Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Rolling Stone alleges Lt. Gen. Caldwell screw up with info ops in Afghanistan

Rolling Stone has an interesting article saying that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell misused his "information operations" office, which is supposed to manipulate foreigners, to manipulate members of Congress and other Americans. The article is by Michael Hastings, who popped Gen. McChrystal and seems to be looking for another scalp. That is OK by me. Aggressive ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Rolling Stone has an interesting article saying that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell misused his "information operations" office, which is supposed to manipulate foreigners, to manipulate members of Congress and other Americans.

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.

Rolling Stone has an interesting article saying that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell misused his "information operations" office, which is supposed to manipulate foreigners, to manipulate members of Congress and other Americans.

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.

This ambiguity has been hanging out there for several years. It is aggressive generals like Caldwell who are running afoul of it. Guys who simply are passive don’t get into trouble in today’s military (whereas Marshall and his subordinates worked hard to chuck them overboard).

There is always another side to the story, so I want to see what Caldwell has to say. But going by what the Rolling Stone article says, if I were Caldwell, I’d issue a statement saying, "I screwed up, and I am sorry." I actually think the apparent retaliation against an lieutenant colonel who objected may prove to be the messier problem. A formal letter of apology might be needed there.

My CNAS colleague Andrew Ex-man offers a harsher read of Hastings’ article. 

It must be a day for toasting generals. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, also gets singed by a report that clears him of an improper relationship with a female aide but finds a lack of judgment on his part in keeping around an aide with a drinking problem.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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