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.