Mind Games

Why Rolling Stone's article on the military's domestic psy-ops scandal gets it so wrong.

Rolling Stone has done it again with another scoop by Michael Hastings showing the U.S. military's manipulation of public opinion and wanton disregard for civilian leadership. The article, "Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators," is another example of an officer corps run amok, right?

Not so fast. Both stories expose an altogether different problem once you cut through the hyperbole.

Central to Hastings's article are charges by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes that he was part of a team of "psychological operations soldiers" ordered to use psychological operations techniques to deceive and manipulate the opinion of senators and other dignitaries visiting the NATO training mission in Kabul. This was done, Holmes describes, under the orders of the commanding general, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV (above), and his staff.

The overstatement in the article, stemming entirely from comments by Holmes, has in turn spurred more of the same focused on alleged "mind tricks" against several senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), other members of Congress, think-tank analysts, and foreign dignitaries.

Hastings and his supporters are quick to indict the military for allowing another cowboy to go off the reservation to create support for an unpopular conflict people simply want to have disappear. Challenging the narrative by Holmes has been described as a "smear campaign." Others reacting to these criticisms slam the media as trying to take down the military.

Both sides have completely missed the point.

Holmes is an outstanding American, a reservist who is no doubt dedicated to safeguarding U.S. national security. However, Holmes said his job as a "psy-ops" officer was "to play with people's heads," something that naturally evokes "dark thoughts of orbital mind control lasers, dastardly propaganda, or deception," as one commenter put it. But he was not a member of a PSYOP unit nor trained in PSYOP, an FA37 (Functional Area 37) in the military lexicon. This is not a semantic difference: PSYOP is regulated under U.S. law, and PSYOP activities are restricted to foreign audiences under the same law. He was not a civil affairs officer. And there is no evidence he had training as a public affairs officer. Holmes was an intelligence officer and received training as information operations (IO) officer, or an FA30.

Holmes arrived at Caldwell's headquarters as part of an information operations team, but this was no longer a mission of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) under Caldwell. He was then put in a position contrary to his expectations: understanding the views, concerns, and requirements of visitors to NTM-A. This ultimately revealed a limited view of his responsibilities and a broader lack of training and understanding of the requirements and limitations of the information environment, as he balked at the order because he believed this would require his IO skills. Holmes either would prefer his commanding officer not be able to anticipate likely questions or concerns or believed he (Holmes) was inherently incapable of dealing with the American public because of his original mission.

Holmes should never have been put into this situation (another related reason for the whole affair is that there was "very poor personnel management by Caldwell's senior staff," as FP blogger Thomas E. Ricks put it). In short, he simply did not have the training, and his capabilities did not match the requirements. His statements about PSYOP, both the branch and the practice, reflect this.

But Holmes is not solely at fault. His belief that certain tactics are improper, regardless of whether information is completely truthful, complete, and attributed, is endemic in a Defense Department still struggling to come to grips with the requirements of today's information environment. More importantly, how are the professionals trained and supported for this environment? Michael Clauser, a former congressional staffer, noted his frustration that after eight years of irregular warfare in southwest Asia, it took an act of Congress (literally) to sharpen the minds and pencils of the Pentagon to take the problems.

Then there is Holmes's invocation of the Smith-Mundt Act, which he believed as prohibiting his "targeting" of Americans. Rolling Stone characterized the 1948 bill as legislation to "prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens." Certainly, late Sen. Edward Zorinsky would agree with this assessment. It is Zorinsky, then a Democrat from Nebraska, who in 1985 said, "The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. government propaganda directed at him or her," as he compared the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to a Soviet propaganda agency. But the world then was unrecognizable to the struggle for minds and wills or the 1940s and 1950s or the 21st century.

But a huge reality check is required here. The Smith-Mundt Act does not apply to the whole of government, the Defense Department, or even the whole of the State Department. It applies to -- and was only ever intended to apply to -- the part of the State Department that had been the USIA until it was abolished in 1999 and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body overseeing the U.S. government's international media efforts. It does not apply to the State Department's office of counterterrorism; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; or Bureau of Public Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley. (Crowley once noted from the podium that "I, as the head of public affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally.") In short, even if the allegations by Holmes are correct, the Smith-Mundt Act would still not apply. There is other legislation that does apply, including "anti-propaganda" language in congressional authorizations and appropriations, Defense Department directives, and in the case of the activities of PSYOP units, explicit prohibition against targeting Americans.

The original purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act was to give America a voice in the building war of information around the world. Introduced in Congress in October 1945, the prohibition on domestic dissemination of material intended for foreign audiences by the State Department was to protect the government and the American public from the "drones," "loafers," and "men of strong Soviet leaning" within the department. In other words, it not an anti-propaganda law, but a protective measure against a department of questionable loyalty. If it had been, or currently is, a broad brush law, we would not have had the campy "perils of communism" films or administration officials appearing on Sunday talk shows. It is ironic that a law intended to counter disinformation is subject itself to so much misinformation.

This is ultimately another cautionary tale about people doing something they are not trained for and the media commenting on something they know little to nothing about. Both of which must be fixed for the sake of U.S. national security.

Getty Images


Saudi Arabia's Musk Revolution

The king has returned, bearing gifts. But government mismanagement and squabbling within the House of Saud may mean that the kingdom is in for a rocky transition period.

"The king is dead, long live the king," is a call which, in its Arabic form, is sure to be heard before too long in Saudi Arabia. In the latest chapter of the saga of the House of Saud, the ailing and aged King Abdullah returned to the kingdom on Feb. 23 after a three-month absence, which included two back operations in New York City and a month's recuperation at his palace in Morocco.

It wasn't quite a triumphant return. Upon his arrival in Morocco, the king was brought down to earth in a wheelchair, carried from his aircraft in a scissor-lift disabled-passenger vehicle modeled on the design of a catering truck. A similar contraption was employed on his return home to Riyadh. The gerontocratic monarch is, obviously, on his last legs.

The real story of the king's return, however, was the gifts that he lavished upon his population. The king took the opportunity of his arrival to announce financial handouts to the Saudi population worth an astonishing $36 billion, including, according to the Financial Times, a 15 percent salary raise for public employees, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed. And all this on top of Saudi Arabia's planned budgeted expenditure of $400 billion through the end of 2014 on improving education, infrastructure, and health care.

King Abdullah's largesse looks a lot like preventive medicine to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not catch the revolutionary disease spreading from Tunisia and Egypt across the Arab world. But few serious analysts of Saudi Arabia think that politics in the kingdom could play out as dramatically as the events in North Africa.

A tweet or two by a young, foreign-educated, Saudi woman resentful of her lack of rights does not make a Riyadh Spring. And it is unlikely that much will come of a Facebook campaign calling for a day of protests on March 11, or that an online petition signed by more than 100 Saudi academics and activists demanding a constitutional monarchy gains momentum. The kingdom is, in the judgment of many, an extraordinarily conservative place, where people know their place and do what their parents tell them. To the extent there is a national sport, it is either driving dangerously or lethargy.

But it appears that not even Saudi Arabia can escape the currents of unrest sweeping through the Arab world. And the royal family, through its mismanagement of the kingdom's public infrastructure, might have brought some of it on itself. This has been one of Saudi Arabia's wettest winters, bringing calamitous floods to the coastal city of Jeddah. During one stormy night, three months' worth of rain arrived in a few hours. At least 10 have died, and more are missing. It was during one of January's storms that the fleeing ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia arrived with his entourage.

The sewage system of Jeddah is basically nonexistent; at best, it is inadequate. In many houses, the waste from the bathrooms flows into underground tanks that are emptied every few days by fleets of tanker trucks. The trucks used to drive into the hills to the east of the city and dump their cargo into the deceptively named Musk Lake. That was until 2009, when heavy rains raised concerns that the dam at the western edge of the lake would break -- evoking fears that a proverbial wave of fecal matter would sweep downhill several miles to the city below. Since 2009, Musk Lake has been partially drained and treatment plants set up at what is hoped is a safe distance further into the desert.

However, fears arose this winter that even the remodeled Musk Lake would once again pose an excremental threat to the city, and Jeddah's citizens protested vociferously. Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the regional governor who is rated as being a good candidate for the throne sometime in the future, visited the flooded areas and commiserated with those affected. Interior Minister Prince Nayef took a helicopter trip over the flooded areas, peering through the windows, Bush-after-Katrina-like, at the devastation below.

As the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has huge earnings but, by virtue of its relatively large population, has a GDP per capita much lower than those of neighboring Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Even this wealth is badly distributed, and, in Jeddah, many still face real hardship.

King Abdullah's generosity to the people of Saudi Arabia was probably motivated by a desire to both ease the difficulties of the kingdom's own poor and reinforce the House of Saud's reputation during what promises to be a difficult transition period. The princes are going to need the support over the next few months.

In televised and well-photographed action in the Council of Ministers building over the last few months, a bizarre charade is being played out. Crown Prince Sultan, King Abdullah's designated successor, is chairing meetings of the Council of Ministers, as well as greeting visiting foreigners and Saudi dignitaries. Sultan, however, is reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease and, anecdotally, does not even recognize government ministers who he has known for years. A WikiLeaks cable described Sultan as "for all intents and purposes incapacitated."

Keeping Sultan in the public eye appears to be an elaborate deception carried out by his younger full brothers or his sons, as part of a palace plot to ensure Sultan becomes king when Abdullah dies. This would allow him to choose the next crown prince -- either one of his own full brothers or one of his sons. Having been undermined by Sultan and his close relatives for decades, King Abdullah has tried to blunt such a maneuver by setting up a so-called Allegiance Council, made up of his 30-plus half brothers or their senior sons, to choose a future crown prince.  This wouldn't stop Sultan from becoming king, but it would widen the choice for crown prince beyond Sultan's closest kin.

However, the Allegiance Council could simply be voided by Sultan once he becomes king or by those pulling his puppet strings. So Abdullah's other blocking tactic is simply not to die anytime soon. If Sultan meets his maker before Abdullah, the main problem disappears -- though a new one would be created, as Abdullah and the wider Allegiance Council would still have to outmaneuver Sultan's surviving full brothers, who would continue to form the largest single voting bloc in the institution.

This, at least, is the chess game currently being played within the House of Saud on the question of succession. Whether the Saudi people will accept this quietly, given the winds of change running through the rest of the Arab world, is quite another question.