political and psychological warfare inform a pragmatic and historical understanding of the profession. Unfortunately, as Mr. Linebarger has astutely mentioned, in an attempt to find a prettier label, we have at times diminished the capability of the psychological warfare craft. With a wider understanding of political warfare and psychological warfare, we can now analyze and reconsider our psychological warfare principles. The challenge for psychological warfare is to resist defining the craft into a “palatable” lexicon that inherently limits both the scope and functionality of the craft.
Psychological Warfare is the FIRST activity in conflict
William Donovan wrote President Roosevelt in 1942 to clarify the use of psychological operations, stating “the use of propaganda [psychological warfare] is the arrow of initial penetration in coordinating and preparing the people and the territory in which invasion is contemplated. It is the first step [Italics added]—then Fifth Column work, then militarized raiders (or "Commandos") and then divisions.” He understood that entering any conflict without proper preparation of the environment is generally rendered ineffective. Even Machiavelli wrote, “However strong your armed forces are, in entering a new province you will need the goodwill of the people of the place.” Both strategists understood the concept of psychologically preparing a target for follow-on activities. In a martial organization, we typically view preparation of the environment as a kinetic activity. However, the history of warfare demonstrates with regularity that preparation is a wholly psychological activity. Clausewitz suggests in his example that “moral force has been the chief cause of the decision; after that was given, the loss continued to increase until it reached its culminating point at the close of the whole act.”
Jomini called operations predicated on psychological warfare as “wars of opinion,” or wars focused on ideology and influence. He suggested that a force must first “make a display of a mass of troops proportioned to the obstacles and resistance likely to be encountered, calm the popular passions in every possible way, exhaust them by time and patience, display courtesy, gentleness and severity united, and particularly, deal justly.” Donovan, Jomini, and Clausewitz all acknowledged the importance of psychologically preparing the environment prior to the kinetic phase of an operation.
China and Russia effectively engage this principle to their advantage in the modern era. Russia demonstrated extensive psychological preparation prior to the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea. These activities included lengthy influence campaigns and detailed activities to illustrate to the international community a casus belli for military action. Only following in-depth psychological preparations of the battlefield did Russia initiate kinetic activities. Russia followed a defeat-in-detail approach by instituting overwhelming psychological warfare attacks sequenced against weakened population sets. Only after Russia achieved relative superiority on this battlefield did they begin movement of physical troops. China currently uses psychological preparation of the international community to accept: territorial claims in the South China Sea, their treatment of the Uighurs, and economic expansion through the One Belt, One Road initiative. The common thread through all of these activities is that preparation of the battlefield, physical or informational, is first initiated through psychological warfare.
Psychological Warfare is continuous and active
Psychological warfare requires constant, continuous, and active engagement. Holding the preponderance of our military-based influence professionals to the current train, man, and equip cycle hinders national security objectives. The current model for application of psychological operations is akin to a normal line unit like an infantry or Special Forces company and, as such, is antiquated. We must treat psychological warfare professionals more akin to a professional model of an emergency room doctor. We do not keep the doctor in training for months just to perform one surgery. The doctor is continually performing and perfecting their technique in the crucible of the emergency room. Removing psychological warfare personnel and activities from competition for any period of time is a risk to the environment and capabilities of a state.
Conflict in the information age is continuous across time and the digital environment and requires daily engagement to compete. Influence competition is significantly different from martial activities that tend to take a hiatus between wars and conflicts. It is infeasible to keep a Special Forces detachment or infantry platoon in a perpetual state of combat. But, we must always maintain contact in the information environment. This battlefield does not allow for culmination or a Fabian style defense. Hans Spier states, “If the policy is reactive, propaganda is likely to be an uninspired news service, because it lacks any relation to policy objectives.” Reactive operations are inherently not continuous and tend to be discounted prior to dissemination of any message. The media industry coined the term, “if it bleeds, it leads,” reflecting the fact that directive narratives and tropes are more powerful and effective then reactive measures to an adversary’s influence activities. This requires flexible, proactive, and continual planning. The United States executed this principle during the Cold War through the use of the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA perpetuated continual communications with a competitors’ population centers. With the deactivation of the USIA in 1999, the U.S. ceded consistent contact with populations to our state and non-state competitors and thus find its communication strategy subject to the whims of a competitive information environment.
Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui state in Unrestricted War that, “with information technology welding the entire world together in a network, the number of factors involved in a war is much, much greater than in past wars… loss of control over any one link can be like the proverbial loss of a horseshoe nail which led to the loss of an entire war.” A relative loss of influence due to a viral Facebook message or Twitter message can translate to a significant strategic gain or loss. To manage these relative gains and losses, influence competition must be continuous. China exercises this principle directly through the use of the 50-Cent Army, which produces over 448 million products a year for social influence. Russia, much like China, uses the Global Research Unit (GRU) to maintain continuous social influence in areas surrounding the Black Sea. Russia uses the strategy of Maskirovka, or “a little masquerade,” to spin continuous narratives, obscuring the state’s strategic aims. Russian strategy is to conduct nonstop influence campaigns targeting fissures in the U.S.’s inability to keep pace in the information environment.
Psychological Warfare produces effects in the “real” world
The United States military is infatuated with the advent of cyber warfare and social media activities. These platforms and emerging domains provide faster access to target audiences and increased capabilities for nations and non-nation state actors to bypass state defenses. Inasmuch as these domains are novel and vogue in a military context, they also must be placed in the correct frame of reference. Regardless of how many social media posts and e-mails are delivered to a target audience, if they do not provide a tangible and measurable result, then our goal has not been accomplished. Disseminating television and radio commercials, or just memes, is merely dissemination of information, not the effective goal of psychological warfare. Only when psychological warfare produces “real world” effects does it transition into a weapon of strategy. It is in the realm of effects-based results that psychological warfare exists. Like daily e-mails from the Nigerian Prince promising riches, it has no effect unless the individual participates in the scheme. This is the same of psychological operations; effective influence campaigns require not only participation, but also calculable, effects-based outcomes.
Hans Speier, the German-American sociologist, argues that a change in attitudes and private opinions amounts to little if that change fails to result in “deviant, politically relevant behavior.” Encouraging the Afghan population to destroy and cease growing poppy and marijuana is meaningless if the political goal of a stable Afghanistan is unmet due to the population unable feed themselves. All this approach has achieved is almost twenty years of Afghans ignoring America’s central argument and a resulting increase in drug production.
The target audience dictates TIME in psychological warfare
One common phrase uttered by psychological warfare professionals is “behavior change takes time.” PSYOP soldiers often utter this phrase in consternation to commanders who are attempting achieving results in the real world. This phrase does nothing to help convince leaders of psychological warfare efficacy. Why should a commander care about the psychological aspect of conflict if their force redeploys before effects are measured? The current paradigm is ineffective and misleading. The target audience is the force that dictates or reflects behavioral decisions and effects, not the arbitrary timeframe of the psychological warfare campaign. Psychological warfare personnel must account for the pace of the target audience’s behavioral change in their planning process. By understanding the timeframe constraining a behavior, we introduce plans capable of creating psychological effects that are temporally acceptable to a decision maker.
Behavior change in a target audience results from a mixture of prospect theory and time discounting. Prospect theory describes how a target audience understands their ability to make decisions based on credible outcomes and risk. Time discounting defines an audience’s preference to a current value over a perceived greater future outcome. Members of a target audience must analyze their ability to act in an environment in order to determine the risk of taking a new behavior. Any behavior that currently satisfices, or is sufficient enough to meet the desire of the individual, will be preferable to a behavior that might improve their situation in the future. Thus, a psychological operation is predicated on a matrix of factors that take into account the manipulation of an individual’s desired outcomes, the risk that the target audience will continue its current behavior, and the risk of the target audience not engaging in the desired behavior over a specific time period. Psychological operations are designed to change a behavior; it is always ultimately a sparring match between adjusting the behavioral economics of the target audience and achieving results within the available time allotted to a psychological activity.
Psychological warfare is the tool used to manipulate the behavior of a target audience within an acceptable timeframe. As the theories of bounded rationality and satisficing suggest, it is always up to the target audience to decide how much pressure is enough to force a behavioral change. In some cases, it may be as simple as removing environmental limitations. In other cases, it involves adding limitations in the environment until the audience is uncomfortable with taking any other behavior than that of the desired one. It is up to the psychological warfare expert to understand the target audience’s timeframe for behavioral change and how best to manipulate this for operational effectiveness, or if it can be done within the limitations of the military planning cycle.
Everything is a Tool in Psychological Warfare
Linebarger suggests there is a difference between psychological warfare and warfare psychologically waged. In the former, political considerations are the driving construct, with psychological warfare achieving the political goals. In the latter, all warfare is targeting a psychological objective with effects directed at breaking the will and desire of the opponent to continue fighting. In both cases, all tools of the state’s disposal are a weapon for the psychological fight. Michael Schaad suggests in his thesis “More Effective Warfare: Warfare Waged Psychologically,” that warfare primarily waged in the psychological field, with kinetic actions as the supporting effort, leads to “hastening a conflict to termination,” greater credibility afforded to the warfare narrative, and greater ease in achieving political outcomes. To conduct psychological warfare or warfare psychologically waged requires the use of all tools in the state’s arsenal.
The CIA’s 1954 overthrow of the Arbenez regime in Guatemala during PBSSUCCES demonstrates the successful manipulation of all the tools of the state to achieve mission success. Starting with PBFORTUNE, the CIA injected weapons and money into Guatemala to increase the perception of a resistance movement. Relying on approximately 480 Soldiers, the US overemphasized the capability and size of the resistance movement. Planners developed leaflets and other physical propaganda to support the campaign objectives. The Navy conducted a blockade of Guatemala to limit trade, causing strain on the economy, and ultimately a psychological effect. Fake bombs and death threats to communists, to include the sending of wooden coffins and nooses to political leaders, isolated members of the Arbenez government. Radio transmission from the Voice of Liberation supported the growing insurgency in Guatemala. Small planes dropped low yield explosives to scare leaders in the capitol of a pending invasion force. Although the Arbenez government was well prepared to defeat the insurgent force, the psychologically waged warfare turned the population against the government, strained Arbenez’s resources, destroyed the will of the military force, and eventually forced his resignation and asylum in Mexico.
Psychological warfare elements must expand the use and application of all forms of actions and activities in support of psychological objectives. While the majority of individuals outside the psychological warfare community conceptualize their capability as leaflet disseminators, loudspeaker troopers, and radio-in-a-box disc jockeys, this hardly covers the multitude of activities required in the craft. Vietnam’s Sacred Sword of the Patriot’s League demonstrated the use of physical coercion and manipulation. Korean and Vietnamese PSYOP demonstrated the used of kinetic weapons for psychological effect. Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the use of civil support activities as forms of psychological preparation of target populations. Bombs, bridges, and books are all tools in the psychological warfare profession.
Psychological Warfare Occurs at all Echelons
In December 1942, the United States created the Army’s first psychological warfare units, the 1st and 2nd Radio Service Sections. This organization of three officer and thirty-nine soldiers heralded the beginning of what we now consider tactical psychological operations. The Radio Service Sections focused on radio broadcast, loudspeaker operations, trained linguists, and a dedicated approach to the tactical application of the craft. The Army primarily utilized the Sections on a tactical level, but Donavan envisioned a larger role for propaganda and psychological warfare within the Office of Strategic Services and under the Joint Psychological Warfare Committee (JPWC). In February 1944, General Eisenhower identified the need for a psychological warfare capability at the theater level to handle the operational effects of influence, and created the Psychological Warfare Division, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (PWD/SHAEF). He understood the need to bring together the multitude of joint military influence capabilities underneath a singular banner at the operational level.
Following the Second World War, the United States developed multiple organizations to conduct propaganda, both at home and abroad. Currently, we array the majority of this behavioral influence capability under Psychological Operations. This was not the original concept for psychological warfare, and for good reason. McClure, Donovan, and other early leaders in psychological warfare understood there was a difference between the manning, training, and execution of influence operations. Early models of psychological warfare were both stratified and horizontally integrated into a joint and interagency collective. Executive Directive 100.4-PSB/4-451 in 1951 directed the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Director of the CIA to coordinate and conduct psychological operations under the establishment of a Psychological Strategy Board (PSB). President Truman directed the PSB to assume an interagency approach to national psychological objectives, policies, and programs, and to coordinate a national psychological effort to deter foreign aggression. The Psychological Strategy Board authors posited that efforts cannot be left to just to the competence of our psychological operations specialists. An interagency effort with vertical integration through a civilian managed organization would be required to compete with Russia in the Cold War.
The current model for nation’s main psychological warfare capability is sub-delegated underneath the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD-SO/LIC), where the nation’s main influence component is the smallest element and listed last in the office’s focal efforts. Even within USASOC 2035’s lines-of-effort, hostage rescue and direct action remains the first priority. Influence activities are listed in neither near-term nor mid-term priorities, and they comprise only two of the thirty-five efforts. The Cold War focus, or Great Power Competition, has relegated psychological warfare influence efforts to a supporting function to the nation’s hard power strategy. There is a strong argument to be made that neither Donovan nor McClure would understand or agree with the current structure of psychological warfare influence.
Psychological Warfare is unrestricted
This paper provides some clarification on psychological warfare that widens the scope and theory of its application. Psychological warfare is a tool of the state that bridges all of our DIME capabilities. In this, we acknowledge that psychological warfare is unrestricted in all domains. Psychological warfare as a diplomatic function provides an execution arm for national strategic objectives. In the informational dimension, psychological warfare operates to change attitudes and behaviors of target audiences. The military domain is where the majority of our psychological warfare capabilities reside. While this is the primary source of psychological warfare professionals, this craft is not the exclusive domain of the military. Organizations such as the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Global Engagement Center (GEC) extend interagency control over psychological capabilities for the state. Finally, in the economic domain, psychological warfare has been used in dollar diplomacy and through the use of the International Monetary Fund to influence the behaviors of friendly and competitive states. On operational-level objectives we see the use of counter threat finance operations to influence the attitudes and behaviors of foreign entities. Therefore, psychological warfare cannot be constrained and must be able to maximize the use of all state resources and domains.
So, to conduct psychological warfare, we see that everything is a tool and that it maintains no bounds as a craft. This brings up a significant challenge—how do you train, man, and equip for activities that are so wide and encompassing and at the same time, ensure you don’t overwhelm your resources? The Second World War provides a perfect example of form and function of a state’s capacity for psychological warfare, namely the government-employed civilian capabilities that met the requirements for specified functions. The U.S. military maintained a semblance of this model up to 2006, when both the active and reserve psychological operations units were maintained under the same command. Since this date, the military has placed a wall between the civil skillsets available in the Army Reserve and the government military capacity from an active duty force. This challenges the force since the craft per se is interdisciplinary. We see intersections of economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, math, and biology providing inputs into planning and execution of this critical capability. The make-up of a psychological warfare campaign must take into account all of these different aspects during planning and execution. Streamlining a singular educational pathway and myopic understanding of influence will lead us to repetitive and iterative activities with little chance for effective behavioral change. Thus, we cannot restrict the training or application of psychological warfare into an assembly line of producing units and activities. To meet the demands of psychological warfare, practitioners need to diversify their organizational capacity and educational backgrounds. Diversity in psychological warfare is critical to effective operations.
In the conduct of psychological warfare sight must never be lost of the fact that a change in attitudes and private opinions amounts to little if it fails to result in deviant, politically relevant behavior.
These principles of psychological warfare are a guide for operations and activities that desire to create behavioral and attitudinal change in foreign audiences. The guiding principles focus on creating tangible behaviors that support policy and objectives of the state. The goal of this document is to give planners and practitioners some guidelines for application of influence-based activities. It is also to place psychological warfare back into the forefront for planning operations. Defeating an enemy armor battalion, injecting a computer virus into a competitor’s network, or negotiating a bilateral agreement all bring about benefits. But, the peak of the U.S.’s capability will always be to influence a foreign nation to align their behaviors and attitudes in-line with our ideas of freedom, liberty, and justice.
Additional theoretical contribution provided by CPT Jason Lee, Operations Officer, Charlie Company, 5th Psychological Operations Battalion (Airborne).
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
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