The Corner

Psy-Ops Against U.S. Senators?

Rolling Stone is out with another take-down job of a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, this time alleging that one Lt. General Caldwell, who is in charge of training operations in Afghanistan — turned his “psychological operations” troops on visiting United States senators, tasking them with manipulating the legislators into providing more troops and funding for the war. Worse, “when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators,” according to the story.

Needless to say, it’s disturbing if true.

The orders came from the command of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops – the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the war. Over a four-month period last year, a military cell devoted to what is known as “information operations” at Camp Eggers in Kabul was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation.

“My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. “I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”

The list of targeted visitors was long, according to interviews with members of the IO team and internal documents obtained by Rolling Stone. Those singled out in the campaign included senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin; Rep. Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee; Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Czech ambassador to Afghanistan; the German interior minister, and a host of influential think-tank analysts.

The incident offers an indication of just how desperate the U.S. command in Afghanistan is to spin American civilian leaders into supporting an increasingly unpopular war. According to the Defense Department’s own definition, psy-ops – the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors – are supposed to be used exclusively on “hostile foreign groups.” Federal law forbids the military from practicing psy-ops on Americans, and each defense authorization bill comes with a “propaganda rider” that also prohibits such manipulation. “Everyone in the psy-ops, intel, and IO community knows you’re not supposed to target Americans,” says a veteran member of another psy-ops team who has run operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s what you learn on day one.”

On further reading you learn that Caldwell wasn’t exactly hypnotizing visiting members of Congress or putting sodium pentothol in their drinks:

When Holmes and his four-man team arrived in Afghanistan in November 2009, their mission was to assess the effects of U.S. propaganda on the Taliban and the local Afghan population. But the following month, Holmes began receiving orders from Caldwell’s staff to direct his expertise on a new target: visiting Americans. At first, the orders were administered verbally. According to Holmes, who attended at least a dozen meetings with Caldwell to discuss the operation, the general wanted the IO unit to do the kind of seemingly innocuous work usually delegated to the two dozen members of his public affairs staff: compiling detailed profiles of the VIPs, including their voting records, their likes and dislikes, and their “hot-button issues.” In one email to Holmes, Caldwell’s staff also wanted to know how to shape the general’s presentations to the visiting dignitaries, and how best to “refine our messaging.”

Congressional delegations – known in military jargon as CODELs – are no strangers to spin. U.S. lawmakers routinely take trips to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they receive carefully orchestrated briefings and visit local markets before posing for souvenir photos in helmets and flak jackets. Informally, the trips are a way for generals to lobby congressmen and provide first-hand updates on the war. But what Caldwell was looking for was more than the usual background briefings on senators. According to Holmes, the general wanted the IO team to provide a “deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds.” The general’s chief of staff also asked Holmes how Caldwell could secretly manipulate the U.S. lawmakers without their knowledge. “How do we get these guys to give us more people?” he demanded. “What do I have to plant inside their heads?”

But it’s still looks unsavory at first glance — and potentially illegal. The RS piece suggests General Caldwell has a history of blurring the line between “informing” and “influencing” the American public:

After a stint as the top U.S. spokesperson in Iraq, the general pushed aggressively to expand the military’s use of information operations. During his time as a commander at Ft. Leavenworth, Caldwell argued for exploiting new technologies like blogging and Wikipedia – a move that would widen the military’s ability to influence the public, both foreign and domestic. According to sources close to the general, he also tried to rewrite the official doctrine on information operations, though that effort ultimately failed. (In recent months, the Pentagon has quietly dropped the nefarious-sounding moniker “psy-ops” in favor of the more neutral “MISO” – short for Military Information Support Operations.)

More details here.

UPDATE: How could Caldwell’s orders be illegal? Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, leader of the “Information Operations” unit in Afghanistan and seemingly Rolling Stone’s primary source here, suggests in the story that they violate the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the use of information targeted to foreign audiences on American citizens. But doing some cursory research, it’s unclear how far that prohibition extends beyond the the State Department, to which it was originally applied. Guidelines erecting a wall between foreign-targeted and domestic targeted “information” and “messaging” by the military have been established by a number of presidents and Pentagon officials, including George W. Bush in a 2002 National Security Presidential Directive that is still classified, and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a 2003 “roadmap” that calls for “boundaries” between domestic and foreign information operations but doesn’t proscribe any activities that aren’t “targeted” at American citizens.

When Holmes contacted a JAG lawyer over worries about Caldwell’s orders, the lawyer told him “The short answer is that IO doesn’t do that. . . . [Public affairs] works on the hearts and minds of our own citizens and IO works on the hearts and minds of the citizens of other nations. While the twain do occasionally intersect, such intersections, like violent contact during a soccer game, should be unintentional.” He further told Holmes that “Using IO to influence our own folks is a bad idea. . . and contrary to IO policy.”

But it’s also not clear that what the psy-ops officers in the story were alleged to have done constitutes “propaganda” proper. As some of the commentators have pointed out, there is a world of difference between asking a psy-ops officer to help prep for VIP visits and asking them to conduct psy-ops on VIPs — as one put it, it’s the difference between a military interrogator asking a senator a question, and a military interrogator conducting a military interrogation of said senator.

If you read the story, you’ll see Holmes was subject to an investigation for conduct unbecoming, and was eventually formally reprimanded, after questioning Caldwell’s orders, a sequence of events Holmes believes were linked. General Caldwell, in a statement, denies the whole thing. There is a bit at the end that is sort of unclear, but seems to suggest Caldwell officially moved IO personnel into “public affairs” after the Holmes incident, with a mandate of “informing and educating U.S., Afghan and international audiences.” If that stopped short of the kind of propagandizing and behavior-influencing psy-ops is supposed to do vis-a-vis foreign combatants and civilians, then there wouldn’t appear to be any legal problem. Without knowing what these personnel were specifically tasked with doing, one couldn’t say either way.

UPDATE II: General Petraeus is reportedly “preparing to order an investigation to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding” the Rolling Stone story.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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