Allegations in Rolling Stone this week – that a US military officer may have been ordered to manipulate a congressional delegation visiting Afghanistan, by collecting information on their backgrounds and voting records – is creating a stir inside and outside the defense community over the proper roles of "psychological operations" (PSYOP) specialists.
The problem, say some senior military officials, is the often-complex distinctions between PSYOP specialists and public affairs officers, who routinely prepare background dossiers on visiting officials. The distinctions are further blurred, they add, by an increasingly media-savvy American military eager to influence “hearts and minds” both abroad and at home.
Troops specializing in PSYOP have clear legal boundaries. Targeting Americans, for example, is strictly off limits for military PSYOPs specialists. “Public affairs is really informing and providing information to a broad audience, including the American public,” explains a senior military official, who asked to speak on background because he is not authorized to talk to the press. “Psychological operations is purely about influencing the behavior of foreign target audiences.”
Was the PSYOP-trained officer asked to dig into the background of the visiting congressional delegation “because of his training?” If so, he says, “That would definitely be a concern.”
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the military’s alleged actions. The Defense Department’s use of PSYOP to manipulate members of Congress and target Americans with military propaganda is a clear violation of the law, they said. The ACLU called on Congress to investigate.
“If found to be true, these revelations are alarming. Using U.S. military intelligence assets designed for manipulating our enemies against our own elected officials is a brazen and chilling abuse of power that directly threatens the core democratic principle of civilian control over the military," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement released Friday.
While the prospect of an officer trained to manipulate psyches using those skills on elected members of Congress is galling to some within the military, others wonder whether it was an innocent mistake or even all that wrong.
Rolling Stone claims that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan troops, asked his team of PSYOP officers to create profiles of a visiting congressional delegation, including their voting records, “likes and dislikes,” and “hot button issues.” It's a common request of public affairs officers, who routinely put together dossiers that include a biographical sketch and articles written by visiting officials, for example.
“You could argue that he was just being prepared,” says USC's Mr. Armstrong.
If General Caldwell used his information operations cell to prepare for the Congressional delegation visit, says the senior military official, that “was a mistake, because it could very easily have created the impression that professionals were being used to PSYOP” visiting senators – in other words, the officer adds, using their skills on fellow Americans to “present selected truths in order to influence [and] target behavior.”
Legitimate foreign PSYOP targets include more than just enemy combatants, say officials. PSYOP specialists may direct messages to foreign civilian populations – to explain how the US-waged war in Afghanistan may actually benefit Afghans, by providing them with more security or access to health care, for example. PSYOP messages are often true, officials note.
Of course, psychological operations have long been associated with creepy or nefarious undertakings. The military acknowledged this last year, when it dropped the term “psychological operations” and instead began using the term “military information support operations" – with the decidedly less-intimidating acronym MISO. The military also engages in military deception, MILDEC in Pentagon parlance, which involves putting out false information to influence or demoralize enemy forces.
While there is widespread agreement within the US military that troops should not target Americans or allies with PSYOP messages – even when they are truthful – sometimes it is difficult to avoid, say senior military officials, particularly given the widespread use of Facebook and Twitter by the US military.
According to Rolling Stone, Caldwell asked Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, a National Guardsman and MISO specialist, "How do we get these guys to give us more people? … What do I have to plant inside their heads?"
Was that an explicit request for ways to manipulate the visiting senators? Caldwell “may simply have meant, ‘I want to know what Senator McCain was thinking, so I can answer his question,” says Armstrong.
Using MISO specialists for this sort of public affairs work may simply reflect a lack of understanding about their role. “A lot of senior leaders don’t have one understanding of what information operations is,” says a senior military officer who specializes in information operations.
A former senior defense official adds, “There are lots of very fine distinctions in this area. Many activities fall into the large bucket of persuasion and influence, from painting rocks to preparing pretty PowerPoint slides to developing and implementing targeted PSYOP plans against a specific target.” He wished not to be named because he still works with the military.
It will take “a real expert and real investigation to figure out whether any specific activities crossed any specific lines," he adds.
Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin, who was part of the visiting delegation, was philosophical in his response this week. “For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans an truly secure their nation’s future. I have never needed any convincing on this point,” he said. “I am confident that the chain of command will review any allegation that information operations have been improperly used in Afghanistan.”