It is rarely a good idea to get ahead of an official investigation. However, before the mainstream press destroys the reputation of one of America’s best and most effective generals, someone should speak up in his defense, particularly as the officers who work with him night and day are probably forbidden to do so until the investigation ordered by General Petraeus is complete.
Lieut. Gen. William Caldwell, despite his tremendous performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not a household name. He is one of the quiet warriors this country is counting on to win its current war. As one very senior general told me, “The Army has a few hundred generals, but less than 50 of them are trusted for assignments where the shooting is.” Everyone who knows Caldwell places him high on that short list.
If he is known to most Americans at all, it is for his achievements in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, Caldwell commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, which provided the nation’s first effective response to the disaster. Caldwell gathered thousands of paratroopers, most of them exhausted from recently completed combat tours in Iraq, and placed them on the streets of New Orleans only 13 hours after he received the order to do so. Before the 82nd left New Orleans, it had fed and sheltered thousands, provided medical aid to 2,000 more, and cleaned up over 200 city blocks. Lieut. Gen. Russel Honoré (“Don’t get stuck on stupid”) garnered the headlines, but Caldwell and his men did the work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have met General Caldwell on two occasions, although I doubt he remembers me. Both times, I walked away thinking, “That was one smart sonofa . . . ” — and I hardly ever walk away from a conversation thinking such things.
That is why, when I heard the first reports that Caldwell may have ordered an Information Operations (IO) campaign aimed at visiting U.S. senators, I was dumbfounded. After all, Caldwell’s last assignment in Iraq was as director of strategic effects. That meant that everyone involved in IO, PSYOPS, and Public Affairs worked for him in one way or another. There is no doubt that he knew that aiming an IO operation at any American audience or citizen is illegal under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. As I say, I was dumbfounded. How could someone as smart and savvy as Caldwell do something as stupid as to order the use of IO against visiting senators?
Short answer: He didn’t.
The story first surfaced when Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings — looking for fresh blood after getting Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired from command in Afghanistan — published a story in Rolling Stone claiming that Caldwell ordered an IO cell, led by Lieut. Col. Michael Holmes, to conduct a campaign against visiting VIPs, including Sens. Carl Levin, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. Remarkably, according to Holmes, Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also targeted — as if no one in the sprawling command would have mentioned that to the chairman at some point.
According to Hastings’s article, Holmes’s IO team was tasked with preparing in-depth briefings on the visiting senators so as to “refine the general’s message,” “get these guys to give us more people,” and help tell Caldwell “how to plant ideas inside their heads.” Now, another way to phrase that would be: “Tell me how I can best let these guys know I need more troops, so they don’t forget it when they get home.” Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?