Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some thoughts on LTG Caldwell's probably-legal-but-still-wildly-inappropriate influence operations

Michael Hastings has another news-making piece in Rolling Stone today. In it, he alleges 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" in Afghanistan. So far as I can tell, this is a lie. Hastings goes on to make a number of other specious assertions and allegations in the course of the piece. None of this changes the fact that this is a vitally important story, one that serves as a window onto the deeply disturbing trend of senior officers defining the appropriate role of the military in ever more expansive ways.

Read the story. The rest of this post is written under the assumption that you understand the basic facts of Hastings' reportage. Now let's get some things straight:

1. Michael Hastings is almost definitely a douchebag. Both this piece and the infamous McChrystal expose are filled with unsubtle editorializing. But there is no reason to believe that he is inventing sources or falsifying documentation. The Caldwell story is not made-up, and there are facts here that need to be considered. I don't know the details of this Holmes guy's career, his training, and so on, and I've seen rumblings this afternoon on Twitter that there might be a story there. But I'm writing this on the assumption that the basic facts as Hastings has conveyed them are not fabricated out of whole cloth.

2. "The Army" doesn't order anyone to do anything, legal or illegal. Individual officers give orders that either accord with law and regulation, or that don't. Those orders are then followed, or they're not. If an unlawful order is followed, both the originator and the executor of that order are legally culpable.

3. No one was ordered "to manipulate visiting American senators" in any way, at least not according to the evidence provided in the article. Instead it is alleged that certain personnel were ordered to perform background research and provide advice and expertise to LTG Caldwell on how he might be able to manipulate members of  Congress.

4. This directive was founded, of course, on the presumption that the persuasion of and exertion of influence on American political leaders is a legitimate function and recognized responsibility of the Commanding General of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan/NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. This presumption was a poor and unfounded one.

5. CSTC-A/NTM-A is not a warfighting command. It is an element of ISAF that is focused on building the capacity and capabilities of our Afghan partners to operate independently and function without a massive coalition presence. It is a security cooperation office on steroids, an institution that exists to provide equipment, training, and advice to the Afghan government at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. There would seem to be precisely one remotely reasonable justification for the command to be augmented with information operations (IO) personnel, or for an organization that does not engage with the enemy to perform psychological operations (PSYOP, defined in part as efforts to "convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals") in any form or fashion: in order to influence Afghan audiences to more aggressively support U.S. capacity-building initiatives and speed the transition of security responsibility.

6. Relatedly, Hastings alleges that "at a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misuse of vital resources designed to combat the enemy." This is false. IO resources are not explicitly "designed to combat the enemy," but to support the accomplishment of operational objectives. It's possible to conduct legal, well-planned, legitimate IO that has exactly nothing to do with combatting the enemy.

7. There is no reason to believe, as some have glibly suggested, that CSTC-A/NTM-A required PSYOP-trained personnel to conduct social media outreach, or that LTG Caldwell intended for those personnel to perform that function.

8. IO officer LTC Michael Holmes conceives of his job as being "to play with people's heads," which is certainly a component of IO, and also "to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave." This too is part of IO and PSYOP, but not an appropriate role for CSTC-A/NTM-A, an organization that is not enemy-focused. Presumably ISAF has IO/PSYOP personnel whose mission entails influencing enemy perceptions and decision-making.

9. Holmes further argues that he is "prohibited from doing that to our own people." Considering that PSYOP has a specific training pipeline to distinguish it from broader IO or strategic communication (which is comprised of IO and public affairs) writ large, this strikes me as a compelling and true statement. There does not seem to be any specific legal prohibition on PSYOP personnel providing technical insight about the mechanics of decision-making to inform public affairs efforts (and references to the Smith-Mundt Act are a stretch); but U.S. military PSYOP personnel receive dedicated training for the purpose of targeting foreign audiences, and Holmes is certainly correct to say "when you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman [sic], you're crossing a line."

10. Even if Caldwell, Buche, and Breazile deny Holmes' claim that the assignment of IO personnel to DV pre-briefs was intended to provide "a deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds" or to answer the question of "how do we get these guys to give us more people?", it seems certain that LTG Caldwell believed PSYOP training had endowed his IO team with some special skill set that would facilitate more effective decision analysis and add value to his political messaging efforts. Otherwise he would simply have continued to use his dedicated public affairs staff to this end.

11. The details of the alleged smear campaign against Holmes are one-sided and supportive of the message of scandal that Hastings clearly intends to convey, so it's impossible to evaluate their legitimacy. But it sure doesn't look good.

12. Hastings further alleges that "Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban," supporting this accusation only with an unflattering quote from Holmes: "We called it Operation Fourth Star." This, to put it plainly, is just Hastings being a fucking asshole. Such accusations are especially rich from a journalist who has surely faced similar charges from his own critics, someone who could quite easily be pegged as seeming more eager to advance his own career and make waves than to do good journalism and inform meaningful policy change in Afghanistan.

13. Let's be clear about something: in the military, officers do not perform tasks they find unpleasant "under duress" from their superiors. They execute the orders of those appointed over them, or they refuse. And they are held legally and morally responsible for that decision. If Holmes did what he was directed to do "under duress" and he is still convinced that he "violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948" (an absurd claim, for what it's worth), then he should be asking himself why he failed to do what is required of him by oath and regulation: to refuse the unlawful order.

14. The "Capt. John Scott" (Rolling Stone's editors' refusal to use correct, service-specific rank abbreviations makes it impossible to tell whether Scott is an O-3 or an O-6, though I don't suppose it matters) identified in the article as an attorney consulted by Holmes was exactly right to say that "using IO to influence our own folks is a bad idea and contrary to IO policy (pdf)," but I've got to be honest and note that this doesn't exactly constitute stellar legal advice.

15. When a spokesman for LTG Caldwell "categorically denies the assertion that the command used an Information Operations Cell to influence Distinguished Visitors," that's not a semantic dodge. He's saying that Holmes is full of shit, that the whole thing's made up. He's not saying "the general used to IO cell to inform HIS efforts to influence DVs"; he's saying they played no part in such an effort.

16. Hastings closes with what I imagine he believes to be an incredibly powerful parting shot:
As for the operation targeting U.S. senators, there is no way to tell what, if any, influence it had on American policy. What is clear is that in January 2011, Caldwell’s command asked the Obama administration for another $2 billion to train an additional 70,000 Afghan troops – an initiative that will already cost U.S. taxpayers more than $11 billion this year. Among the biggest boosters in Washington to give Caldwell the additional money? Sen. Carl Levin, one of the senators whom Holmes had been ordered to target.
But here he demonstrates either extremely bad faith or inexcusable ignorance: Carl Levin has long supported train-and-equip efforts as a substitute for U.S. troop presence, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's been tossing around the absurd "train host nation forces instead of keeping Americans boots on the ground!" canard, as if that constitutes a comprehensive solution, for much longer than LTG Caldwell's been at CSTC-A/NTM-A. A PSYOP O-5 didn't have a damn thing to do with Levin's support for ANSF funding. Hastings' concluding coup de grace is really just a totally specious bit of draw-your-own-incorrect-conclusion nonsense.

I hope you're not disappointed, but those 16 points don't lead to any sort of really cohesive conclusion or judgment about right or wrong. If you need it boiled down to one sentence, I'd put it like this: all the talk of illegality is just trumped-up editorializing, but LTG Caldwell's actions -- if accurately described -- were inappropriate and suggestive of deeper problems with the way he conceives of his role.

What deeper problems? Well, as noted up there in #4, this is all predicated on Caldwell's belief (underpinned by the support of the military establishment) that lobbying Congress is fair play and part of his job. The military, as you may have heard, tends to inculcate a can-do attitude. When given a mission, officers don't tend to sit around and think up reasons why they can't accomplish it, why it's going to be harder than they thought, or why it ought not really to be their job. They look for ways to get it done. They take stock of the resources they have at hand and figure out a way to effectively apply them against the problem. Sometimes that means doing things that are unconventional, and sometimes that means figuring things out as you go. (DoD didn't have a whole lot of useful guidance on how to run economic development projects in Iraqi cities in 2005, for example, but this type of attitude is what helped a bunch of field- and company-grade offiicers figure it out.)

But this is also why we have laws and regulations: to dampen the aggressiveness and enthusiasm some of these can-do folks will invariably have for performing tasks that are not appropriately delegated to them.
Sometimes that means running influence operations on your own bosses to talk them into the policy course you think is right, and enabling that with personnel who were specifically trained to deploy their skills against non-U.S. targets.

There's a fuzzy line here, and I'm not going to pretend like it's a bright one. The Joint Staff says that the joint force needs to be able to conduct both IO (including PSYOP) and public affairs (pdf): to communicate, shape, and influence. The shaping and influencing is meant to be targeted at the enemy and the operational environment, while the communicating helps to win support for the mission with domestic audiences. Of course, this is all built on the idea that all a public affairs officer has to do is share the good news in order to get Congress and the public on his side, while acknowledging that there may be a little bit more art and nuance involved in persuading a foreign audience. (Why this should be true is never precisely explained, but it seems a bit like backwards reasoning: seeing as we're only allowed to tell the truth to Americans, we'd better hope the truth accomplishes the mission!) And if you've got that skill set in your force or in your command, that special ability not just to convey information but to tailor and target that information in such a way as to really influence the decision calculus and eventual behavior of your target audience... and if you're convinced a certain type of behavior by your higher will help get the job done... well, it's a hell of a temptation. And it looks like LTG Caldwell may have fallen victim to it.

But really, it can't be this way. Our military leaders can't be viceroys, and they can't have carte blanche to skirt law and regulation in order to get the job done. This should be a reminder that constant vigilance is required to keep the proper balance in civil-military relations, and for civilian senior leaders to stay informed and engaged as best they can to ensure that happens.

I hope this investigation happens, and I hope they find that Holmes and Hastings just made the whole damn thing up. I fear that's not the case, though, and I don't think we should be surprised if we find that it's not.


  1. Very good and clear and I agree. This is more about pot stirring and selling copies of the RS. That aside if this voodoo magic they can use is so good why have not the Taliban given up and why must the General put up Oped's on why he is lacking resources to complete his mission.

  2. Very astute analysis Gulliver. What seems odd/interesting to me is that everybody involved with this story has skin in the game, and when that's the case an objective journalist is needed. And I think we can all agree Hastings isn't exactly objective. I do hope the inquiry is a thorough one though.

  3. Objectivity is the most important thing when dealing with news. If it is not objective, I have trouble considering it to be fact-based news.

  4. Less than sixteen point take:

    It's a "he said, he said" case so far.

    Ugh. I hate this sort of thing. I always feel like the reader (me!) is being manipulated and my ignorance of all things military makes it that much easier.

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