The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in “psychological operations” to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned – and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators.
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.”
According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. …
The Pentagon DOES have a public relations unit that is tasked with putting the best face on the war. The military is supposed to, you know, fight the war, with the billions of dollars American taxpayers have given them.
At a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misue of vital resources designed to combat the enemy; it cost American taxpayers roughly $6 million to deploy Holmes and his team in Afghanistan for a year. But Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban. “We called it Operation Fourth Star,” says Holmes. “Caldwell seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans. We were there to teach and train the Afghans. But for the first four months it was all about the U.S. Later he even started talking about targeting the NATO populations.” At one point, according to Holmes, Caldwell wanted to break up the IO team and give each general on his staff their own personal spokesperson with psy-ops training.
It’s instructive to see what happens when military personnel do try to go through appropriate channels as opposed to making the information public:
Holmes learned that he was the subject of an investigation, called an AR 15-6. The investigation had been ordered by Col. Joe Buche, Caldwell’s chief of staff. The 22-page report, obtained by Rolling Stone, reads like something put together by Kenneth Starr. The investigator accuses Holmes of going off base in civilian clothes without permission, improperly using his position to start a private business, consuming alcohol, using Facebook too much, and having an “inappropriate” relationship with one of his subordinates, Maj. Laural Levine. 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.”
Both Holmes and Levine maintain that there was nothing inappropriate about their relationship, and said they were waiting until after they left Afghanistan to start their own business. They and other members of the team also say that they had been given permission to go off post in civilian clothes. As for Facebook, Caldwell’s command had aggressively encouraged its officers to the use the site as part of a social-networking initiative – and Holmes ranked only 15th among the biggest users.
Nor was Holmes the only one who wrote silly things online. Col. Breazile’s Facebook page, for example, is spotted with similar kinds of nonsense, including multiple references to drinking alcohol, and a photo of a warning inside a Port-o-John mocking Afghans – “In case any of you forgot that you are supposed to sit on the toilet and not stand on it and squat. It’s a safety issue. We don’t want you to fall in or miss your target.” Breazile now serves at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he works in the office dedicated to waging a global information war for the Pentagon.
Following the investigation, both Holmes and Levine were formally reprimanded. Holmes, believing that he was being targeted for questioning the legality of waging an IO campaign against U.S. visitors, complained to the Defense Department’s inspector general. Three months later, he was informed that he was not entitled to protection as a whistleblower, because the JAG lawyer he consulted was not “designated to receive such communications.”
Levine, who has a spotless record and 19 service awards after 16 years in the military, including a tour of duty in Kuwait and Iraq, fears that she has become “the collateral damage” in the military’s effort to retaliate against Holmes. “It will probably end my career,” she says. “My father was an officer, and I believed officers would never act like this. I was devastated. I’ve lost my faith in the military, and I couldn’t in good conscience recommend anyone joining right now.”
At Outside the Beltway, Dave Schuler finds these events a disturbing assault on civilian control of the military, but James Joyner, although he says he had the concept of civilian control “drummed into” him from day one when he served in Desert Storm, is not overly concerned (emphasis is mine):
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.
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.
Here is what Holmes and his team were asked to do:
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?”
This strikes me as a bit different from the generals trying to “put their best foot forward.” Moreover, Joyner’s conclusion that Holmes “had an axe to grind” ignores the chronology here. The investigation began AFTER Holmes had shared his concerns with Col. Breazile (“the spokesperson for the Afghan training mission run by Caldwell”) and, after Breazile responded by screaming at him that using psy-ops on U.S. lawmakers was legal because he said it was legal, contacting the Judge Advocate-General in charge of information operations. It was three weeks AFTER that communication, according to Hastings, that Holmes discovered he was being investigated. So, although the investigation and everything that went before it may have influenced Holmes to speak with Hastings, it certainly does not indicate that the facts of what Holmes had been asked to do were incorrect, since they were already on record.
I would suggest that perhaps Joyner’s own response is influenced by his obvious dislike for Michael Hastings’ reporting (see the part I have emphasized in my paste of Joyner’s quote).
Much more commentary at Memeorandum.