Federal law prohibits the military from using propaganda and psychological tactics on U.S. citizens, but that is exactly what may have happened in Afghanistan, according to reporter Michael Hastings, who joins us to speak about his recent exposé for Rolling Stone magazine, "Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators." In the article, Hastings writes that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, illegally employed psychological operations to manipulate visiting U.S. senators into providing more troops and funding for the war effort. “It just shows how far off the rails that entire operation has gone,” Hasting says. “The most important battlefield actually isn’t in Afghanistan, it’s in Washington.” [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Federal law prohibits the military from using propaganda and psychological tactics on U.S. citizens, but that is exactly what may have happened in Afghanistan, according to reporter Michael Hastings. His most recent exposé for Rolling Stone magazine is called "Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-ops on U.S. Senators." In the article, Hastings writes that Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the commander of NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, illegally employed psychological operations to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war effort.
According to the article, a military cell devoted to what is known as "information operations" was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. Hastings says the campaign targeted a variety of policymakers, including Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin.
AMY GOODMAN: Although the military has denied Hastings’s allegations, the U.S. command in Afghanistan issued a statement saying General David Petraeus is "preparing to order an investigation to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue." Last month, Hastings won the George Polk Award for his article in Rolling Stone last year that led to the dismissal of former NATO commander U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal.
Michael Hastings is joining us now from Washington, D.C.
Michael, thank you so much for taking the time from writing your book to do this. Just lay out what you found.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Well, essentially, what we have here is that an information operations cell, which is a cell that, by definition, is trained to conduct psychological operations and military deception, was asked by Lieutenant General Caldwell and his staff to use their skills on visiting U.S. senators and other VIPs. Now, the cell, this IO cell, was led by a gentleman named Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes. Lieutenant Colonel Holmes raised objections to being asked to do this. He said, "Hey, I’m an IO cell. Information operations is only supposed to be used for foreign audiences. It’s a really bad idea to be using my team, because we specialize in psychological operations and whatnot, to be doing this." But the pressure kept on mounting on him to, you know, focus all his efforts not on the Afghans, but on Americans visiting. Finally, he received a written order to this effect: you know, focus all your efforts on essentially manipulating visiting senators.
He then took that order and went to a lawyer, a JAG lawyer. The lawyer said, "Yes, this is not right. This is illegal." Another lawyer confirmed that opinion. And then Caldwell’s people refined the order to say, "Oh, well, you’re only looking at public records," but then they launched a retaliatory investigation into the whistleblower, Colonel Michael Holmes. And after, he sort of, over a period of months, tried to get his complaints redressed and said, "Hey, I was attacked because I’m a whistleblower. I was investigated because I’m a whistleblower." That also had no impact, and so eventually he decided to go public with his story.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what psy-ops are.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. Psychological operations and information operations are essentially just ways to influence the population. Now, the key is, is that for IO and psy-ops you’re only supposed to do those on foreign populations, on the enemy. Now, there’s another branch, public affairs, which is — which you’re allowed to then use your information on the American population. The key difference is, is that in information operations and in psy-ops you’re allowed to lie, you’re allowed to mislead, where in public affairs, in theory, at least, you’re not supposed to do that. And by using information operations with — who know how to conduct psychological operations, in the process that would traditionally be held for public affairs, you’re corrupting the entire process. And, you know, one of the interesting things has been to see the reaction from the military.
Of course, I commend General Petraeus for launching an investigation, but what we also know from a series of anonymous leaks is that the military doesn’t think they’ve done anything wrong here. And that, to me, is truly disturbing and what the actual bigger story is: this very aggressive effort that called what has been at the forefront from to tear down the wall between information and propaganda between public affairs and information operations, to say it’s one giant playing field now and to allow the Pentagon and the military to be able to target not just foreign populations with their propaganda, but target the U.S. populations, whether it’s on Facebook, on social networking sites, or visiting congressmen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Michael, your article also indicates that the team was directed to also target Admiral Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, General Caldwell was trying to do propaganda against one of his bosses.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure, sure. I mean, I think the way to look at it is that, you know, they’re asked to — why are they being asked to focus on visiting American dignitaries over what their mission is supposed to be, which is focus on the Afghan population and the Taliban? And I think it just shows how far — A, how far off the rails that entire operation has gone, but also the acknowledgment that the most important issue in this war, the most important battlefield in this war, actually isn’t in Afghanistan, it’s in Washington. And by spinning, manipulating and using whatever resources you have to convince the policymakers in Washington, be it Admiral Mullen or Al Franken, that’s where you want to devote your resources to. And that, to me, again, is very troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings, can you talk about how this fits into the overall issue of the military pushing for 20,000 troops to remain in Iraq beyond the December 2011 withdrawal deadline —
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — the modest expectations for the July troop drawdown in Afghanistan, how this fits into the catastrophe that is unfolding every day in Afghanistan? I mean, Karzai and Petraeus, starkly different accounts of incidents of Afghan civilian casualties, the response to Tuesday’s attack in which NATO helicopter gunships killed nine young boys.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. I mean, clearly, clearly, Afghanistan has gone off the rails, and went off the rails a while ago. And there’s so little they can actually do to influence the battlefield. I mean, they are doing some things. They’re upping their special forces operations. They’re upping air strikes. They’re doing all these kinds of things. But the key is, is to shape the perceptions of Americans back home. I mean, and the point you made about Iraq, right. I mean, I had a — I interviewed a general almost a year ago actually to this day in Baghdad, General Odierno, and I asked him this question: I said, "How many troops are going to be left in Iraq after December 2011?" And he said — he said, "Zero." And I said, "No, you’re kidding me. There’s going to be some more than that." He said, "Well, the most significant would be, you know, 2,000 or 3,000." And here we are a year later, they’re already trying to get 20,000 more troops to stay there.
So, I think how it all fits in is how this war is being sold. I mean, we have to remember that the Pentagon, God bless them, has about a billion dollars a year to spend on all their sorts of information operations, and they have a lot of allies in the media who are willing to sort of help them sell that story for a variety of reasons. So, I think, whether it’s the civilian casualties, whether it’s this sort of arguing — you know, butting heads of Petraeus and Karzai, to what’s going on in Iraq, there is a huge effort to keep these wars going for as long as they can. And I know that sounds sort of radical, but the evidence speaks for itself.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael, we just have a little more — we just have a little more time. Your piece has drawn intense criticism. Andrew Exum of the Center for New American Security wrote, "Essentially Michael Hastings is doing bad think tank policy analysis with a little character assassination thrown in for extra measure." Your response?
MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, if I’m doing bad think tank analysis, they should hire me at the Center for New American Security. But, you know, look, I mean, I don’t see —- I’m not interested in getting into sort of these media-on-media fights. The same thing happened with my story on General McChrystal. The same thing happened with a story I did a couple weeks ago on Afghanistan, as well. I would just say that there’s -—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
MICHAEL HASTINGS: People with vested interest in continuing these wars are going to be critical of the type of work we’re doing at Rolling Stone.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Hastings, thanks so much for being with us. A Rolling Stone piece, "Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators." Congratulations for your George Polk Award. Juan, congratulations for yours.