Mind Control Is Just Not That Easy

Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who brought down McChrystal after aides made extraordinarily unwise on-the-record remarks in his presence, has another piece out.  This one alleges that the military in Afghanistan attempted to illegally use Psy-Ops techniques on US congressmen in order to get more money for operations.

Rolling Stone pieces tend to be somewhat overly credulous when their targets start bragging that they're the nastiest bad-asses since Tamerlane.  So as soon as I saw the article, I suspected that this was what had happened here: some military guy claiming that he had a big important secret, like being present when a big, important crime took place.  I was very skeptical, however, that a big, important crime had actually taken place, because I've spent a bit of time researching how much you can accomplish with "Psy-Ops".  That being what you call "Marketing and Public Relations" when you want to give it a uniform and a congressional appropriation.  It somehow doesn't sound war-like to have full colonels running around commissioning market research studies and focus groups.

I mean, sure, there probably are advanced psychological techniques that could induce senators to appropriate more money for the Afghanistan operations.  But those techniques, perfected by Asian communists, are not executed in two hour meetings with a powerpoint deck and an urn full of stewed coffee.  They involve something even more torturous, like putting people in solitary for weeks at a time and making them fear for their lives and sanity.  Though I have a pretty low opinion of Senate productivity, I do think that eventually someone would notice they'd been abducted, and anyway, Senator McCain has demonstrated at least some ability to withstand that sort of thing.

[On a side note: really?  Someone in the military thought they needed secret psychological techniques to wrest more money for the military from John McCain?  This is like embarking on a course of anabolic steroids in order to prepare for taking candy from a baby.  But I digress.]

What could a Psy-Ops team do to pressure someone in a meeting?  Exactly the sort of things that civilians can do to pressure people in a meeting, the sort of dark secrets found in books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Getting to Yes.  They would probably have done at least as well consulting a top flight outside sales guy, or a negotiations specialist--though what those people would tell you is that outside of the movies, there are no magic tricks you can use to ensure that you get a good deal every time.  The history of highly successful experts who delivered spectacularly unpopular ad campaigns, disastrous new products, or political strategies that backfired at Mach 10, should easily confirm this.  If there were some special secrets that would get people to give you more money, then I guarantee that they would have found their way into the private sector by now. It is precisely because there are no such mind control secrets that we are instead inundated with a steady stream of business books like The Way of the Cockroach.

The behavior at the heart of the article seems to consist of the sort of anodyne briefing that any organization does for a high-profile sales target, though Hastings says that this nonetheless violated the law:

Under duress, Holmes and his team provided Caldwell with background assessments on the visiting senators, and helped prep the general for his high-profile encounters. But according to members of his unit, Holmes did his best to resist the orders. Holmes believed that using his team to target American civilians violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which was passed by Congress to prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens. But when Holmes brought his concerns to Col. Gregory Breazile, the spokesperson for the Afghan training mission run by Caldwell, the discussion ended in a screaming match. "It's not illegal if I say it isn't!" Holmes recalls Breazile shouting.
In March 2010, Breazile issued a written order that "directly tasked" Holmes to conduct an IO campaign against "all DV visits" - short for "distinguished visitor." The team was also instructed to "prepare the context and develop the prep package for each visit." In case the order wasn't clear enough, Breazile added that the new instructions were to "take priority over all other duties." Instead of fighting the Taliban, Holmes and his team were now responsible for using their training to win the hearts and minds of John McCain and Al Franken.
Perhaps it did. But so has everyone who ever drove 68 in a 65 zone.  Is this something that should actually worry us?  All I can say is, if Hastings thinks that this is the first time that someone in the military--or indeed, any other government agency--has attempted to influence members of Congress, even with psychological tricks, then he has a considerably sunnier vision of human nature than I do.  

Moreover, basically the entire story comes from a single guy who seems to have gotten himself into hot water, somewhat coincidentally, not long before he decided to become a whistle-blower.  Holmes (and Hastings) argue that this was retaliation for complaining about his inappropriate orders to provide his general reports on visiting legislators. But of course, there's also the possibility that he was the one who was looking for payback.

This take is about the same as mine, only snarkier:

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!

. . . In other words, being delegated to a mere research assistant was so offensive, that he lashes out at his boss for giving him the remedial task of providing "Caldwell with background assessments on the visiting senators" to help "prep the general for his high-profile encounters." Instead of doing the work assigned as ordered, because Holmes thinks his keyboard skills are lethal, he "did his best to resist the orders."

Are you kidding me? A disgruntled Lt. Col. who normally does information operations in the Facebook fan club of Caldwell's social software shop gets assigned staff work for VIP visits, and the article frames that assignment to Holmes - leveraging his opinion of being assigned what he considers work beneath his keyboard skill set - as a crime?

. . . we would have to believe that the research skills of Lt. Col. Holmes are so incredible that his background research alone can "influence Distinguished Visitors." Does Michael Hastings realize the insult he is delivering regarding the intelligence of Congressmen and Senators for that assertion of his to be true?

Some are suggesting there needs to be an investigation. Based on what, the claim by Hastings that Holmes is so skilled at research that such research is influential to the point that it represents an information operation? Seriously, show me the allegation by Holmes that something illegal took place, because the article makes clear he was asked to do prep work for VIP visitors, and the implication being made here is that only because it was HOLMES who was asked to do that work is it somehow improper. Oh no, dude has to do work other than counter Jihad on the messageboards... oh the shame - the criminal 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.

It's possible that the commander nonetheless crossed a bright line that shouldn't be crossed; I don't know enough about military organization to say.  But despite the ominous tone of the article's close--"As for the operation targeting U.S. senators, there is no way to tell what, if any, influence it had on American policy"--I think it's pretty doubtful that crossing that line did much damage.  Especially since the military says that Colonel Holmes was never actually trained in Psy-Ops.  In the glaring absence of the word "psy-ops", their version sounds considerably less dramatic:

But a military officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes and under Gen. Caldwell said the accusation is baseless, and that the officer was specifically told not to use information operations techniques. The officer declined to allow his name to be used because the command in Afghanistan has asked people not to discuss the case.
"I don't know of any regulation that would say someone trained in info ops or psy-ops couldn't put together a briefing packet," said the officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes. "There wasn't any subliminal messages here. It was just look at what issues a lawmaker was championing so we can get our message out."

Lt. Col. Holmes said at least one order he had been given, on March 22, was illegal. But he acknowledged that last year the Department of Defense inspector general told him they had not found enough evidence to examine his allegations.

He also acknowledges that he was not psy-ops trained, leaving us with the puzzling mystery of how the term came to appear 12 times in Hastings' article.

I assume that both Hastings and Holmes believed what's in the article: that he was the master of arcane skills that could somehow manipulate the minds of visiting congressmen.  Marketing executives have been known to fall prey to the same delusion.  But eventually, the illusion is always shattered.  As I suspect it will be in this case.