Afghanistan

Psy ops on senators

General Caldwell and one of his psy ops targets. (photo courtesy of Rolling Stone via AP)

Michael Hastings, the reporter famous for bringing down General McChrystal, is back in Rolling Stone with another explosive story. Hastings exposes “another runaway general” (there seem to be too many of these) who instructed soldiers in a “psychological operations” team to manipulate key visitors, including US senators, into supporting the war and sending more resources their way:

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.

(It’s hard to imagine that John McCain and Joe Lieberman need ideas planted in their heads to support wars. It’s more or less their favorite pastime.)

Aside from the outrageousness (and illegality according to Hastings) of these actions, they smack of desperation. Members of Congress on official visits to Afghanistan clearly know they are getting sold a specific perspective on the war—watching flashy PowerPoint presentations trumpeting progress while ensconced in well-protected military bases. As former congressman Tom Andrews writes, “As a Member of the House Armed Services Committee, I was cognizant of the Pentagon’s use of spin to get the result that they wanted. I was in office for less than a month when I was invited for a personal ‘consultation’ with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am certain that Chairman Powell was less interested in my views of military strategy than he was of my vote.”

But planting ideas in their heads to “get these guys to give us more people” is a whole other game. If their normally elevated level of spin isn’t sufficient to make an evidence-based case that the war is worth supporting, perhaps it’s time to abandon the strategy? Most of the American public thinks it is, along with many members of Congress, which I suppose is what pushed General Caldwell to this level of absurdity.

Rather than pursue the complaint about General Caldwell’s misdeeds, the military turned to dubious investigations of Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, who reported the violation. (The military has a particularly maddening way of dealing with people who report crimes—see their infuriating responses to sexual assault).

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.”

I am very curious to see how members of Congress will respond publicly to this news, especially those on Caldwell’s target list. Hopefully this will give them another reason to raise their voices against this wasteful war in Afghanistan. Thanks to Michael Hastings for another important scoop that reveals the truth behind the war.

Update: The Washington Post has comments from some of the alleged targets and reports that General Petraeus has ordered an investigation.

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