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Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings shoots at but misses another general

A little investigative reporting for you.

Apparently, after the article he wrote about Gen. Stanley McChrystal was instrumental in seeing McChrystal relieved of command in Afghanistan, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone believed he had carved out a niche for himself. Going after the brass in war zones.

However his latest attempt, in which he accuses LTG William Caldwell, the general in charge of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, of an effort to use “PsyOps” (Psychological Operations) against visiting US Senators misfired badly. For anyone who read the piece and has spent any time at all in the services the picture that formed immediately in the mind, given Hasting’s source, was “disgruntled officer”. And, as it turns out, that’s pretty much on the mark.

Hastings apparently took the word of LTC Michael Holmes as the premise and theme of his article. In fact he sets it up with a quote from Holmes:

“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,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. “I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”

Except LTC Holmes job wasn’t “in psy-ops” (Psychological Operations) nor is LTC Holmes trained in PsyOps. That is a very specific Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) that requires school training. The place in which PsyOps is taught is the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg, NC. According to Special Operations Command, the Special Warfare School has never heard of LTC Michael Holmes.

Hastings also implies that Holmes received an official reprimand for “bucking orders” associated with the claim he was to use “psy-ops” on Senators. In fact he was instead cited for numerous violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that included ignoring orders not to go off post in civilian clothes, surrendering his weapon to civilians in civilian restaurants, conflict of interest and telling falsehoods to superiors, among others. The reprimand Holmes received had little if anything to do with the reason implied by Hastings.

When asked by his immediate supervisor, a Colonel, whether LTC Holmes had permission to leave post in civilian clothes, Holmes told his his boss that the former Chief of Staff of the US’s Afghan Training Mission had given he and MAJ Laural Levine permission to wear civilian clothes off post. However, when contacted by the officer who conducted the Command’s AR 15-6 investigation into the matter, the former Chief of Staff, in a sworn statement, denied ever giving anyone blanket permission to wear civilian clothes or dine off post. For one thing, he didn’t have the authority to do such a thing. The former Chief of Staff stated that any such permission would have to be given by a general officer as required by the two different command policies. In this case that permission would have had to come from LTG Caldwell. No such permission was ever given. By claiming that the Chief of Staff had given them permission when that wasn’t the case, Holmes and Levine were in violation of Article 107 of the UCMJ – making a false official statement.

Another officer who was invited to go out with LTC Holmes and his subordinate, MAJ Levine, gave a sworn statement that Holmes said that he and Levine routinely went off post to restaurants in civilian clothes for social purposes not official business, that they surrendered their weapons at the Afghan civilian establishments and that they drank alcohol. All of those activities are in direct contravention of standing orders and policies in Afghanistan. The officer who gave the sworn statement declined the invitation to go with them.

The conflict of interest charge came about when Holmes and Levine decided they could use their experience in strategic communications to start a civilian business. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with that if you wait until you’re in a civilian capacity to do so. But when you use duty time and DoD assets to promote your business, or misrepresent your duty as something other than it is, that raises definite ethical problems. Holmes and Levine did both of these things. And as such were in violation of numerous parts of the Joint Ethics Regulations.

For instance, they used their DoD positions for their own personal gain, namely to pass off their work in training Afghans from the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defense as work done on behalf of their company SyzygyLogos LLC. On the company’s Facebook page, in an entry dated April 8th, 2010, you’ll see pictures of Holmes, in civilian dress, under a post title which says, “SyzygyLogos LLC, A Strategic Communications Firm – Images from our training sessions with the Afghan Government.”

That was clearly done with the intent to generate business for their private company. Additionally they listed either the US Government or the Afghan MoI and MoD as their “current clients”. All of this activity violated UCMJ article 92 (Failure to obey an order or regulation – i.e. the ethics regulation). Both the article 92 and 107 violations also lead to a third UCMJ charge for LTC Holmes, violation of article 133 (conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman).

As to the implication Hastings has in his article that the punitive action was taken because Holmes and Levine thought the use “psy-ops” on US Senators was illegal, it is obviously false. Neither were cited for anything to do with what the general had allegedly asked nor did they “buck orders” related to that situation other than to ask for legal clarification. Additionally, in a Wall Street Journal article by Julian Barnes, it is clear that LTG Caldwell had determined that PsyOps was inappropriate for a training command:

Several officers said that almost immediately after taking command, Gen. Caldwell determined it was inappropriate for a training command to try engage in information operations or try to influence any audiences with deception or other psychological operations techniques.

Military officers said that following that decision, Lt. Col. Holmes was reassigned to a strategic communications team that was tasked, in part, prepare the command for visits by congressional delegations.

Another officer who worked with Holmes and under Caldwell said that what Holmes was asked to do was anything but inappropriate:

Col. Holmes said he was asked to prepare background briefings on how to persuade congressional delegations on the importance of the training mission. But asking an officer trained in information operations to do the job of a public affairs officer is improper and illegal, Lt. Col. Holmes said.

“What they wanted me to do is figure out what we had to say to a congressional delegation or think tank group to get them to agree with us,” he said. “Honestly this is pretty innocuous stuff. If I was a public affairs officer, it wouldn’t be that bad.”

Lt. Col. Holmes compared the request to asking a CIA officer to investigate a criminal in the U.S. It would be illegal for the intelligence officer to do tasks that are perfectly appropriate for a regular police officer.

But a military officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes and under Gen. Caldwell said the accusation is baseless, and that the officer was specifically told not to use information operations techniques. The officer declined to allow his name to be used because the command in Afghanistan has asked people not to discuss the case.

“I don’t know of any regulation that would say someone trained in info ops or psy-ops couldn’t put together a briefing packet,” said the officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes. “There wasn’t any subliminal messages here. It was just look at what issues a lawmaker was championing so we can get our message out.”

Or, in other words, Holmes was asked to gather information about incoming visitors that would be useful for his commanding general in preparation for their visit. It is a task every general officer command would task subordinates to do for their boss. Apparently Holmes resisted this for reasons other than those given to Hastings.

Holmes superior stated in a sworn statement for the 15-6 investigation that he had a hard time getting either Holmes or Levine to do other duties beyond teaching STRATCOM (Strategic Communications) to Afghans. Reviewing their ethics violations, the reason becomes pretty clear. Doing what the general asked interfered with their “company” business.

Hastings either never checked out Holmes’ background and was unaware of the nature of charges against him or preferred to use Holmes version of the truth as his basis for the article because he liked what he heard. And his apparent unfamiliarity with the role of the NATO Training Command is also evident in passages like these:

According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. “Putting your propaganda people in a room with senators doesn’t look good,” says John Pike, a leading military analyst. “It doesn’t pass the smell test. Any decent propaganda operator would tell you that.”

At a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misuse of vital resources designed to combat the enemy; it cost American taxpayers roughly $6 million to deploy Holmes and his team in Afghanistan for a year. But Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban. “We called it Operation Fourth Star,” says Holmes.

First, it wasn’t a “psy-ops” team, it was an Information Operations team. And they weren’t “propaganda people”, they were trainers and instructors. As the Barnes article notes, early on “Gen. Caldwell determined it was inappropriate for a training command to try engage in information operations or try to influence any audiences with deception or other psychological operations techniques.”

PsyOps are for use with operational units engaged with the enemy. Caldwell understood that wasn’t his command’s mission and changed the section’s mission to the more mundane of roles of information operations and strategic communications. Holmes was on the STRATCOM side. But none of that precludes a general officer from assigning other duties to his staff officers in addition to their primary duties. All staff officers fulfill a myriad of extra duties in addition to their primary functions on any staff. And that appears to be what happened here. Holmes, for fairly obvious reasons, resisted that.

Secondly, Caldwell’s mission was to train Afghan allies, not “defeat the Taliban”. That again is a job for operational units, not a training unit. The fact that Hastings accepted the Holmes quote above at face value and even tried to expand on it is indicative of his lack of knowledge about the role of Caldwell’s command. It is certainly a sensational quote, but to the knowledgeable, it is utter nonsense.

In short Hastings was gulled by Holmes. If anyone was a victim of “psy-ops” here, it was Michael Hastings. His lack of knowledge about the command plus an apparent desire to put another general officer notch in his journalistic belt left him open to a sob story from a disgruntled officer that may have sounded good to him, but appears to have little or no basis in fact. A story from an officer who had already been reprimanded for making a false official statement.

LTG Caldwell is being investigated now on the basis of these charges by Hastings and Holmes. Most people knowledgeable of the situation expect absolutely nothing to come of it. When Holmes questioned the legality of the directive issued by the command, the command’s Staff Judge Advocate (military lawyer) was asked to look into the legality of the directive. The SJA issued an opinion finding the directive to be legal.

Holmes received a General Officer Memorandum Reprimand for his violations of orders and policy and making a false official statement. Many consider that to have been lenient given his rank and what he did. When you reach the rank of field grade officer, you’re expected to understand how the system operates and to comply with both orders and policy. Willfully ignoring such orders and policy and then making false statements about it are serious offenses to the good order and discipline of the Army. LTC Holmes, as it turns out, got off lightly.



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18 Responses to Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings shoots at but misses another general

  • Excellent summary. I read a few summaries of this story a week ago or so.
    I’m continuously amazed at people with no experience (or subject matter knowledge) jumping on alleged military scandals while having a very limited understanding of how the military actually functions. Of course, what we were not told at the time was that Holmes had been officially disciplined. While not dispositive, it tends to lead an informed reader to question Holmes’ credibility and motivation.
    I tend to read all military reporting with a large dose of skepticism. Even without the foreknowledge of Holmes’ disciplinary record my first though was, “So how exactly does telling a staff officer to create a persuasive briefing amount to employing psyops techniques illegally (immorally?)?” Know your audience is not a truism invented by the JFK School, it’s an adage as old as modern public relations. And having an idea of what your visitors are interested in, especially guests who provide your funding is just plain common sense. Senator Jones might be a “big picture” guy who wants to see lots of maps and symbols. Congressman Brown might be a numbers lady who likes charts and percentages. Deputy Secretary Smith might be interested in visiting training facilities and talking with the troops. (Where are you from? How’s the chow? Are you being treated well?)
    All these high level visits have two objectives which don’t always coincide: What do we want the visitors to learn? and What do they want to see?
    Not only is there nothing to see here, it’s another instance where some reporter doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    • I’m continuously amazed at people with no experience (or subject matter knowledge) jumping on alleged military scandals while having a very limited understanding of how the military actually functions.

      Prior to the advent of the web and blogging, it was probably pretty easy to get away with.  The average US citizen will not understand a lot of this stuff, and so we don’t know what is accurate and what is not, or how far from the mark the inaccuracies are.  And in the past, attempts to rebut the information were easier to dismiss as CYA.  It’s very different now.  I don’t think that Hastings thought he was pulling a con job on the public, but I think he got played for a chump because he wanted very badly to believe Holmes’ story.  As Bruce says, it would be a pretty big notch on his belt and potentially a huge career lift.

    • If Viet Nam taught me one thing, it was that you should never believe anything based on one report.

    • Listen Up. Know Your Audience.

      Not only do you have to know who you are talking to, you need to know how they listen

      This bit of wisdom come from a sinister source.

      • Are you using “sinister” in the sense of actual meaning – on the left?  or was it just serendipity?

        • I guess I should have invoked the proper html for sarcasm.

          • No no, I found it entertaining – I mean, the NYT IS a leftist bunch, and…well….
            so, it was serendipity – that’s okay, that’s why we have that word!

  • Since he’s claiming it was “illegal”, I want to know what law it supposedly violated.
    Over at Althouse, someone was claiming it was the Smith-Mundt Act, but I can’t figure out which part of it supposedly has anything at all to do with this alleged “crime”.
    (Now, the Smith-Mundt Act makes it illegal [in various of its amended forms over the years] for the USIA [Voice of America, etc.] to disseminate information in the United States, but that’s the only thing I could find that it makes illegal.
    The Act’s purpose was to make the USIA, after all, not to “protect our Senators from evil military mind control” or whatever the half-baked accusations are trying to claim.)

  • It is a shame that we even listen to the word of a rock and roll mag anyway. It’s like listening to the “great” opinions of actors. That LTC had a good run with this guy anyway.

    • Well this LTC had pitched his story to a couple of major newspapers who turned him down flat. So he figured out that the guy most likely to listen to him would be the guy who is given credit for bringing down McChrystal. Eager for another general officer victim, Hastings was all ears. The fact that he apparently talked to no one in the command and certainly didn’t understand IO, PsyOps or what the NATO Training Command Afghanistan did (or what Holmes had done to get the GOMR) only points to how much of a hack the guy is. Frankly, as little as I think of Holmes, I am perversely pleased that he took Hastings down with him.

  • I don’t know, but it still reeks.
    I’ve never been in the military, so I should give the benefit of the doubt.  After all, it isn’t like any other business.
    But in true humility, maybe some of you can enlighten me.  Why should anyone’s background be relevant on a fact-finding mission?  Why should anyone, by any means, be tasked to find out background on anyone seeking facts?

    • Its called sales and marketing. Its like when you have a client who sells church furniture, you wait until they order double whiskeys to order yourself a drink,too.
      My question is if its really necessary to spend 6 million dollars to train Afghanis in this stuff. Psyops? Yes. PR? No.

    • Like Harun said, sales and marketing (how does one influence another) … what catches this person’s attention, how do you appeal to them, what approach is most likely to have them listen to what you have to say. It goes on in every corporation, government department or bureau and every branch of the military daily. Human nature 101.

  • Steve C. – I’m continuously amazed at people with no experience (or subject matter knowledge) jumping on alleged military scandals while having a very limited understanding of how the military actually functions.

    It’s even more amazing because, in many ways, the military functions exactly like any other bureaucracy.  People in any organization – public, private, military, etc. – may be called upon to perform a distasteful, unethical, or even illegal action by their boss and be faced with unpleasant consequences if they refuse to comply.  The consequences in the military tend to be a bit more severe (a private employer can’t give an employee a dishonorable discharge or throw him into Ft. Leavenworth), but the principle is the same.  The natural question in ANY circumstance is, “What did you do when your boss allegedly asked you to do that?  Did you go to HIS boss?”

    I agree with McQ: it appears that Hastings (and the layers upon layers of editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone) WANTED to believe the story and didn’t bother with even a semblence of skepticism.

    I would also say that it is ridiculous to consider it improper to allegedly ask an officer to do a little background check on a prospective visitor and develop a presentation appropriate for him, just as it would be ridiculous to consider it improper to ask an employee in any private business to do the same thing.  I have developed presentations in various jobs that I’ve held; it is natural and reasonable to consider the background and interests of the visitor(s) not only to put the best face on the company but also to avoid wasting the visitor’s time.  For example, there’s no sense in going into a lengthy technical discussion with non-technical visitors.  Again, Steve C. is right: different visitors want to see different things, and it’s a waste of everybody’s time to NOT find out ahead of time about their interests and cater to them.

  • dear mr. hastings
    i am looking for help,our nation is in need of help,and i have the fix that is needed to get our nation out of the situation that it is in.washington for years had been talking about our week economy, unemployment,illegal immigrations and much more but when some one has the answer to the problems our goverment is hideing it from the public,home land sec.the one that i thought would listen only gave me a case number so far i had gotten 3 case numbers but no action on my proposal that will end illegal immigrations in 1 year and when i write to the president about putting over 6 million americans back to work i get a letter back saying in a round about way that there not interested for he is extending the unemployment benifits again costing millions of dollares our president wont even take a few read our plan but will spend $100,000,000 a day on those issues i am not looking for any fame ect.i only want to help the millions of americans who have lost either there jobs there homes and in alot of cases ther familys.the people that our nation had forgotten.its a shame that there is an answer to the problem but our goverment is keeping it from those that need it the most , governors had seen it and like it economist had liked it so this is not a joke or some nut case writting you i can and will send you copys of there letters and a short letter of what our plan does all you need to do is tell me where to send it to thank you johnny gonzales