Military to Investigate Whether General Ordered Improper Effort to Sway U.S. Lawmakers
By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — The American commander in Afghanistan will order an investigation into accusations that military personnel deployed to win Afghan hearts and minds were instructed over their own objections to carry out “psychological operations” to help convince visiting members of Congress to increase support for the training mission there, military officials said Thursday.
A brief statement issued by the military headquarters in Kabul said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan, “is preparing to order an investigation to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue.”
The investigation was prompted by an article released Thursday by Rolling Stone magazine that described an “information operation” or “psychological operation” ordered by Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who is in charge of training Afghan security forces.
The article said that General Caldwell and his senior aides ordered a team of specialists to gather information about distinguished visitors and create a campaign to sway, in particular, traveling American lawmakers to endorse more money and troops for the war. When the officer running the team resisted, saying that it would not be proper, he was ordered in writing to make this his priority.
Under pressure, the article said, quoting the officer and numerous documents, the team eventually gathered biographies and things like the guests’ voting records — a standard task for headquarters staff before visits by congressional delegations.. The article quotes a spokesman in Kabul denying that the command used an information operations cell to influence high-ranking visitors. A previous article in Rolling Stone by the same writer, Michael Hastings, prompted the forced retirement of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was serving as commander in Afghanistan. That article labeled General McChrystal a “runaway general,” because of outspoken comments that he or members of his circle made, including in the presence of Mr. Hastings. This time, Rolling Stone placed the same label on General Caldwell in its headline.
Among those said to have been a target of the information campaign or psychological operation was Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Levin issued a statement Thursday noting that any effort to convince him to advocate for training Afghan security forces was a waste of personnel, time and money — because he is one of the Senate’s most energetic supporters of exactly that.
“For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation’s future,” Mr. Levin said. “I have never needed any convincing on this point. Quite the opposite, my efforts have been aimed at convincing others of the need for larger, more capable Afghan security forces.”
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates thought it was important to determine the facts before drawing any conclusions.
Senior military officials in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon declined comment on the accusations, because they will be under investigation.
But a range of Pentagon and military officials said that it would not necessarily be improper for an information operations cell to gather publicly available biographical material on high-ranking visitors. The central question likely to be under scrutiny is the commander’s intent behind that effort, and whether the material was used in a manner that violated military regulations.
But that was not the view held at the time by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, the team leader, who spoke to Rolling Stone and said he thought the order was “crossing a line.”
Faced with a written order to make visits by important visitors his top priority, Colonel Holmes sought advice from a military lawyer, Capt. John Scott, who agreed that using information operations “to influence our own folks is a bad idea, and contrary to IO policy,” Rolling Stone reported.
The magazine said it also was provided a copy of a scathing disciplinary review of the colonel’s performance, which it said resulted in a formal reprimand.
The accusations underscore a debate that has been raging across the military about how to manage information during wartime.
In Defense Department doctrine, the term “information operations” combines a number of military specialties, including psychological operations, tactical deception and computer-network attack. Psychological operations and deception, in particular, are understood as being aimed at adversarial or neutral audiences — not at Americans.
In contrast, public affairs is broadly understood to be the officially acknowledged — and accurate — dissemination of information about the military to an American and global audience.
The United States and its allies seek to gain the support and trust of the local population, while in violent competition with militants who are expert at rapidly disseminating their point of view.
This is not the first time that military officers have developed information or persuasion campaigns viewed as improper by members of Congress.
The New York Times reported in late 2007 that Ellen O. Tauscher, during her tenure as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California, visited Iraq and found that a biography compiled by military communications officers was distributed to Iraqi officials and American troops before her meetings.
The material highlighted her critical remarks about the Bush administration’s war strategy — but did not mention her sponsorship of legislation requiring more time at home for combat troops or support of financing for armored vehicles. Ms. Tauscher, now serving as under secretary of state, said the document left her “feeling slimed.”
General Petraeus, then serving as commander in Iraq, pledged that future biographies of visiting legislators would be taken only from the members’ official Web sites or from Congressional Quarterly, a private publication.