If you are like me, you were both alarmed and intrigued a few weeks ago when a headline appeared in your news feed containing the phrases “psy -ops” and “U.S. Senators.” Reported by several outlets, the story originated last month with Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, the journalist who previously broke a story detailing improper behavior by Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal and his staff. Hastings returned to the well for his second shocker, a tale of a 3-star American general’s assignment of a “psychological operations”-trained military unit to use shady persuasion techniques on Congressmen during inspection tours.
Specifically, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, in charge of an Afghan troop training program, detailed a five-man Information Operations (IO) team led by Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes to gather information on the VIPs and then advise him how best to use it in order to gain favor and, in the long term, funding. When Holmes eventually expressed misgivings, Caldwell responded with a questionable internal investigation that Hastings called “a campaign of retaliation.” When the story broke on February 23rd, Caldwell denied the accusations, though top Afghan Commander Gen. David Petraeus has ordered an investigation into the article’s findings.
News that smelled of extralegal brainwashing naturally ignited the outrage of bloggers, pundits, and commentators across the Interwebs, who roundly and naturally condemned the possibility that techniques reserved for “hostile foreign groups,” according to Hastings, were used on public representatives. Techdirt’s Mike Masnik characterized the operation as “highly illegal,” and the ACLU’s Laura Murphy called it “a brazen and chilling abuse of power.”
Myself, I agree that Caldwell was very much out of line if he ordered an investigation to harass a recalcitrant subordinate and should be punished severely if found guilty. However, given a basic understanding of psy –ops’s true nature, I don’t believe the General should be vilified for ordering actions that had more in common with a modern-day advertising campaign than any Cold War-era CIA intrigue. If Holmes gathered personal intelligence about a targeted group to better sell a favorable perspective, then he is in good company because this is the lifeblood of professional salesmanship, practiced around the world by entities both private and public.
It’s wrong, but is it legal?
Putting aside the serious ethical questions for a moment, it can be argued that Caldwell’s actions may not even be illegal in the first place, in spite of what Hastings and like-minded commentators would have you believe. Two specific laws were repeatedly referenced that would render Caldwell’s use of psy-ops on Americans an illegal act: the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which regulated use of propaganda organs nationally and internationally, and the ‘propaganda rider’ continually attached to the annual defense spending bills passed through Congress. An admittedly quick-and-dirty check of the pertinent provisions, however, revealed that the use of such operations is specifically outlawed on American soil, but not against American citizens. As this occurred in Afghanistan , the laws don’t appear to apply. Assigning a psy-ops officer to American targets may have been bad form and questionable judgment but not illegal per se.
It’s legal, but is it wrong?
One can certainly still question Caldwell’s actions, as the impropriety of the retaliatory investigation suggests. But what are these ‘psychological operations’ that lie at the heart of the story, a term that so excites the imagination? What did Caldwell really order Holmes to do? The Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, by way of Wikipedia, defines psychological operations as “planned propaganda operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” Now, there is room for a broad spectrum of manipulation within that definition, from the repugnant to the everyday. Where did Caldwell and Holmes fit? According to the colonel himself, Caldwell ordered basic information-gathering like “voting records [or ] likes and dislikes.” With this in mind, the general also wanted to know “how to shape [his] presentations for best effect.”
Frankly, this isn’t the “highly illegal” “abuse of power” that I have been led to believe, as it doesn’t seem to give Caldwell anything more than the most banal power of informed persuasion. The impressions of Manchurian Candidate-style reprogramming that a term like psy-ops can conjure in readers simply isn’t there, nor is it anywhere within the reality of psychological operations. “The idea that, given a U.S. Senator as a target,” in the words of Slate’s Juliet Lapidos, “a psy-ops team could ‘plant’ the urge, Inception-style, to give the Army more resources is fairly nonsensical.”
Ultimately, Holmes’s mission of info-gathering and message-tailoring appears pretty tame, even when called psy-ops, a term of ominous connotation but innocuous meaning. Lapidos characterizes the practice as “essentially advertising,” which seems apt, as the psychological operation of advertising is one that we experience constantly, and largely by our own hand. As we consciously engage with media, social networks, and various retail outlets, we are perpetually allowing our information to be harvested and analyzed to better sell us things. And as much as we allow businesses to do so by continuing to participate, we allow our government similar liberties and have done so for decades. From selling the Census, vaccinations, and military service through TV airtime to embedding reporters to ‘sell’ the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the state advertises itself to the people in the same way Caldwell advertised himself to the Senators. Nor does it have to be particularly unethical as long as deliberate lies are avoided; even the Peace Corps makes commercials, after all. If you don’t like it, then it is your responsibility to participate intelligently, just as it was the Senators’ responsibility to investigate Caldwell’s claims. Shield your information, think critically, and find outside sources, whether you listen to the party line or Techdirt, because these psy-ops won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Update: According to yesterday’s news, the psy-ops premise fell apart, but my points still stand, dammit.