Where Is the Military's Line Between Psy-Ops and P.R.?

Rolling Stone reports about how Lt. Gen. William Caldwell tried to "get inside" the heads of Senators visiting his base in Afghanistan

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A three-star general illegally ordered his psy-op team to target American congressmen visiting their base in Afghanistan, Rolling Stone's Michael Hasting reports. Federal law forbids the use of propaganda on American citizens, but Lt. Gen. William Caldwell demanded his men do so anyway--apparently out of desperation for more troops in the nearly decade-old war. He asked Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, who led the information operations unit, "How do we get these guys to give us more people?... What do I have to plant inside their heads?"

Of course, there were no actual mind-control chips involved: the things Holmes and his team were ordered to do actually seem quite dull: researching senators' voting records, finding their "hot-button issues," silently sitting in on meetings, and tailoring presentations to the lawmakers' interests. In other words, the stuff public affairs officers do all day. So what's the difference between psy-op and PR?

First of all, it's illegal to use propaganda on Americans, thanks to a law passed in 1948 that was meant to prevent Soviet-style manipulation of citizens. Second, using soldiers trained in propaganda on elected representatives would seem to undermine the principle of civilian control of the military. Think about it: Is it ok to use company resources to investigate your boss? Third, according to documents provided by Holmes, his superiors reordered priorities so that working congressmen took "priority over all other duties"--presumably including trying to make the Taliban and Afghan civilians like us.

And Caldwell wanted more than the typical PR stuff: He wanted Holmes' team to give him "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds." Again, the general wanted to know what to "plant inside their heads." As the military lawyer told Holmes, "[Public affairs] works on the hearts and minds of our own citizens and [information operations] 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."

(Some are complaining that Hastings' article is one-sided, that his sources have "axes to grind," as Andrew Exum writes. And it's true, Holmes says some inflammatory things, like "We called it Operation Fourth Star." But it's worth noting that soldiers talk like that all the time.)

Holmes told his superiors that he had concerns Caldwell's orders violated of the Smith-Mundt Act, but they dismissed them. (He then took his questions to a military lawyer.) But their actions indicate that this was a pot they would have preferred Holmes had not stirred up. Caldwell's chief of staff launched an investigation into Holmes, resulting in a 22-page report that Hastings says "reads like something put together by Kenneth Starr." It includes this accusation:

The investigator also noted a joking comment that Holmes made on his Facebook wall, in response to a jibe about Afghan men wanting to hold his hand. "Hey! I’ve been here almost five months now!" Holmes wrote. "Gimmee a break a man has needs you know."

"LTC Holmes’ comments about his sexual needs," the report concluded, "are even more distasteful in light of his status as a married man.

Caldwell "categorically denies the assertion that the command used an Information Operations Cell to influence Distinguished Visitors." The White House and the Pentagon so far have no comment on the allegations.

Hastings is the reporter whose profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal forced him to step down.

Update: Gen. David Petraeus has ordered an investigation into Caldwell's use of the information operations team, Politico reports.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.