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Caldwell Continued: The Rebuttal

Over To You, Gentlemen: Vice President Joe Biden (L), General David Petraeus (R)
Over To You, Gentlemen: Vice President Joe Biden (L), General David Petraeus (R)
Outpost readers may recall our reporting on the psy-ops scandal surrounding U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who is now commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan.

In a story published in "Rolling Stone" magazine, reporter Michael Hastings presented the misadventures of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes, who says that General Caldwell ordered him to put his knowledge of psychological operations to use in an effort to manipulate members of the U.S. Congress (and other dignitaries) who visited Caldwell's command in Iraq. General David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has ordered an investigation into the allegations.

Caldwell's defenders were quick to respond. In the interest of helping readers get to the bottom of this story, "Outpost" published a letter from a group of them who took issue with the Holmes account.

Now it's Mike Hastings's turn. (Once again, I should disclose that he and I are old colleagues who both reported from Iraq for "Newsweek.") "Outpost" wanted Mike to have his chance to respond to Caldwell's supporters, and he was kind enough to oblige. His take follows below.

Once again, "Outpost" hastens to add that we have no agenda here. We think that this open debate will help our readers to make up their own minds about this story, which brings up issues of fundamental relevance to America's wars in South Asia. And this should interest not only Americans but also Afghans, Iraqis, and others who are directly affected by U.S. policies.

So, over to Mike:

Hey, Christian, thanks for the note. In honor of our Baghdad days at
Newsweek, it's my pleasure to answer a few of the points you raise:

1) The claim that General Caldwell had no "information operations cell" is not true. In fact, on June 15th, 2010, his staff issued a memo that said: "Any existing Information Operations cell, section or working group will be immediately restructured as an Information Engagement Cell." If he had no IO cells, why the need to issue a memo prohibiting them? More to the point, why change the name of something that you don't have?

2) As for the Pentagon/media response to the story: Attacking the whistle blower LTC Michael Homes is not where the real story is here. It's funny that more ink has been spilled looking at Holmes record--Holmes, a 20-year plus veteran in the Texas Army National Guard who's done three tours overseas--than on the record of Lt. General Caldwell. Caldwell is in charge of a 11.6 billion dollar-a-year operation, and has been at the forefront of trying to tear down the firewalls between IO and Public Affairs. (In short, trying to tear down what used to separate propaganda from being used on domestic versus foreign audiences.) So, if I was handing out reporting assignments, I would suggest looking closely at Caldwell's comments from his stint as spokesperson in Iraq (they regularly lacked veracity) and the comments and writings he made while at the Ft. Leavenworth. While publicly stating in 2008 that "information operations" should only be used on foreign audiences, he also rather aggressively attempted to expand the reach of propaganda to domestic audiences as well. To redefine information operations, in other words, as "information engagements." That's the key here--that's how you wind up targeting senators with a team of soldiers who know how to conduct psychological operations.

3) From my perspective, the story gives us a glimpse into the U.S. military's massive spin machine--spin on steroids, really. We all know it exists, but it's often difficult to find a way to write about it. In this case, it's a spin machine that clearly overstepped legal boundaries. Over the past ten days, a few of my colleagues have preferred to defend the Pentagon's propaganda efforts. That's their prerogative. But after wiping away all the mud that's been flung, the facts of Holmes story can't be denied: An information operations cell, trained in how to conduct psychological operations and military deception, was ordered to manipulate visiting U.S. political leaders into giving more money and troops. That to me is pretty disturbing. If Caldwell and his friends want to claim they are "innocent"--which I don't doubt they believe--then that's even more disturbing.

4) I commend General Petraeus for calling for an investigation. But my guess is that the confidence you speak of among Caldwell supporters has little to do with innocence or guilt. It has to do with the fact that--as we've seen over the past decade--these investigations are often just white washes. The brass usually dodges any responsibility, and they hang out the little guys to dry. The only way to really make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again is to have Congress take a look at it.

Pretty clear. So, let's see where it goes from here.