Michael Hastings – the journalist who brought down General Stanley McChrystal – has a new piece in Rolling Stone alleging that General William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan security forces, “illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in ‘psychological operations’ to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war.” General Petraeus has ordered an investigation. I am no expert on the issues raised by the Hastings story, but several elements of the story make me think there is much less here than meets the eye.
First, Congress exercises a lot of control through appropriations over military operations, especially COIN operations that require throwing around a lot of U.S. dollars. It is commonplace for soldiers in the field to try to present an attractive picture on the ground for visiting congressional delegations in order to persuade them to continue or increase funding for missions. It is also commonplace to frame the pitch to address the interests, pet projects and peeves, inclinations, concerns, and the like, of visiting officials. Doing so requires research.
Second, as far as I can tell, the factual charges against General Caldwell come from a single source, Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of one of Caldwell’s information operations units. Hastings states that Caldwell and his subordinates asked Holmes to “conduct an IO campaign against” visiting officials. But the facts offered in support of this supposed operation are thin. Holmes was (by his account) ordered to research and provide background assessments on the visitors, and prep the General for his meetings. When Holmes complained about the order, it was clarified to specify that he should “only use publicly available records to create profiles of U.S. visitors.” Holmes colors this seemingly innocent tasking in dark shades. He says that Caldwell sought a "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds" and claims that Caldwell asked: “How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?” The “plant inside their heads” phrase conjures up an image of Caldwell asking Hastings to help him play psychological tricks on the visiting congressmen. But at bottom the story says only that Holmes was asked to do backgrounders on visiting dignitaries and to advise General Caldwell about how to brief the dignitaries in a persuasive way.
Third, as the Washington Post notes, Hastings’ article “did not cite evidence of false or misleading information being provided to the senators and other visitors.” Nor does Hastings provide much support for his claim that Caldwell acted illegally. Holmes apparently believed that what he was asked to do violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. I believe this law, as amended, prevents the State Department, not DOD, from directing foreign propaganda at domestic audiences. (Hastings says as much.) But I also believe that there are laws, presidential directives, and military regulations that prohibit DOD from using true psychological operations against members of Congress. (Hastings mentions, but does not cite or quote, prohibitions in Defense Authorizations.) Whatever the law might say, Hastings’ only support for the assertion that Caldwell acted illegally comes from Holmes himself, who is apparently not a lawyer. Hastings also cites an email from a JAG to Holmes, which stated: “Using IO to influence our own folks is a bad idea . . . and contrary to IO policy.” The JAG did not state that what Holmes claimed Caldwell asked him to do was illegal.
Fourth, Hastings throws out so many unsupported and unfair zingers against Caldwell that it makes me question the credibility of the entire story. There are too many to list, but one of the most egregious (already noted by Andrew Exum) is when Hastings says that Caldwell “seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban.” The evidence for this charge is Holmes’ claim that Caldwell “seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans.” But this unsupported assertion, even if true, does not mean that Caldwell cared more about his career than about the Afghanistan mission. The reality is that keeping Congress informed and on board is a vital element both of American democracy and success in Afghanistan.
Fifth, Hastings notes that Holmes was subsequently subject to an AR 15-6 investigation for “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.” Hastings makes the investigation seem like retaliation. But on the evidence presented, it is also possible that Holmes’ feeding of the story to Hastings was retaliation for the 15-6 investigation. The Hastings story does not provide enough information to permit us to decide.
Caldwell may well have done something wrong in asking a member of his information operations team to help prep him for a visit from a congressional delegation. I do not know enough about the relevant laws and regulations to assess that issue, and Hastings’ article provides little basis for an assessment. Asking an information officer to help with prep for visiting dignitaries also might have been imprudent even if it was not illegal or contrary to policy, precisely because of the allegations it has exposed Caldwell to. But Hastings has not charged that Caldwell acted imprudently by selecting the wrong person to prepare him to brief members of Congress. He has charged that Caldwell was running an illegal psychological operation against Congress in order to advance his career at the expense of his mission. That charge is unsupported and highly dubious. The whole story seems like a one-sided hatchet job to me.