The Skeptics

Spinning Us to Death

This week, Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings reported that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, ordered a team of U.S. soldiers specializing in “psychological operations”—the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors—to manipulate American civilian leaders into supporting the unpopular war in Afghanistan.

“Federal law,” Hastings writes, “forbids the military from practicing psy-ops on Americans, and each defense authorization bill comes with a ‘propaganda rider’ that also prohibits such manipulation.” He continues, “According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents.”

Hastings spoke with Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of Caldwell’s “information operations” (IO) unit. “Caldwell seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans,” Holmes told Hastings. Holmes also believed that targeting American civilians violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which Congress passed to prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens. He notes in Hastings’s piece that in March 2010, Col. Gregory Breazile, the spokesperson for the Afghan training mission run by Caldwell, issued a written order that “directly tasked” Holmes’s team with conducting an IO campaign that was to “take priority over all other duties.”

While American soldiers and Afghan civilians continue to kill and be killed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon seeks to provide the illusion of progress, systematically misrepresenting realities on the ground to bide more time, gain more troops, and acquire more funding. It’s bad enough that the American media uncritically relays statements from U.S. officials portraying “success” on the ground. Now the Pentagon is using its massive propaganda budget to blur the line between informing the public and spinning it to death. In fact, several years ago the Associated Press found that the Pentagon had spent $4.7 billion on public relations in 2009 alone, and employs 27,000 people for recruitment, advertising and public relations, nearly as many as the 30,000-person State Department. Essentially the Pentagon is trying to influence public policy and lobby civilian officials to shift policies toward their own ends while dispersing the costs onto the American taxpayer.

Luckily, it appears that Americans have come to learn that despite the media’s frequent adulation of their uniformed military, the Pentagon operates just like every other bureaucracy in the federal government. According to a poll released earlier this month by Gallup, 72 percent of Americans want Congress to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Much like the McChrystal flap from last summer, there is a very fine line between military officials offering their honest opinion and threatening civilian control of the war.