Military denies use of intelligence tactics on senators

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

When Lt. Col. Michael D. Holmes was assigned to the U.S.-led headquarters in Kabul responsible for training Afghan security forces, he assumed he would spend a year employing his skills as an information operations officer. Perhaps, he thought, he would work on ways to influence Afghans to join their army, or he would develop anti-Taliban propaganda.

His superiors had different ideas. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who took over the training command just after Holmes arrived in November 2009, decided that information operations - defined by the Army to include psychological operations, electronic warfare and military deception - were not needed in a training organization, according to two military officers familiar with the matter.

As a consequence, the officers said, Holmes was told by Caldwell's chief of staff that he and the four other members of his Texas National Guard information operations team were being reassigned to focus on activities aimed at informing Afghans, Americans and other members of the NATO coalition about the training mission.

That decision prompted a howl of complaint from Holmes that eventually resulted in the publication of an article on Rolling Stone magazine's Web site last week alleging that Caldwell's command "illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in 'psychological operations' to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war." The article prompted Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to order an investigation.

At its core, the dispute centers on the question of whether ordering Holmes and his information operations team to perform what Caldwell's command has called "information engagement" - including compiling publicly available data about visiting members of Congress - broke the law. Holmes contends that it did; his superiors in Kabul insisted to Holmes that the order was lawful.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Holmes said he was not ordered to do anything that would be illegal if he was not an information operations officer. The dispute, he said, "has to do with who we are, not what we were doing."

In his view, simply asking him and his team to participate in background research for congressional visits was improper, if not illegal, because U.S. military regulations prohibit the use of certain information operations tactics, including psychological and deception operations, on U.S. citizens.

"Because we were there on an I.O. [information operations] mission, we should have been focused on the enemy and the recruiting mission," he said. "We could have done a lot of good for them. Instead they crossed the line. They pushed us to focus on the U.S. population."

Holmes contends that he was asked to use his information operations skills in preparing for the congressional visits. In the Rolling Stone piece, Holmes said he was asked by Caldwell's chief of staff, Col. Joseph Buche: "How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?"

A spokesman for Caldwell, Lt. Col. Shawn Stroud, said the general is not commenting on the allegations because of the ongoing investigation. But Stroud said the training command "categorically denies the assertion that the command used an information operations cell to influence distinguished visitors."

Although the Rolling Stone piece claims that Holmes specializes in psychological operations, the Army said it has no record of training Holmes in "psychological operations." Holmes said in his interview with The Post that he learned psychological operations techniques as part of his information operations training but he said he never claimed that he was psychological operations officer.

"It's stretching to say that we're the Jedi-mind-tricks guys," he said.


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