PSYOPS 101: The technology of psych warfare

by | Nov 14, 2012 | Videos | 3 comments

by James Corbett
November 13, 2012

As we have examined in this special series of Eyeopener reports on psychological warfare in recent weeks, Psychological Operations, or PSYOPS, are every bit as vital to military strategists today as they ever were. In fact, in this age of 24/7 online access and the possibilities for new battlegrounds in the “information battlespace” that it affords, Psyops may be even more important than they have ever been in “winning the hearts and minds” (or at least confusing and stupefying the hearts and minds) of enemies the world over.

In some ways, this is precisely the point. Psyops by their very nature tend to rely on mechanical and technological trickery to deceive enemies or sneak propaganda past their defenses. Some of the greatest military victories in history did not involve fighting or bloodshed at all, but merely intimidation through demonstration of technological superiority.

During the conquest of Gaul in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar encountered the problem of securing the eastern border of his newly acquired territory from marauding Germanic tribes. The tribes would raid Gaul when the opportunity arose and retreat back behind the natural barrier of the Rhine River before Roman forces could retaliate. To solve this problem, Caesar put the unparalleled engineering knowhow of ancient Rome into a project that had never before been attempted: bridging the Rhine.

With ingenious technology—including winch-driven stone piledrivers—and the brute manpower of 40,000 legionaries, Caesar not only accomplished the impossible, he accomplished it in an astonishing 10 days. Having completed the bridge, he marched his troops across to the eastern side, burned down the villages he found there, returned across the bridge to Gaul without a single battle and tore the bridge down behind him.

As an example of psychological warfare, the strategy was devestatingly effective. Without the loss of a single one of his troops Caesar had effectively demonstrated the awe-inspiring might of the Romans, and the message was not lost on his enemies. Gaul’s eastern border suffered no further raids from Germanic marauders for centuries.

Although the technology has changed in the ensuing two thousand years, the basic strategy of terrorizing an enemy via technology remains intact. Ancient armies used drums, pipes and horns to intimidate their opponents before battle. Doctor Richard Jordan Gatling’s eponymous gun was as useful for putting the fear of God into those unlucky enough to be caught in its sites as it was in actually killing them. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” strategy was a combination of intimidation and technological superiority that helped the Nazis gain the upper hand in the early years of World War II. The much-touted “shock and awe” strategy of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 employed the same concept: enemy resistance can be drastically reduced by a sudden, overwhelming display of technology and force.

As technology has grown ever more sophisticated, however, so too has the ambitions of these psychological operations grown. Whereas traditional psyops have attempted merely to intimidate, bewilder or demoralize enemies into laying down their arms, modern technologies have opened up the possibility of actually controlling the mind of an opponent directly through electronic, chemical, or other means.

The quest to control the mind of an unwitting subject has long been the stuff of science fiction, but for at least 60 years it has been the subject of active research by some of the most covert programs of the intelligence agencies and militaries of the world’s superpowers. Perhaps the best known such example revolves around MK-ULTRA, a top secret and still-mysterious CIA operation to test methods of manipulating, brainwashing or controlling the minds of subjects through drugs, hypnosis and shock therapy. The program’s goals included finding substances, materials or methods for producing amnesia, dissociation, severe disorientation or unconsciousness in subjects, with the ultimate aim being to find a “wonder drug” or formula for producing the perfect “Manchurian Candidate,” a robot-like automaton who could be made to do an agent’s bidding upon command.

The project began in 1953 under the supervision of Sidney Gottleieb, a chemist and poison expert in the Technical Services Staff. The program acted as an umbrella project for 149 sub-projects carried out at 80 institutions, including universities and medical centres across the US from Boston Psychopathic to the University of Illinois Medical School to Mt. Sinai Hospital at Columbia University. Many of these experiments involved giving unwitting test subjects large doses of LSD without their knowledge and observing the results, or bribing hospitalized drug addicts with pure morphine or heroin in return for their participation in tests that included keeping some subjects on LSD for 77 days straight.

The most notorious of the MK-ULTRA sub-projects involved a program at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada, headed by Dr. Ewan Cameron. Working with the CIA and the Canadian military, and partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Cameron engaged in decades of research that included torturing subjects for weeks or months on end though coercive interrogations, hypnosis, electroshock therapy, inducing week or month long comas through forced druggings, and subjecting his human guinea pigs to constant tape loops of noises or repetitive statements. The patients, many of whom had been admitted for mild anxiety disorders or postpartum depression, were left permanently debilitated.

Although the project was eventually ruled unsuccessful and shut down in 1973, when many of its records were destroyed, the research resulted in many insights into psychological resistance and the breakdown of personality that have since been incorporated into torture techniques that have been used in CIA interrogations around the world. Some, including CIA whistleblower Victor Marchetti, have stated that the CIA’s claim that it abandoned MK-ULTRA was a cover story, and that research into mind control continued long after the project was officially abandoned.

Part of the problem in understanding how psychological warfare methods are being employed today is precisely that this research is done under cover of secrecy by intelligence agencies and military personnel in projects that are only ever exposed decades after the fact, if at all. For a clue as to where the cutting edge of psych warfare currently lies, we have to turn to reports of those technologies that are now finding commercial application and are starting to be incorporated into our everyday lives.

Minority Report is a 2002 Hollywood sci-fi movie from director Steven Spielberg presenting a dystopian future of pre-crime, total surveillance and police state technology. Unlike many science fiction fantasies, however, the technology depicted in the film has already proven remarkably prescient. From statistical analysis programs like IBM’s Blue CRUSH which purports to be able to predict criminal “hotspots” to drone technologies that are beginning to look more and more like the police tracking robots depicted in the movie, Minority Report has proven time and again to have been ahead of the curve in predicting technology. This is not accidental. During the film’s pre-production in 1999, Spielberg invited a panel of experts to a three-day “think tank” in Santa Monica, California. Including architects, biomedical researchers and computer scientists, the group wrote the “2054 bible,” an 80-page book detailing the most likely technological, sociological, architectural and political changes of the next half century.

One of the most chilling examples of a technology that it got right was the image of the face-recognition advertising billboards. The billboards read the faces of passersby and then beam advertisements directly into their ear so that only they can hear them.

Billboards that beam sound directly into the ear of passersby have been in use since 2007. The first one appeared in SoHo in 2007 in an advertisement for the A&E series, Paranormal State. They have since been used in billboards, vending machines and other advertising venues around the world.

Facial recognition advertisements, meanwhile, are slowly becoming a reality. In 2010, NEC rolled out facial-recognition advertising billboards that can tell gender, ethnicity and approximate age of those looking at them and tailor advertisements to suit. Earlier this year, GM announced a patent which will allow it to tailor highway billboards to individual cars by accessing their OnStar data for their last navigational input and crafting an appropriate advertisement based on that data.

Another technological development of note in recent years is the drastic improvements in hologram technology that have allowed Prince Charles to give a speech to an energy summit in Dubai from Clarence House in the UK, CNN anchors to interact with holographic reporters, buildings to move, morph and dance before the eyes of amazed spectators, and Tupac Shakur to rise from the dead for a show-stopping performance at Coachella.

All of these technologies, and the many, many more that are coming to market at an increasingly bewildering pace, doubtless represent just the tip of the iceberg of cutting edge technologies. What devices are being worked on behind the scenes in military or intelligence research labs funded by off-budget, classified programs we can, of course, not even begin to speculate. But the utility of even these technologies that we do know about for the perpetrators of psych warfare should be obvious.

The idea of using holographic technology in psychological operations, for example, has been openly discussed by the US Air Force since 1996, when they produced a report detailing plans for an “Airborne Holographic Projector” that could create a virtual aircraft to deceive a potential enemy about the size, strength and location of an attacking force. In 2007, Jon Ronson reported on a leaked US Air Force report proposing a “Prophet Hologram” which would project an “image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized and used against it in a massive psychological operation.”

Arthur C. Clarke once famously wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Surely this is obvious from the example of Caesar crossing the Rhine. Whereas the sight of Caesar’s legionaries constructing such a bridge—impressive as it might be—would hardly strike us as magical or superhuman, we can well imagine the sense of awe and dread it must have instilled in the poor Germanic tribes who were looking on as it was built. In the same way, how would billions around the world react were the Messiah to appear in the heavens above the Dome of the Rock and speak to them in their own language in a voice that was beamed directly into their ear?

This is the problem of perspective that always presents itself in the case of secret and classified government programs. Believing that we know all of the technology that is available to be used against us, and believing that we know precisely what our governments are capable of, we assume that such psychological operations would never work against us. Thousands of years of history, however, show that this is a delusion bred of our own ignorance, a delusion that helps to make the psychological operations, once they are launched, that much more effective.


  1. What the eff was that? A fake post

  2. Hi James,

    I enjoyed reading this article as I have all the other ones. In the 4th paragraph from the bottom, the one starting with “All these technologies..”, at the end of the second last line the NO needs to be changed to KNOW.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks for the typo correction. That edit was 12 years in the making, but it’s done now!


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