Psy-ops and Afghanistan: Stop Spinning the American Public

Will Keola Thomas – Afghanistan Study Group

The goal of the U.S. Militarys psychological operations in Afghanistan is to use propaganda to influence the emotions and behaviors of “hostile foreign groups”. But according to a shocking story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone, it is visiting members of Congress and the American public that are being targeted.

Hastings describes how a “psy-ops” unit based at Camp Eggers in Kabul was directed by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell to compile dossiers on visiting U.S. lawmakers. According to Lt. Col Michael Holmes, the leader of the psy-ops unit, these dossiers were intended to give the general and his staff an understanding of the “pressure points” that could be used to lobby congressional delegations for more funds and to manipulate their perceptions of the war.

The use of information operations resources for the purpose of propagandizing American citizens and political representatives is strictly illegal under the terms of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. In the case described by Hastings, those targeted in Lt. Gen. Caldwells psy-ops campaign included senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin as well as Rep. Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee and a number of think tank analysts who play an enormous role in influencing public perception of the war.

Public acquiescence and congressional support for military escalation in Afghanistan has long been facilitated by the Pentagons manipulation of information flowing back to the United States from the battlefield. From facilitating high-level access for sympathetic pundits to paying retired military officers to act as mouthpieces for the Defense Department while presenting themselves as impartial “experts“, the Pentagons attempts to secure support for the war has blurred the line between “public diplomacy” and propaganda to the point where it is indistinguishable. But the use of a psychological operations unit to manipulate elected representatives into escalating military involvement in Afghanistan is completely beyond the pale. The Pentagon must stop spinning the American public.

General Petraeus has ordered an investigation of the reports. For his part, Lt. Gen. Caldwell sent a response to Rolling Stone that “categorically denies the assertion that the command used an Information Operations Cell to influence Distinguished visitors.”

Do we know whether this psy-ops campaign had an impact on the visiting delegations? Hastings article says” …there is no way to tell what, if any, influence it had on American policy.” But Afghanistan Study Group co-founder Steve Clemons has several interesting posts up at the Washington Note describing the before and after of Senator Levins visit to Gen. Caldwells command in Kabul.

Clemons also asks the important question of just how far Gen. Caldwells psy-ops net was cast – was President Obama or any of the presidents team targeted? These questions deserve a thorough investigation. The Pentagon should certainly carry out an inquiry given the allegations directed towards one of its top generals, but given the Pentagons long history of spinning the American public on the war in Afghanistan, it is essential to also have an independent and transparent investigation carried out by Congress.

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2 Responses to Psy-ops and Afghanistan: Stop Spinning the American Public

  1. Sir –
    You stated “information operations resources for the purpose of propagandizing American citizens and political representatives is strictly illegal under the terms of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948″. This is incorrect. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, in its original form and as amended, does not cover “information operations resources” nor does it address the broad brushstroke of “propagandizing American citizens and political representatives.” The Smith-Mundt Act *only* applies to the public diplomacy side of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (the Office of Public Affairs is not covered) and the U.S. Government’s international broadcasting under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It does not cover or apply to the whole of the State Department, and certainly not the Defense Department nor the White House. It was never Congressional intent to make such a broad censorship. If it was, we would not have those campy 1950s anti-Communism films to look back on or enjoy Sunday talk show appearances by whichever Administration is in power.

  2. wal a says:

    This isn’t good, either way and thanks to ASG for keeping the public (accurately) up dated; “Meet the Press” last Sun., semi-covered the psy-ops incident, in their admirable, grilling manner–more interviewers should be so demanding when dealing w/politicians, the military, whomever tries to throw the public a line.

    And I read ya, Armstrong.

    (I’m probably the sole fan of those musky “Communism” books written by some stuffy professor–now in his 100′s–from the 50′s and 60′s, having sat on the library shelf, and never checked out since before I was even born.

    And if I was a General, I wouldn’t get near Rolling Stone (read: beer bong–that’s what tripped McChrystal’s tongue: “Dude, let me tell ya sumtin’…”).

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