Dissecting the Runaway Journalist

by Joe Harlan on 2/27/2011 · 2 comments

Michael Hastings’ latest revelation on general officers in Afghanistan reveals more about his sources and how he pastes together his information than anything about how operations in Afghanistan are run. Setting aside the possible motives of LTC Michael Holmes, who at the very least acted improperly by taking what amount to command grievances to the public press, there are some clues as to how Hastings constructs his critiques that need addressing — namely, that he takes a mix of publicly available information, gets a few salacious details from insiders, and writes a piece meant to challenge the powerful. Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do? Not when they get them so fantastically wrong.

The Rolling Stones article opens with one hell of an accusation: that a three star general in charge of the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) ordered a PSYOP unit to conduct operations against visiting members of the U.S. Congress; that the commander of NTM-A, Lt General William Caldwell, was desperate for funding; that he ordered his subordinates to do something illegal even after concerns were brought to his attention; and that when an officer refused to follow this order, he was thrown under the military administrative bus.

I take issue with the story, for a number of reasons. Besides my feeling that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is one that merits our attention and that the training mission is one of the most important there, this one is a little closer than perhaps others: I spent a little over a year deployed to Afghanistan at ISAF HQ in Kabul in support of Information Operations. This gives me something of an inside view on some of the “office politics” and structure of the command, and I immediately identified a number of problems with Hastings’ story that needed the light of day.

The story strikes me as a desperate attempt to keep a good thing going: Hastings wrote a critical piece that will probably prevent him from working directly with the military for a long time, perhaps forever. He therefore needs to be able to write about the topic without the intimate access he once enjoyed, while maintaining the hard-hitting style that made him famous. And this is part of the problem: he has become an IO shop unto himself.

As any IO shop knows, how we communicate is as important as the substance of our communication. Journalism is no different, and we distinguish between reporting, advocacy journalism, and outright editorializing. Now, especially as it comes to the first one, I normally try not to ascribe motives to journalists, as they do very important work. Nor do I really begrudge them any political leanings they may have, especially since I may share them. But the general construction of Hastings’ latest article should give one pause: It is essentially an IO product, and identifiably so if one were to deconstruct it.

Walking through the article from beginning to end is a useful exercise. It starts with the primary accusation of supposedly illegal orders and hints at a cover-up. After the opening paragraph — one might say salvo — it breaks with a link to the lengthy article that cost General Stanley McChrystal his job as COMISAF; surely one won’t actually spend the time to read that and then return to the article, so the casual reader will take the headline as canon. The article then continues, but after identifying LTG Caldwell and LTC Holmes, it breaks with a link to a photo series, mostly of Caldwell and DVs, save for one of LTC Holmes standing alone, without body armor, in the Queen’s Palace in Kabul. How brave! There is an Afghan and NATO training base directly adjacent, although you would never know that.

Back to the article, it names the targets and then says that “everyone” knows the legality, or lack thereof, regarding this behavior — a clear attempt at establishing an alternative basis for legitimacy for his claims when he doesn’t actually have the entirety of the facts or law on which to base it. Another break, this time to an simultaneous attack on both GEN Petraeus and the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, titled to suggest that Petraeus is not only some sort of despot but that he is somehow gambling recklessly with the lives of over 100,000 U.S. troops. He then details what he — or perhaps Holmes — characterizes as beyond the pale, that is, what was different about his mission from traditional DV handholding.

And then another break. This time, it is to an article published over five years ago regarding an insurgent, who, as the author (not Hastings this time) would like to suggest, is just a normal guy. It humanizes a terrorist who admits he gets a thrill from shooting at American troops and indeed, all westerners.

But back to Caldwell, who, as Hastings points out, seems to be all about pushing the envelope on how to influence the public, or, as we’re supposed to conclude, its elected representatives. This time, he wanted officers to PSYOP Congress, so we’re told, and his bulldog Marine colonel was there to keep people in line. And apparently this was more important than fighting the Taliban, which we assume LTC Holmes would be heroically doing if he weren’t being told to chase after disagreeable DVs.

Next, of course, we learn that the reluctant but dutiful Holmes gets blind sided. An official investigation has been opened against him for basically goofing off in a war zone. Indeed, when I was down the street at ISAF HQ, I also knew that there were ample opportunities for higher level staff to do whatever they pleased. Still, most officers keep that to Friday (the usual day off in staff positions) rather than, well, all the time. On top of resisting or refusing an order from a superior officer — a general officer at that — it seems he wasn’t doing anything else useful.

Thus the narrative follows this path: from sensational accusation, to previous sensational accusation, to identification, to powerful images, to something “everyone” knows, to judgment about both a man and the overall strategy, to humanizing the enemy, to a suggestion as to how reckless the boss can be, to how innocent and victimized the subordinate was after trying to stand up for what’s right. It does not so much lay out objective fact as it does present a path on which the reader has no choice but to follow. It is, in a word, propaganda. And details in Hastings’ article reveal how he constructed it, if you’re “in the know”; and if so, an alternative narrative can be found.

The setting for Hastings morality play is Camp Eggers. For those who are not aware of the camp structure in Kabul, Eggers is the headquarters for the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan; basically, it’s the coalition (but largely U.S.) command center for training the Afgan Army. They are already a non-doctrinal organization, built over time around the mission rather than according to the structure of a fighting unit. But as a training force they have little need for an IO cell or PSYOP unit. (Oh, and for the record, it’s simply PSYOP — not psy-ops.)

However, there is a need to handle visiting Distinguished Visitors. “Targeting” visiting DVs, if it could be thought of that way, is part of the Joint Visitors Bureau (JVB) job, which over at ISAF is under the StratComm (now just officially “Communications”) directorate. Here’s the interesting part though: So is PSYOP. At least down the street in ISAF HQ, for a time they all sat in the same building — along with Public Affairs and IO (which is doctrinally distinct from PSYOP, although related). However, this proximity means you can be shuffled around rather easily, and if the Joint Manning Document (JMD) does not call for you to be there, then you’ll probably be reassigned elsewhere rather than shipped back halfway around the world.

While it affords one access to interesting people, the JVB job is otherwise a relatively thankless one and given the high profile of the mission, it’s unremitting. Every SES, congressperson, director of this and that, and well-known journalist and think tanker gets handled by the JVB and PA team, and the list is pretty full. I had the misfortune of sharing a building with the JVB team for a while and they worked really hard to make sure things went smoothly for a a constant stream of visitors who are used to being treated like everyone knows them.

That said, PSYOP is far more complex than gathering bios and making sure visitors have the information you want them to have — again, a hard enough job in itself, but it’s different than getting inside the head of your enemy and trying to change it through media, military deception (MILDEC), rumor insertion, etc. U.S. policy, through EO 12333 (yes, that one), DODI S-3321.1, and National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 130 prohibit targeting Americans, even overseas, with PSYOP products or operations. The U.S. doctrine on PSYOP says as much. But is that what LTC Holmes was really doing?

No. If one had to guess, LTC Holmes was reassigned to the JVB, or the equivalent at NTM-A. The NTM-A may have no need for an Information Operations or PSYOP cell, but he was a trained officer who was going to — let’s face it — end up doing important but somewhat un-sexy staff work anyway. Why not give him the job? He and similar officers were already in-country, due for deployment, and should be put to use. It would be a waste to simply send them home.

Indeed, on that point, the “$6 million IO team” that Hastings cites is an interesting number. It’s easy to find out where he got it though: it’s public information used by the White House when justifying funds for contingency operations. According to White House estimates, it costs about a million dollars to train, deploy, move, and sustain each soldier in Afghanistan. (Other estimates, notably from the DoD itself, come in at about half that, but it’s still a high number.) Holmes and his “four man team” — rarely do people deploy in this fashion, so it would suggest he may be fudging the truth — would cost roughly five or six million dollars by at least one metric. (For more on the estimates, see this NPR piece on it. But they’re not some sort of crack team of psychologists; that’s just the cost of sending people to a war zone.

Hastings says that the team were assigned the task of collecting bios on visitors. Again, this is not unusual. Furthermore, it appears that Holmes was doing precisely what a JVB team would, and supports the idea that this is probably what happened. That he was assigned this task is perhaps a waste of IO trained staff officers, but it’s nonetheless how a commander reassigned excess personnel resources available to him. As far as the legality of using IO officers for this, it’s the operation, not the officer, that matters. Even then it’s not a problem in the way he thinks it is: he mentions — but sadly, does not hyperlink to — the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. A little digging would reveal that what is being referred to is an amendment from 1972 that prohibited public diplomacy material from being disseminated in the United States, and that it doesn’t apply to any other agency besides the State Department. Though this particular act doesn’t apply, the various executive policies on specifically PSYOP do. It sounds like LTC Holmes was either grossly misinformed or he was making an excuse after the fact.

Once Holmes was “directly tasked” to perform his job, and it was to take higher precedence than anything else he was doing, it should have been done. However, formal orders are often written, especially after verbal ones have been ignored. Perhaps one way to settle this would be to see the order. Many orders are classified merely because they reference other classified orders in the header, and I suspect this would be the same. But it can (and probably will) be redacted as necessary if this becomes at all public.

Ultimately, it would appear — to another IO officer — that the narrative not told is that Holmes was simply reassigned to a less sexy job, and that Hastings used this to keep his journalistic truth-to-power streak going. Holmes resented being assigned to a task he was not trained to do, and that he decided to make excuses and simply not do it. When directly ordered, he complained. And when investigated, he went to the press. And the press — in the form of a journalist who will likely never work directly with the military again after what happened to General McChrystal — happily ran a PSYOP operation of its own.

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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Historian by training and Analyst/Cultural Advisor by trade, Joe is an American working for ISAF mostly in and around Kabul. As an insider at the U.S. Department of Defense for almost the past decade, he has ample experience when it comes to the functions and dysfunctions of the U.S. Government and its adventures in the dusty corners of the world -- especially the ones where Persian is spoken. Armed with an MA from a modest state school, a working knowledge of Dari, and about a quarter of the country under his heels, Joe imagines he can speak intelligently about what might be right and wrong with the Western presence in Afghanistan in general and U.S. DoD policy in particular. An avid runner, triathlete, skier, mountaineer and climber, Joe thinks Afghanistan would be great if it weren't for all the land mines and men with Kalashnikovs.

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Lisa Miller February 28, 2011 at 1:50 am

When US troops are in contact with a population for an extended period of such as during stability operations, there is a distinct requirement for public relations with that population. PR consisting of interaction with political officials, local leadership, and media are just a few examples of “information operations” engagements likely to enhance the security of our troops and ultimately mission accomplishment.

DE CTeodoru February 28, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Let’s recall two other “psyops” of McChrystal , one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan, and then ask, should this incident be seen in isolation or in perspective?

We fought top Red PAVN troops in Vietnam but in Afghanistan we fight almost totally “towel heads,” lightly armed, as some call them in order to impose on the Afghnas what Petraeus called “a criminal syndicate.” Reading various official appraisals for Congress of performance over the nearly decade long war of throwing at them the very best 21st Century technology and limitless money could buy, we are still not there because of a whole variety of incompetents. But, somehow, Command thinks it is forever entitled to a “do over” on grounds that it is learning.

Mr. Harlan, if it were your kid in the field in 2001, would you by now feel that the price he paid was worth it and productive? Where is this goal-less need to go on in order to prevent repeat of the 1975 pink-sliping in this military command of our military with 2x as many Four-Stars as Vietnam when the army was 2x as big supposed to go?

I have no doubt that by now it’s only psyops, not info, that is needed to keep the war going in Congress. The nation has already decided that it is neither worth it nor winnable. Petreaus is lucky that most of his visitors are Dems who have to protect Obama to his re-election and Reps who have to justify the Bush past. But HISTORY, ah she’s a merciless eye that eventually sees through all the classifications and psyops. Some careerists resigned in time and went to work for the Saudis, but most will be called to account UNDER OATH. The question is only whether we’ll all see how “well” COIN was going from the exsanguination of our military and resources over the psyops blinders in time for America to survive to the day History finally looks IN DEPTH at what’s now going on.

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