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Psyched Out

Look Into My Eyes
Look Into My Eyes
I first made contact with folks from the world of Pentagon “information operations” (IO) back when I was a correspondent in Baghdad. The job description sounded pretty cool until it became clear that they were basically engaged in the military version of public relations. In this case the product they were selling was the war in Iraq. They were writing and distributing stories that played up progress and achievements while remaining tactfully silent on most of the bad things. (In the advertising business, I believe, it’s called “shaping a narrative.”) Some of them were fairly idealistic about what they were doing, but no one was naïve. I remember one of them warning against the dangers of concocting a version of reality that proves more seductive than the facts. I’m not sure if all of them shared his concern.

Last week "Rolling Stone" magazine brought out a story about the U.S. military that promised considerable scandal. The piece describes how Michael Holmes, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel running a small IO unit in Afghanistan in 2009-2010, was asked by his commanding general to do research on visiting dignitaries, including members of Congress – and then to use “psychological operations” techniques to persuade them of the need to support the general’s mission.

As Holmes tells it in the story, “My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave.” Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star in charge of the program to train Afghan security forces, apparently wanted Holmes to use these sly psychological techniques to persuade visiting officials and politicians to provide his command with more funding. Holmes and his IO colleagues refused to follow Caldwell’s order, saying that they were supposed to be focusing their efforts on persuading Afghans to support their country’s war against the Taliban. Holmes says that Caldwell then retaliated against him by issuing a reprimand that accused him of sundry offenses and effectively ended his career. Now General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has opened an investigation.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Last year, when the same "Rolling Stone" correspondent quoted the commanding general in Afghanistan and his staffers saying harsh things about their civilian leaders, the result was a huge media firestorm that lasted for days. The general, Stanley McChrystal, was forced to resign. (Disclosure: The reporter, Michael Hastings, is one of my former colleagues at "Newsweek.") So far, though, this latest story hasn’t generated the same sort of heat – and it’s certainly not because of the Pentagon’s rather clumsy efforts to push back. The initial military response to the story has relied mainly on the time-honored tactic of besmirching the accuser, questioning his character to FoxNews and other selected media outlets. Holmes stands accused of leaving the base in civilian clothing, making tasteless comments on Facebook, and spending time on a business start-up with another officer in his chain of command.

OK, fine. But what about the substance, please? Depending on where you stand, these details are either highly relevant or one more piece in the picture of unjust retaliation against a whistleblower. Writing over at Tom Ricks’s place, ex-Army officer Lawrence Sellin says that the whole affair might have ended with a whimper if Caldwell hadn’t decided to retaliate against Holmes. He points out that the objections of Holmes and his IO cell apparently led an Army lawyer to revise Caldwell’s original orders, which ought to have defused the whole thing.

More significant in our view, though, is that "The Wall Street Journal" called up Fort Bragg to do a bit of actual reporting and discovered that Holmes actually has no record of training in psychological operations.

This is an important revelation, because it’s that highly loaded term of art – “psy-ops” – that gives this story its pop. The notion of “brainwashing” – one word that has cropped up in some of the media coverage – is way scarier than the dull business of compiling open-source personal info about high-profile visitors – the sort of thing that public affairs officers in various branches of government, not only the military, tend to spend a lot of time doing. In real life, “psychological operations” is a fairly mundane military specialty that focuses on things like distributing leaflets to enemy troops to get them to surrender or wooing local populations to support counterinsurgency campaigns. The emphasis on counterinsurgency in America’s post 9/11 wars has actually given a big boost to psy-ops as a result. Nowadays, anywhere you find a civil affairs unit restoring infrastructure in Afghanistan or Iraq, you’ll probably find psy-ops people there, too.

If this is story has any legs to it, it will probably turn on what Caldwell was actually expecting the IO cell to deliver. In Holmes’s telling of the story, the general – or at least his staffers, since they’re the only ones Holmes appears to have had direct contact with – seemed to believe that the IO experts had some sort of quasi-magical techniques of psychological persuasion: “‘How do we get these guys to give us more people?,’ he [Caldwell’s chief of staff] demanded. ‘What do I have to plant inside their heads?’”

As the psy-ops veterans I’ve spoken with are happy to acknowledge, however, so far no one has discovered that extraordinary power – least of all the U.S. Army. “There’s no mystery technique,” says Herb Friedman, an expert on psy-ops who served in the army for 26 years and has written quite a lot about the subject. “We can’t hypnotize people. We can’t cloud their minds.”

But wait – why did I just say that? Did someone put a move on me? Oh, God. Don’t tell me I’ve been IO’d.