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Mind Games

Why Rolling Stone's article on the military's domestic psy-ops scandal gets it so wrong.

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Rolling Stone has done it again with another scoop by Michael Hastings showing the U.S. military’s manipulation of public opinion and wanton disregard for civilian leadership. The article, “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators,” is another example of an officer corps run amok, right?

Not so fast. Both stories expose an altogether different problem once you cut through the hyperbole.

Central to Hastings’s article are charges by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes that he was part of a team of “psychological operations soldiers” ordered to use psychological operations techniques to deceive and manipulate the opinion of senators and other dignitaries visiting the NATO training mission in Kabul. This was done, Holmes describes, under the orders of the commanding general, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV (above), and his staff.

The overstatement in the article, stemming entirely from comments by Holmes, has in turn spurred more of the same focused on alleged “mind tricks” against several senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), other members of Congress, think-tank analysts, and foreign dignitaries.

Hastings and his supporters are quick to indict the military for allowing another cowboy to go off the reservation to create support for an unpopular conflict people simply want to have disappear. Challenging the narrative by Holmes has been described as a “smear campaign.” Others reacting to these criticisms slam the media as trying to take down the military.

Both sides have completely missed the point.

Holmes is an outstanding American, a reservist who is no doubt dedicated to safeguarding U.S. national security. However, Holmes said his job as a “psy-ops” officer was “to play with people’s heads,” something that naturally evokes “dark thoughts of orbital mind control lasers, dastardly propaganda, or deception,” as one commenter put it. But he was not a member of a PSYOP unit nor trained in PSYOP, an FA37 (Functional Area 37) in the military lexicon. This is not a semantic difference: PSYOP is regulated under U.S. law, and PSYOP activities are restricted to foreign audiences under the same law. He was not a civil affairs officer. And there is no evidence he had training as a public affairs officer. Holmes was an intelligence officer and received training as information operations (IO) officer, or an FA30.

Holmes arrived at Caldwell’s headquarters as part of an information operations team, but this was no longer a mission of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) under Caldwell. He was then put in a position contrary to his expectations: understanding the views, concerns, and requirements of visitors to NTM-A. This ultimately revealed a limited view of his responsibilities and a broader lack of training and understanding of the requirements and limitations of the information environment, as he balked at the order because he believed this would require his IO skills. Holmes either would prefer his commanding officer not be able to anticipate likely questions or concerns or believed he (Holmes) was inherently incapable of dealing with the American public because of his original mission.

Holmes should never have been put into this situation (another related reason for the whole affair is that there was “very poor personnel management by Caldwell’s senior staff,” as FP blogger Thomas E. Ricks put it). In short, he simply did not have the training, and his capabilities did not match the requirements. His statements about PSYOP, both the branch and the practice, reflect this.

But Holmes is not solely at fault. His belief that certain tactics are improper, regardless of whether information is completely truthful, complete, and attributed, is endemic in a Defense Department still struggling to come to grips with the requirements of today’s information environment. More importantly, how are the professionals trained and supported for this environment? Michael Clauser, a former congressional staffer, noted his frustration that after eight years of irregular warfare in southwest Asia, it took an act of Congress (literally) to sharpen the minds and pencils of the Pentagon to take the problems.

Then there is Holmes’s invocation of the Smith-Mundt Act, which he believed as prohibiting his “targeting” of Americans. Rolling Stone characterized the 1948 bill as legislation to “prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens.” Certainly, late Sen. Edward Zorinsky would agree with this assessment. It is Zorinsky, then a Democrat from Nebraska, who in 1985 said, “The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. government propaganda directed at him or her,” as he compared the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to a Soviet propaganda agency. But the world then was unrecognizable to the struggle for minds and wills or the 1940s and 1950s or the 21st century.

But a huge reality check is required here. The Smith-Mundt Act does not apply to the whole of government, the Defense Department, or even the whole of the State Department. It applies to — and was only ever intended to apply to — the part of the State Department that had been the USIA until it was abolished in 1999 and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body overseeing the U.S. government’s international media efforts. It does not apply to the State Department’s office of counterterrorism; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; or Bureau of Public Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley. (Crowley once noted from the podium that “I, as the head of public affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally.”) In short, even if the allegations by Holmes are correct, the Smith-Mundt Act would still not apply. There is other legislation that does apply, including “anti-propaganda” language in congressional authorizations and appropriations, Defense Department directives, and in the case of the activities of PSYOP units, explicit prohibition against targeting Americans.

The original purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act was to give America a voice in the building war of information around the world. Introduced in Congress in October 1945, the prohibition on domestic dissemination of material intended for foreign audiences by the State Department was to protect the government and the American public from the “drones,” “loafers,” and “men of strong Soviet leaning” within the department. In other words, it not an anti-propaganda law, but a protective measure against a department of questionable loyalty. If it had been, or currently is, a broad brush law, we would not have had the campy “perils of communism” films or administration officials appearing on Sunday talk shows. It is ironic that a law intended to counter disinformation is subject itself to so much misinformation.

This is ultimately another cautionary tale about people doing something they are not trained for and the media commenting on something they know little to nothing about. Both of which must be fixed for the sake of U.S. national security.

Matt Armstrong is a principal with Armstrong Strategic Insights Group and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council. He publishes the public diplomacy and strategic communication blog