Military to investigate claim that psy-ops team was used to influence U.S. senators

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan intends to order an investigation into whether a three-star general responsible for training Afghan security forces inappropriately used members of a psychological operations team to influence visiting U.S. senators into providing more funding for the war.

The U.S. command in Kabul issued a statement Thursday saying Gen. David H. Petraeus “is preparing to order an investigation to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue.”

The investigation stems from an article published early Thursday on the Web site of Rolling Stone magazine alleging that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the U.S. and NATO training operation for Afghan forces, used an “information operations” team to “manipulate visiting American senators” and other visitors, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.

The article is based on the claims of a lieutenant colonel who served on a psychological operations team in Afghanistan last year and who alleges he was subjected to retribution when he resisted the assignment.

A spokesman for Caldwell denied that he had done anything improper. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan declined to comment on the matter, citing the impending investigation.

Among the senators allegedly targeted by the team were John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. All four have been long-standing supporters of more funding for training Afghan security forces.

Levin said in a statement that he was “confident that the chain of command will review any allegation that information operations have been improperly used in Afghanistan.” But he also noted that he did not need to be swayed on the matter of training.

“For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation’s future,” Levin said in a statement. “I have never needed any convincing on this point. Quite the opposite, my efforts have been aimed at convincing others of the need for larger, more capable Afghan security forces, and that we and NATO should send more trainers to Afghanistan, rather than more combat troops.”

The lieutenant colonel, Michael Holmes, who was assigned to Caldwell’s headquarters last year, said in the article that he was asked by the general’s chief of staff to find ways to manipulate the lawmakers. Holmes claims he was asked: “How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?”

Holmes said he objected. “My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” Holmes is quoted as saying. “When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”

The article did not cite evidence of false or misleading information being provided to the senators and other visitors.

The U.S. command in Kabul has a team of officers who coordinate visits by members of Congress and other high-ranking officials. It is common for them to provide information to top commanders about the backgrounds and interests of the visitors. That work typically does not involve personnel involved in psychological or information operations.

Traditional lines between public affairs personnel, who deal with the news media, and psychological operations soldiers have blurred in Iraq and Afghanistan as commanders have sought ways to influence the local media and counter enemy propaganda. But the efforts of psy-ops teams are supposed to be dedicated exclusively toward foreign — not American — audiences.

Two military officials said the use of psychological operations teams to influence Americans could violate U.S. military regulations, but the use of those personnel to perform other tasks, such as compiling information about visitors, probably is not inappropriate.

“Was the action the individuals were asked to do appropriate under law and policy?” one of the officials said. “It’s more about what they were asked to do as opposed to who they are.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), another of those alleged to have been targeted by the information operations team, said in a statement that he had been briefed on the war by Caldwell and several others on a trip to Afghanistan in January 2010.

“While the briefings provided me with a helpful update on what was happening on the ground, I knew that I would have to cross-check their assessment by talking to other military officials, diplomatic officials, outside experts and troops in the field, and I always raise skeptical questions when discussing this topic,” Franken said.

Reed told MSNBC on Thursday that the accusations were “very serious and disturbing.” McCain’s office declined to comment on the article.

chandrasek@washpost.com

Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor. He has served as national editor and as bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia.
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