Another Rolling Stone hit piece; another American General, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, in the crossfire. But this time there’s an “investigation” of the alleged crime, which is said to be initiating a “psychological or information operation” against members of Congress.
By all means, let’s investigate. Let’s clear the air about “psy-ops” and “information operations” once and for all: Because I guarantee you that no one in the Army — and especially not Caldwell (who heads up the training of Afghan security forces) — ever ordered anyone in uniform to deceive or manipulate members of Congress. Respect for the civilian chain of command is too deeply engrained within the U.S. military for that ever to happen.
No, what Lt. Gen. Caldwell requested of his soldiers was good public affairs work, and that is entirely legitimate.
Caldwell wanted to know what visiting members of Congress were thinking, what their concerns were, what issues animated them. Caldwell wanted to know this not so that he could “manipulate” members of Congress. He wanted to know this so that he could be more responsive to members of Congress.
And really, why would any American commanding general not want detailed information about his civilian overseers? Why would he not want to know “their voting records, their likes and dislikes, and their ‘hot-button issues’”? Why would he not want to “refine [his] messaging” to those who are responsible for funding — or not funding — the war that he is charged with prosecuting?
Good public affairs officers (PAOs) understand this — or at least they should understand this (though sadly, many do not).
The problem with Holmes is that he is not a public affairs officer, but rather an “information operations officer” (IOO). Thus he interpreted Caldwell’s perfectly reasonable and wholly legitimate request through the prism of an “information operation” or a “psychological operation,” such as he would conduct against the enemy.
But if Holmes had more brains and worldly perspective, he’d realize that understanding members of Congress and ascertaining their concerns violates no law or regulation. Moreover, informing members of Congress about your military needs and requirements vis-à-vis the facts on the ground is not propaganda; it is speaking candidly and truthfully with your civilian superiors.
The difference between an illegitimate “information or psychological operation” and a legitimate exercise of good “public affairs” is analogous to the difference between “lobbying” and “educating.” A “think tank” or a research institute “educates” Congress about public policy; a trade association, by contrast, “lobbies” Congress.
For tax and legal purposes, this is an important distinction. But practically speaking, this distinction is insignificant. Lobbying has a very precise and technical definition: It means that you can advocate for or against a specific piece of legislation.
A “think tank” or a research institute, a 501(c)(3), can’t do this; it can’t lobby. However, it certainly can and does “educate” Congress about the larger-scale issues raised by proposed legislation.
Thus the Heritage Foundation could not have lobbied on behalf of extending the Bush tax cuts. It could not have said, “Vote for this legislation.” However, Heritage certainly could have educated Congress (and did) about the harmful economic effects of not extending the Bush tax cuts.
By the same token, the U.S. military can inform and educate members of Congress about the military situation in Afghanistan; but it cannot manipulate and deceive them.
Unfortunately, too few military officers — even those within the public affairs and information operations communities — seem to understand this distinction. And so, they mistakenly conflate legitimate “public affairs” work with questionable “psy-ops.”
Most military PAOs and IOOs, after all, have never worked in the civilian world, the public policy community or the media. Consequently, they typically lack the sophisticated worldly sense and perspective that comes from seeing how information is developed and used in the real world. These finer distinctions thus elude them.
In fact, that’s the real scandal: that the most information-rich country on the globe, with the finest and greatest communicators the world has ever known, nonetheless has a military that is seriously subpar when it comes to the information arts.