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.
The Rolling Stone article claimed that Caldwell’s command engaged in a “campaign” to target a long list of senators. Holmes said his efforts were mostly focused on skeptics of the war, including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and lesser-known members of Congress who came in to meet with Caldwell.
Holmes disputes the account of the two officers that he and his team were reassigned. He said that at the time he voiced objection to the order to participate in information engagement activities — in March 2010 — he had not been told to cease all of his information operations activities.
But the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation, said Holmes never was asked to use psychological operations, deception or other tactics that would be illegal when applied to fellow Americans. He simply was being asked to conduct research using publicly available material, they said. They also said Holmes never attended any of the meetings with visiting members of Congress.
The problems began on March 22, 2010, when Maj. Vanessa Hillman, a public-affairs officer in the training command sent an e-mail to Holmes asking his team to help provide weekly assessments of the prior week’s meetings with visitors. “How did we do with our communication efforts and messaging,” she wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Post. “What results did we get.”
Holmes fired back an hour later. “No — we cannot. We are not set up (at all!) to do assessments — nor should we assess the effects of information engagements on US or Coalition allies. We are focused on the adversary, and on the Afghan population — by both joint doctrine and US Law.”
That prompted Hillman’s boss, Col. Gregory T. Breazile, to respond with what Holmes calls an illegal order: “Mike, You will do the assessment piece for the IEWG [Information Effects Working Group]. You are are directly tasked to support the IEWG and all of the DV [distinguished visitor] visits.”
The following day, Holmes wrote to a military lawyer, who called the order “a bad idea and contrary to IO policy.”
But independent specialists in military law said Holmes’s position as an information operations officer, regardless of whether he was formally reassigned, does not mean he cannot be asked to perform other legal tasks. “If you’re being asked to chip in and help someone else, that’s a lawful order,” said Jeffrey Addicott, who was as an Army lawyer for 20 years and now is a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
That is the same conclusion the top lawyer for Caldwell’s command reached.
“LTC Holmes is not being asked to conduct ‘intelligence gathering’ or ‘info ops’ on anyone,” Maj. Tami Mitchell, the command’s military justice chief, wrote in a March 30 e-mail after Holmes complained.
But in conducting her examination into the issue, Mitchell received information alleging that Holmes had an inappropriate relationship with his subordinate and that he broke military rules by leaving his base in civilian clothes and consuming alcohol in a Kabul restaurant. Later, he would be accused to spending too much time on Facebook. Holmes contends that the charges were trumped up in retaliation for his complaints.
He eventually received a letter of reprimand and was sent home a month before his tour was to end.
He said he provided information about his case to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida a few months ago. When nothing was published, he gave the material to Rolling Stone, which wrote about his case in less than a week.