- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2011

“Rolling Stone magazine is engaging in a psychological operation trying to brainwash the American public,” says an expert in military information operations. The magazine’s Feb. 23 article, “Another runaway general: Army deploys psy-ops on U.S. senators,” by Michael Hastings, is a confused attempt to create an issue where no issue exists, and a potentially libelous smear on the record of a senior military officer. This is what passes for reporting among the anti-war left.

Mr. Hastings asserts that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A) illegally employed “‘psychological operations’ to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war.” From the tone of the article, an unsuspecting reader could conclude that the U.S. military has secret teams of warriors employing Jedi mind tricks, or active units of “men who stare at goats.” Senior military leaders are portrayed as being out to use government resources and martial techniques to dupe U.S. lawmakers.

The breathless introduction of the piece is disingenuous, asserting starkly that illegal acts took place when nothing of the kind has been charged, let alone proven. Even a common criminal gets the benefit of the doubt when crimes are alleged, but when the topic is the military, Rolling Stone’s apparent default position is a presumption of guilt. The general impression is of an anti-military hit job, which isn’t surprising coming from a journal that made its name in the hippie peace and love era.

Biased or not, more information is needed for the attack to stand up to the simplest scrutiny. An article accusing a high-ranking military officer of illegal activity should be based on an in-depth investigation involving multiple sources and extensive documentary evidence. However, Mr. Hastings asserts flatly that crimes took place based on a single source with an axe to grind. This is a violation of basic tenets of journalistic integrity. Sensational, yes. Honest journalism, no.

Mr. Hastings primary source is Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, the head of the information operations (IO) unit who is portrayed in the cliched role of the selfless whistle-blower bucking the system. But according to information obtained by The Washington Times, Lt. Col. Holmes is better characterized as a disgruntled soldier who had been caught engaging in alleged improprieties and is using the liberal, anti-war press to strike back.

A former member of Gen. Caldwell’s command told The Washington Times that when the general took over NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, he stated that he did not need IO assets because his assignment was to lead a training command. He did not conduct IO or psy-ops and reassigned those troops to do other staff work. “NTM-A does not have a mission for operational IO,” according to another source with close knowledge of the people and events involved. “Therefore Holmes and his sidekick [Maj. Laural Levine] were remissioned to assist [in other duties] throughout the command.”

A humdrum staff-support job apparently was not what Lt. Col. Holmes had in mind when he deployed. Our second source said, “[Holmes and Levine] weren’t happy about it because they wanted to float around Kabul on their own.” When Lt. Col. Holmes was ordered by his superiors to do work he considered beneath him, such as looking up the biography of a visiting dignitary, he “used the ‘I am an IO-trained person - I cannot do that’ [argument].” Apparently, that’s how some rebels think “an Army of one” is supposed to work.

Mr. Hastings dramatically asserts that using Lt. Col. Holmes in doing prep work for a congressional delegation’s visit constituted targeting the dignitaries with an illegal psychological operation. Of course, just because Lt. Col. Holmes was trained as an IO officer does not mean that everything he did constituted an “information operation.” An expert in the military’s use of IO told The Washington Times that Mr. Hasting’s article was filled with “wild-ass assertions,” and that “none of the things that the soldiers were doing were wrong. … There was an effort to do responsible staff work to be able to address visiting dignitaries’ concerns as expressed in public forums. These were things easily available in any Google search, because that’s how it’s done.”

According to our second source, when the two soldiers “went to the [Judge Advocate General] to complain about being asked to actually do some staff work, the lawyer found out that they were having an inappropriate relationship.” Mr. Hastings notes that an Army investigation found that Lt. Col. Holmes and Maj. Levine spent their time off-post drinking and planning a private business for when they returned stateside. This was the basis of the General Officer Memoranda of Reprimand filed against Lt. Col. Holmes by the acting commanding general, Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton. The two left theater in September and immediately upon return filed an inspector general’s complaint. According to our source, when the “complaint was found to be unsubstantiated … they ran to Hastings with this highly inflammatory story that Hastings jumped on.” The bottom line was that, “Two malcontent officers were reprimanded for failure to obey a lawful order on three different charges who then make allegations against their former chain of command and go to a hack sensationalist reporter with an already poor track record.”

Our expert in the military’s use of information operations said that Mr. Hasting’s piece is “an outrageous smear on Lt. Gen. Caldwell and his professionalism. This is a completely unnecessary and ridiculous assault on a patriot who with Gen. [David] Petraeus is turning the tide on this war.” Mr. Hastings throws around threatening-sounding terms like “psy-ops” and “information operations” that the average reader is not likely to understand. Most Americans - or for that matter most members of the military - do not know the complex and nuanced differences between public affairs, information operations, psychological operations or psychological warfare. This plays to the advantage of the people seeking to stir up a scandal.

Anything smacking of government mind control will be picked up by the anti-war blogosphere and spread like lightning, being further decontextualized and sensationalized along the way. Even CNN flashed up a chyron graphic on the screen alleging a “Pentagon brainwashing campaign,” which shows that the established media can hyperventilate as much as the least credible blog. When the fog of the media war lifts, however, one thing is clear: If any organization is involved in brainwashing, it is Rolling Stone magazine.