Politics & Policy

The Inquisition of General Caldwell

How a soldier without honor and a sleazy journalist cooked up a story against one of our finest generals.

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?

Holmes states that after receiving such orders in writing from a member of Caldwell’s staff, he complained that he wasn’t sure this was a proper assignment for an IO officer. After which, his instructions were clarified: He was specifically told that his job was limited to preparing background packets on visitors similar to those routinely prepared by Public Affairs personnel or other staff officers. In fact, when the command sought a legal opinion on whether the duties assigned Holmes were lawful, the lawyers affirmed that they were.

It is, of course, possible that the ongoing investigation will find a smoking gun. I, however, judge the chances of that happening to be slim. So please allow me to tell you how I and many in the military are assessing the situation.

First, it helps to have a clear idea of the realm of IO and PSYOPS (now awkwardly called MISO — Military Information Support Operations). You might think — as in the George Clooney movie — of an organization filled with “men staring at goats.” In reality, you have a few dedicated professionals trying to turn the bad opinions that our enemies and some local populations have of us in a more favorable direction. To do so, they are permitted to plant false stories and otherwise bend the truth if absolutely necessary. By law, they can do this only when targeting foreign populations. Public Affairs officers, on the other hand, are not part of the IO/PSYOPS community and are expressly tasked with informing American audiences about military matters. By law, they are forbidden to speak untruths.

Early indications suggest that Holmes was not one of the IO world’s stellar performers. According to Holmes, it was his job “to get inside people’s heads.” According to the Army, Holmes never even attended the PSYOPS course or received any training in that specialty.

Hastings’s article states that after Holmes sought legal advice about using IO techniques on Americans, he was targeted for retribution. What actually happened was that the lawyer Holmes selected looked into the matter and stumbled upon irregularities on Holmes’s part. As an officer of the court, the lawyer was duty-bound to report them. A later investigation, which it appears Caldwell took no part in, led to Holmes’s receiving an official letter of reprimand.

Among other charges, the reprimand was for: having an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, going into Kabul in civilian clothes without permission to have dinner and consume alcohol with said subordinate, and running a home business on government time and with government computers. He was lucky to get off with a reprimand, as all of the above are court-martial offenses. If the timeline is right, it appears that Holmes was not attacked as a whistleblower, but decided to make his charges only after receiving what he viewed as unjust punishment for his own infractions. He did, however, wait until he got home to begin fighting the charges against him and making his accusations against Caldwell. When the inspector general declared that Holmes’s claims about the misuse of IO were unfounded, he took his story to Hastings.

So what really happened?

Caldwell’s command (NATO Training Mission — Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command — Afghanistan) is responsible for training the Afghan national army and police. All reports show that under Caldwell’s stewardship these forces are making substantial progress and may soon be ready to start replacing American soldiers in hotly contested areas. Most of the credit for this achievement goes to General Caldwell, who has by all accounts been accomplishing miracles with a severely undermanned organization.

One of the things Caldwell’s organization does not do, however, is target the locals with IO messages, meaning that he had no need for an IO team. When Holmes arrived with his small IO detachment, Caldwell had no use for them, at least in their specialist task. What he did have was a screaming need to fill other slots. So, rather than let five IO officers sit around twiddling their thumbs, Caldwell’s chief of staff assigned them other work.

When Holmes was asked to put together background info on visiting VIPs, he rebelled. This was not what he had come to Afghanistan for. He obviously found it beneath his rank and station in life to do work typically assigned to a junior staff officer. He wanted to “stare at goats,” and the establishment wanted him to prepare background briefings.

It should be understood that whenever a VIP is scheduled to visit a three-star general, a background folder is created. It would be the height of incompetence for a general’s staff to allow their boss to walk into a meeting unprepared. It also appears to make sense to give such tasks to people who otherwise don’t have an assigned function, such as the IO team. The fact that an IO officer is assigned the job of creating a background briefing does not mean he was told to use IO techniques in the process. In fact, if there were a command-ordered IO campaign to bend the minds of U.S. senators, there would be an IO plan. IO officers do not do anything without writing out a plan — ever. It is in their DNA. Someone should ask Holmes to present the dated IO plan for this “command-ordered” operation — with the associated PowerPoint presentation. For it is well known within the military that if there is no PowerPoint trail, there is no event!

One might also ask: Why would Caldwell target the specific senators mentioned in Hastings’s article, as they already were on his side? As Senator Levin said in a press statement: “For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation’s future. I have never needed any convincing on this point. Quite the opposite, my efforts have been aimed at convincing others of the need for larger, more capable Afghan security forces, and that we and NATO should send more trainers to Afghanistan, rather than more combat troops.”

And does anyone believe Senators McCain and Lieberman needed further coaxing toward the light? Moreover, consider the utter absurdity of playing IO games on someone like Senator McCain. For over five years the North Vietnamese used torture and every psychological trick in the book to break McCain. They failed. So let’s face facts: The only way the barely trained and apparently incompetent Holmes could have gotten into McCain’s head was if the senator ate him for breakfast.

From what is in evidence so far, we know that an ineffectual officer with a serious axe to grind was sent home from Afghanistan in disgrace. Once back here, he lashed out by going to the press with a story that any real journalist would have picked apart in minutes. Hastings, displaying the journalistic ethics of a louse, decided to take the uncorroborated word of a single discredited officer to slime the reputation of one of America’s best and most dedicated warriors. Worse, he did so when that warrior was helping to turn around a dire situation in Afghanistan.

General Caldwell is our exit strategy. By making his job harder, Holmes and Hastings have guaranteed that soldiers and Marines will be unnecessarily killed. We must all hope that Holmes and Hastings fail. Caldwell is doing crucial work and succeeding in a very tough assignment. He remains one of our best hopes for a successful ending to the war in Afghanistan. His efforts must not be derailed because a single soldier without honor has found a journalist who has no concept of honor to help him seek revenge.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine War College and author of the forthcoming book The First Clash. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense or its leadership.

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