U.S. Military Running PsyOps Against Congress? Probably Not.

Caldwell PsyOps

The Rolling Stone correspondent whose expose last July ended Stanley McChrystal’s career has identified "Another Runaway General." Or so he says.

Michael Hasting charges that "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." He alleges that "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. "

I’m deeply disturbed by the notion of deploying psy-ops against U.S. citizens, much less Members of Congress. And I had civilian control of the military drummed into me from my earliest days as an 18-year-old cadet and it still resonates deep in my core.

That said, the article 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.

Here’s the meat of the story:

According to Holmes, who attended at least a dozen meetings with Caldwell to discuss the operation, the general wanted the IO unit to do the kind of seemingly innocuous work usually delegated to the two dozen members of his public affairs staff: compiling detailed profiles of the VIPs, including their voting records, their likes and dislikes, and their “hot-button issues.” In one email to Holmes, Caldwell’s staff also wanted to know how to shape the general’s presentations to the visiting dignitaries, and how best to “refine our messaging.”

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?”


It wasn’t the first time that Caldwell had tried to tear down the wall that has historically separated public affairs and psy-ops – the distinction the military is supposed to maintain between “informing” and “influencing.” After a stint as the top U.S. spokesperson in Iraq, the general pushed aggressively to expand the military’s use of information operations. During his time as a commander at Ft. Leavenworth, Caldwell argued for exploiting new technologies like blogging and Wikipedia – a move that would widen the military’s ability to influence the public, both foreign and domestic. According to sources close to the general, he also tried to rewrite the official doctrine on information operations, though that effort ultimately failed. (In recent months, the Pentagon has quietly dropped the nefarious-sounding moniker “psy-ops” in favor of the more neutral “MISO” – short for Military Information Support Operations.)

Technologist and Naval Institute blogger Raymond Pritchett calls this “Not the Stuff of Bud Light Lime" and sees this as a case of officers miffed at being assigned tasks below their pay grade:

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!

Veteran military journalist Thomas Ricks offers a mixed view:

The article is by Michael Hastings, who popped Gen. McChrystal and seems to be looking for another scalp. That is OK by me. Aggressive journalism is a good thing, and has a role to play especially when the military falters in self-examination.

The cowpie Caldwell stepped into is that there is no clear bright line between using "public affairs" to manipulate Americans and using "information operations" to manipulate others. The skills employed are basically the same, and the internet has ensured that information flows easily and quickly across national borders. Plant a story in an Iraqi paper, and the Baghdad bureaus of the major American newspapers would read it and perhaps write about it within 24 hours. Not a problem — unless the story were false. Not supposed to lie to the American people.

The truth will, of course, out. General David Petraeus, Caldwell’s boss, has already called for an investigation into the allegations. But, as of now, there doesn’t appear to be much of a story here.

Going back to Desert Storm, the U.S. military has made a very strong effort to influence American public opinion. Learning the lessons of Vietnam, they ensured that the press was briefed constantly — but also largely denied independent access to information. They constantly briefed pool reporters, invited selected reporters to embed with units, and otherwise did their level best to get the military’s side of the story out while minimizing information detrimental to the operation.

During at least the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been similar interest in managing the information available to Congress, think tankers, and others.  How many stories have we read about influencers coming back from a trip to the war zone and being giddy about how much progress has been made? The fact that their experience was limited to what the military wanted them to see is usually glossed over.

So, the only thing “new” here is the allegation that Caldwell ordered his information operations experts to do some research on incoming VIPs in order to best package the dog and pony show that they had planned. I’m not a fan of this but don’t really see it as more than a natural evolution of a strategy that’s been going on for twenty years now.

CODELs are of course going to be presented with propaganda when they visit military headquarters at war. Hell, visitors from the next higher echelon headquarters are treated the same way — and always have been — even in peacetime garrison situations. It’s not much different from running around and picking up the house before guests arrive at your home.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  AP Photo.

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