Psyops Against Our Own?
Did a unit in Afghanistan engage in an IO operation against U. S. senators?
The Rolling Stone has published a story that I find deeply troubling. According to the story Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, ordered an information operations unit under his command to conduct a campaign of IO on U. S. senators and other dignitaries:
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?”
I don’t have a problem with military officers zealously advocating courses of action—that’s part of their job. That doesn’t extend to violations of Smith-Mundt, the U. S. law that defines the terms under which the U. S. government may engage in propaganda. If the allegations are true, it would certainly seem to me there may be a case here.
There appear to be quite a number of open questions. Does Smith-Mundt pertain to the military? Does it pertain to actions taken overseas? I believe there should be an investigation into this matter and, if it is found that the actions alleged in the article violate Smith-Mundt or other federal laws, the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
However, I find the story concerning for other reasons as well. I’ll defer to James on this but to my untutored eye the conduct that’s alleged in the article would seem to be an assault on civilian control of the military. Let me ask a question. Would it be appropriate for military officers to use the resources of an information operations unit against their higher-ups in the chain of command? That sounds like insubordination to me.
UPDATE (James Joyner): Like Dave, I’m deeply disturbed by the notion of deploying psy-ops against U.S. citizens, much less Members of Congress. And I had civilian control of the military drummed into me from my earliest days as an 18-year-old cadet and it still resonates deep in my core.
That said, the Rolling Stone article — by the guy who got famous by outing clear violations of the principle of civilian control on the part of General Stanley McChrystal and staff — strikes me as a propaganda piece. There’s very little substance to it and the chief accuser appears to be a lieutenant colonel who got into trouble for misconduct and is seeking payback.
Here’s the meat of the story:
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?”
It wasn’t the first time that Caldwell had tried to tear down the wall that has historically separated public affairs and psy-ops – the distinction the military is supposed to maintain between “informing” and “influencing.” 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.)
Going back to Desert Storm, the U.S. military has made a very strong effort to influence American public opinion. Learning the lessons of Vietnam, they ensured that the press was briefed constantly — but also largely denied independent access to information. They constantly briefed pool reporters, invited selected reporters to embed with units, and otherwise did their level best to get the military’s side of the story out while minimizing information detrimental to the operation.
During at least the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been similar interest in managing the information available to Congress, think tankers, and others. How many stories have we read about influencers coming back from a trip to the war zone and being giddy about how much progress has been made? The fact that their experience was limited to what the military wanted them to see is usually glossed over.
So, the only thing “new” here is the allegation that Caldwell ordered his information operations experts to do some research on incoming VIPs in order to best package the dog and pony show that they had planned. I’m not a fan of this but don’t really see it as more than a natural evolution of a strategy that’s been going on for twenty years now.
CODELs are of course going to be presented with propaganda when they visit military headquarters at war. Hell, visitors from the next higher echelon headquarters are treated the same way — and always have been — even in peacetime garrison situations. It’s not much different from running around and picking up the house before guests arrive at your home.
UPDATE 2 (James Joyner): Raymond Pritchett (Galrahn) agrees more snarkily, calling this “Not the Stuff of Bud Light Lime”:
In other words, Lt. Colonel Holmes and his IO team are being asked to take a break from their messageboard warrior time and Facebook friend time and being delegated to do staff nerd work, and their job is to prepare Lt. Gen. Caldwell for the dog and pony show of visiting VIPs. The ego of this Holmes guy is incredible, because he is making the suggestion through this Rolling Stones article that his skills with a keyboard are so l33t, the simple task of being assigned the role to prepare a General for a briefing with VIPs equates to an information operation against elected officials by deploying his Google searches and subsequent analysis as an influence weapon. The irony is, this kind of staff work is usually done by someone all the time, and the great offense here is that the IO Team, which is basically a social software debate club, is being assigned this work. The shame!
The only allegation being made is that Caldwell dared to ask this Holmes and his internet nerds to research and plan for a visit by VIPs for the purposes of briefing and prepping Caldwell for the visit, and the intent was so that Caldwell would be prepared to communicate more effectively his needs for more money and more people. Those are the specific allegations made by Holmes in the story, everything else in the story was the narrative that implied illegal activity added by Michael Hastings.
Holmes had an axe to grind and Hastings was all too willing to abet him. Maybe it’s because of Holmes’ elite PysOps skilz, and maybe the buzz from the Bud Lite Lime has worn off and Hastings needs another hit. But, if Congressmen are going to show up for a tour of the war zone by the generals, the generals are going to try to put their best foot forward.
UPDATE 3 (James Joyner): I’ve written a longer, more coherent version of this for New Atlanticist as “U.S. Military Running PsyOps Against Congress? Probably Not.”
UPDATE 4 (James Joyner): See “Rolling Stone PsyOps Colonel Not PsyOps Trained.”