“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.”

Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone:

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.”

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.

Garance Franke-Ruta at The Atlantic

Mark Joyella at Mediaite:

In a story breaking overnight that’s sure to explode on cable news through the day, a report in Rolling Stone suggests the U.S. Army deployed a a specialized “psychological operations” team to target Senators in the hopes of boosting funding for the war in Afghanistan. The effort also aimed to increase troop levels, according to the magazine.The magazine reports the operation was ordered by three-star general Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who’s in charge of training forces for duty in Afghanistan. An officer who objected to the program tells Rolling Stone he was “harshly reprimanded” for resisting:

“My job in psyops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” the officer, Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, told Rolling Stone.

“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,” he added.

Among those targeted were senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin, as well as Representative Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee, the magazine said.

Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic:

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-ops 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.”

Kelley Vlahos at The American Conservative:

To someone who has been writing about the military’s Massive Message Machine for a few years now, or as the military more politely puts it, Strategic Communications, a whopping $4.9 billion of our taxpayer money for winning hearts and minds here and abroad in 2009 alone, Michael Hastings’ latest piece, “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators,” is no real surprise.

It could be almost funny, imagining our senators, delivered up to the Men in Fatigues upon landing in their CH-47 Chinook helicopters, like the hapless victims in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or the hilariously MST3k-lampooned Devil Doll (1964). I prefer The Stepford Wives analogy when writing about the lawmakers and think tankers who get all goofy-eyed after spending five minutes “in the field” on the generals’ turf. They come back home spouting things like, “timelines are dangerous,” “long hard slog,” and “political will to continue,” and start green lighting budgets and blocking measures to hasten the end of the war.

It might be funny if it weren’t so true. Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer who brought Gen. Stanley McChrystal down, writes that Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan troops, demanded in 2009 that U.S military psy-ops be turned on visiting Senators and other “distinguished visitors” during routine CODELs (congressional delegations) to the warzone. Seems that the truth wasn’t good enough to convince the military’s paymasters that they deserved more money and time to fight it. Sadly, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Al Franken were among the “targets” for this mission, which, as the Army whistleblower who helped Hastings break the story concluded, clearly violated the law against propagandizing our own citizens. Consequently,  as I wrote about last year, both Levin and Franken fell down on the job when it came to resisting the push for the Afghan surge. In fact, it was immediately after one of these CODELs that the two senators softened their tone against the war policy.

Dave Schuler:

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.

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