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Rolling Stone's military psy-ops expose: 5 takeaways

A U.S. commander in Afghanistan allegedly used psychological-warfare tactics to sway senators' opinion on the war. Here's what you need to know

Last year, Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings published an article so damaging to Gen. Stanley McChrystal that it ended the general's military career. Now the magazine has released another controversial Hastings exposé, an eye-opening story alleging that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a powerful U.S. commander in Afghanistan, illegally employed "psy-ops" — "the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors" — to convince visiting politicians and other officials that the war effort was going well. When subordinates raised objections to Caldwell's methods, Hastings reports, they found themselves under investigation, and were subsequently reprimanded. Caldwell denies the allegations, but in response to Hastings's article, General David Petraeus quickly ordered an investigation into any illegal activity. Here are five key revelations from Hastings's piece:

1. Caldwell used mind games to influence visiting senatorsAccording to Hastings, Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, "repeatedly pressured" a unit specializing in information operations to influence a long list of dignitaries that included ambassadors, foreign ministers, and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Over four months in 2010, Caldwell sought a "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds." He asked Lt. Michael Holmes, the leader of the information operations unit, "How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?"

2. That would definitely be illegalIn its rules on psy-ops, the Defense Department states clearly that the tactic is not meant to be used on Americans. And there's federal law to back that up: The Smith-Mundt Act, passed in 1948 at the dawn of the Cold War, forbids propaganda from being used on American citizens.

3. Not everyone went alongLt. Michael Holmes, the head of the information operations unit, had a problem with Caldwell's methods from the start. He told Hastings that, "When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you're crossing a line." But when Holmes expressed his concerns, a spokesman for Caldwell's operation yelled at him: "It's not illegal if I say it isn't!" 

4. The whistle-blower's superiors sought retributionCaldwell's chief of staff ordered an investigation of Holmes which, Hastings says, "reads like something put together by Kenneth Starr." The alleged violations include using Facebook too much, going off base in civilian clothes, and maintaining an "inappropriate relationship" with a subordinate — all charges that seemed spurious to Holmes, who was eventually reprimanded anyway. If anything, says Nick Schwellenbach at Project on Government Oversight, this exposes a "systemic weakness in military whistle-blower protections." It's "ludicrous" that Holmes was punished, not protected, for exposing an inappropriate use of power.

5. It's unclear if Caldwell's manipulations workedThere may be no way of measuring how effective Caldwell's psy-ops plan, which has since been scrapped, might have been. Hastings notes that Sen. Levin was among the "biggest boosters" for giving Caldwell more money in Afghanistan. But for his part, Levin said that he's always supported the Afghanistan war effort. "I have never needed any convincing on this point."

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