Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tisdel's Debunker: Oh My Goodness, Psychic Warfare On Senators! (Has No Substance)

Does it sound to anyone else like Rolling Stone is way overreaching with their latest military exposé? They purport to expose the psychological warfare techniques that a three-star general ordered against visiting U.S. Senators, Representatives, an Admiral and some foreign diplomats. The title even specifically recalls their prizewinning exposé that got General Stanley McChrystal fired by President Obama, "The Runaway General" (and the link to the other story is merely one paragraph into the piece). The story is an instant attention-grabber, too; government manipulation and psychological warfare are straight out of any spy flick.

But in their haste to document the story, Rolling Stone appears to have overreached substantially. Yes, it's big news that a three-star general even attempted to do this, and yes, the public has every right to freak out about it. But the title atop their story, alleging the proven use of psychological warfare against U.S. senators, is a huge overreach. Consider:

Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the man who was formally tasked to do the manipulation, resisted it from the start and got a reprimand and an investigation for his pains. He said that he gave the general, Caldwell, "background assessments on the visiting senators, and helped prep the general for his high-profile encounters". However, there are no details anywhere in the article of any psychological warfare techniques actually being used. Indeed, there's no evidence in the article that Caldwell ever used them.

The only thing Rolling Stone provides that even looks like evidence is buried in the last paragraph of the piece.

"As for the operation targeting U.S. senators, there is no way to tell what, if any, influence it had on American policy. What is clear is that in January 2011, Caldwell’s command asked the Obama administration for another $2 billion to train an additional 70,000 Afghan troops – an initiative that will already cost U.S. taxpayers more than $11 billion this year. Among the biggest boosters in Washington to give Caldwell the additional money? Sen. Carl Levin, one of the senators whom Holmes had been ordered to target."
Fine. But that doesn't prove a single thing. Levin could easily have had other reasons for advocating the additional funding. Despite the language of "operation targeting U.S. senators", there is neither any evidence that it was ever carried out, nor any way to prove if it was short of additional disclosure or investigating! There's nothing in the article that's overtly misleading, but the title- "Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators" is definitely an overreach. It's not clear what the "background information" or "prep" that Holmes and his team provided to Caldwell was, whether it falls under the heading of "psy-ops", or whether it was ever actually used. Rolling Stone should have investigated that part of the story further before publishing.

UPDATE: Morning Defense has essentially the same reaction I had. Here's a picture of his:

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