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Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle

Freelancer Michael Hastings, whose take-down of Gen. Stanley McChrystal garnered him a recent Polk award, has a piece in Rolling Stone this week that was tearing up certain portions of the blogosphere this week. It's headlined by a bold and attention grabbing claim: that a "runaway general" deployed "psy-ops" on U.S. Senators.

After a 10-story tall headline like that, the story itself is decidedly disappointing, and in some cases undercuts its case by making claims far beyond what the facts in evidence indicate.

(An aside: PSYOP is the proper abbreviation, as it is itself plural. Yet Hastings and a host of other journalists who reported on his story seem dedicated to the use of "psy-ops," a term that I've previously only heard from Hollywood. But this is Rolling Stone we're talking about.)

Hastings' target in this story is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is the commander of NATO training for police and soldiers in Afghanistan. Caldwell has a reputation for being a superior commander and a smart, focused leader - he's widely credited for re-energizing the training side of the mission, and is viewed as an up-and-coming general. The case against him is leveled by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who claims he was assigned by Caldwell and his staff to "conduct an IO [information operations] campaign against" visiting U.S. senators on CODEL (Congressional Delegation) visits to garner more support for their efforts.

In practice, this plays out more like PAO replacement activity rather than PSYOP. If this is what an IO campaign looks like, we've got some serious problems. An excerpt:

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."

I'd maintain that this isn't "seemingly" innocuous, it is innocuous. Holmes says he was asked: "How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?" Yet as the Washington Post notes, "The article did not cite evidence of false or misleading information being provided to the senators and other visitors." And buried in the article, it appears that all Holmes really did was sit in on a few meetings, preparing backgrounders advising Caldwell how to be more persuasive in briefing the visitors.

This is, of course, an example of using staff to do something that's outside their focus. But there is zero evidence Caldwell's goal here was to plant misleading information or to manipulate the visitors. Doing due diligence to research members of Congress and appeal to their interests is something every agency or entity of significant size does before presenting budget requests, identifying the likes and dislikes of particular members so you can be prepared for their questions.

A CODEL is a big deal for guys on the ground; a rare opportunity to sell members of Congress on what you're doing and why you need more support. Caldwell has a reputation for being someone who likes to fully prepare before any situation arises, and while the use of someone like Holmes for this task isn't their primary focus, it could be that Caldwell was simply dissatisfied with the background material he was receiving from the public affairs folks.

So why would this article even be written? Why would Holmes and Hastings spin what is at most a benign misallocation of personnel into a grand conspiracy? Well, the answer is included in the same piece: an AR 15-6 inquiry and a disciplinary report filed against Holmes. Hastings depicts the investigation as being retribution for Holmes' claiming he was being assigned inappropriate duties, and compares the memo afterward to the Starr report - but the investigation found Holmes was drinking too much, "going off base in civilian clothes without permission," "improperly using his position to start a private business," and most significantly, "having an ‘inappropriate’ relationship with one of his subordinates."

While Holmes and the subordinate in question, Maj. Laural Levine, deny that anything inappropriate was going on (they claim they're merely working on starting that private business together), if the two had been busted for an inappropriate relationship, that is not an insignificant thing. In fact, it's grounds enough to boot them both out of the military if one of the participants is married. Cheating can and will ruin your career, and overuse of alcohol in theater is not something a mid-grade officer is going to get away with for long. Hastings claims the military is retaliating against Holmes - he quotes Levine as saying "I couldn’t in good conscience recommend anyone joining right now" - but where's the evidence for this? While these accusations may seem like small fry harassment to Hastings, the ramifications for Holmes easily could've been far more serious than a reprimand.

Of course, facing the possibility of getting kicked out of the military might be all the motivation needed to try and protect yourself by turning whistleblower and sparking an investigation. Yet Hastings ignores this apparent conflict of interest, and uses Holmes' story as an opportunity to blast Caldwell in ways that seem far beyond the scope even of his source. Andrew Exum has already noted one of the worst examples of this - Hastings claims that Caldwell "seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban." Exum calls this "one of the ugliest sentences you will ever read in a piece of journalism" and describes Hastings' pieces for Rolling Stone as "poorly sourced policy papers" - but what is irritating to me is how baseless this critique is even within the context of Hastings' own article.

It takes a truly irresponsible journalist to make a claim like that about a respected senior official without some level of proof - here, even assuming everything Holmes says is true, we only have proof that Caldwell was focused on obtaining more funding for the training of Afghan police and military - how exactly does that hurt the mission? As Jack Goldsmith points out, if Hastings' only proof is Holmes' claim that Caldwell "seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans," that's an accusation without proof, leveled by someone whose motivation is at best questionable.

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.

In all, this piece seems a rather clumsy attempt by Hastings to relive his past glory with the McChrystal affair - his profile of McChrystal online at Rolling Stone now bears the subhead, "The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal that changed history" - and find a way to replay the attention-grabbing nature of that piece. Yet he undercuts this attempt by relying solely on the words of a mid-grade officer with an axe to grind; an officer whose claim, when boiled down, is that he sat in on a few meetings and wrote a few research memos.

Hastings closes this missive by implying the project led by a "runaway general" had some influence on the decision of Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, "one of the senators whom Holmes had been ordered to target" - something for which he offers zero proof - leaving out the fact that Levin has been a longtime supporter of this aspect of the mission. It's a fitting end to a piece that seems focused not on accuracy and well-sourced critiques of America's efforts in Afghanistan, but an abiding love forsturm und drang.