Psy-Ops Scopes Senators, But a Cover-Up Could Be the Real Scandal

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By TIME contributor Mark Benjamin

Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings has penned another potential career-ender for a U.S. Army general. In this case, however, the most riveting aspect of Hasting’s expose on Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, isn’t Caldwell’s possible crimes, it is the alleged cover-up.

Hastings previously torpedoed the meteoric career of now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after members of McChrystal’s inner circle mouthed off to Hastings about senior members of the Obama administration, including the President.

This time, Hastings takes aim at Caldwell, the former top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, who is now in charge of training Afghan security forces. The central accusation against Caldwell isn’t actually all that jaw dropping. Caldwell ordered a four-man team of Army psychological operations soldiers to help him prep for the visits of influential U.S. senators, including John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed and others. Caldwell wanted the psychological operations team to assemble basic background profiles, including voting records and interests, that would help them influence the senators to provide the Army with more troops in Afghanistan. (Carl Levin, one of those senators, released a statement Thursday saying he “never needed any convincing” on this point.)

That kind of lobbying by generals is par for the course. That’s often what congressional visits to Afghanistan and Iraq are all about. “Congressional delegations… are not strangers to spin,” Hastings writes. “Informally, the trips are a way for generals to lobby congressmen and provide first-hand updates on the war.”

What Rolling Stone is making such a fuss about is Caldwell dispatching the four-man psychological operations team to help. To be sure, this is a no-no, and might even be illegal, since federal law prohibits psychological operations from trying to influence American citizens. Army public affairs does that work.

Psychological operations troops take this division of labor very seriously. And despite the spooky sounding name, psychological operations troops insist that the dissemination of truthful information to foreign troops or civilians is the best way to gain support for U.S. operations. Hastings’ piece suggests Caldwell crossed the line when he employed the four-man team for public affairs.

The most interesting aspect of the article, however, is how Caldwell allegedly behaved when the leader of the psychological operations unit, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, bucked the orders and complained to a colonel who reports to Caldwell. Weeks later, as Hastings put it, “Holmes learned that he was the subject of an investigation.”

The most basic investigation in the Army is called the 15-6. It is a standard tool at a commander’s disposal to probe just about any kind of matter, sometimes just to determine if a more formal investigation is needed.

The 15-6 can also be easily abused. In those cases, a commander simply appoints a subordinate to conduct the probe and makes it clear in advance what the results should be. “I’ve seen countless examples where commanders torpedo careers with a 15-6,” said well-known defense attorney David Sheldon who handles military cases. “The abuse has even included forcing service members to change their sworn statements because they did not like those sworn statements,” Sheldon said. “I call that obstruction of justice.”

In this case, Caldwell’s chief of staff ordered the probe, and Holmes was soon accused of drinking, using Facebook too much, having an “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate and a litany of other charges. Holmes alleges it was a smear campaign.

Anyone in the military will tell you there are plenty of completely kosher 15-6 investigations.

But there are also some that are beyond fishy. Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for Salon about an apparent friendly fire incident in Iraq that the Army claimed was enemy fire. In that case, a U.S. tank mistakenly fired on members of an infantry platoon huddled in a house, killing two soldiers. I interviewed multiple witnesses from various locations around the battlefield who witnessed the event and said it was friendly fire. I even obtained a videotape of the incident that seemed to back up those claims.

Interestingly, Col. Sean MacFarland, the commander of the tank brigade that fired the shell – not the infantry brigade that took the hit – ordered a subordinate to conduct the 15-6 investigation in that case. The 15-6 probe found spent tank ammunition in the house that was hit, and admitted that the infantry soldiers said it was friendly fire. The investigation found, however, that those eyewitnesses were wrong. Instead an enemy mortar killed those two infantry soldiers, not a tank.

Eleven days after I wrote the piece in Salon in October 2008, MacFarland was promoted to brigadier general. Gen. David Petraeus, now the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has called for an investigation into the psy-ops incident. Caldwell’s fate is yet to be determined.