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. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. "Putting your propaganda people in a room with senators doesn’t look good," says John Pike, a leading military analyst. "It doesn’t pass the smell test. Any decent propaganda operator would tell you that."
At a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misuse of vital resources designed to combat the enemy; it cost American taxpayers roughly $6 million to deploy Holmes and his team in Afghanistan for a year. But Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban. "We called it Operation Fourth Star," says Holmes. "Caldwell seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans. We were there to teach and train the Afghans. But for the first four months it was all about the U.S. Later he even started talking about targeting the NATO populations." At one point, according to Holmes, Caldwell wanted to break up the IO team and give each general on his staff their own personal spokesperson with psy-ops training.
It wasn’t the first time that Caldwell had tried to tear down the wall that has historically separated public affairs and psy-ops – the distinction the military is supposed to maintain between "informing" and "influencing." After a stint as the top U.S. spokesperson in Iraq, the general pushed aggressively to expand the military’s use of information operations. During his time as a commander at Ft. Leavenworth, Caldwell argued for exploiting new technologies like blogging and Wikipedia – a move that would widen the military’s ability to influence the public, both foreign and domestic. According to sources close to the general, he also tried to rewrite the official doctrine on information operations, though that effort ultimately failed. (In recent months, the Pentagon has quietly dropped the nefarious-sounding moniker "psy-ops" in favor of the more neutral "MISO" – short for Military Information Support Operations.)
Under duress, Holmes and his team provided Caldwell with background assessments on the visiting senators, and helped prep the general for his high-profile encounters. But according to members of his unit, Holmes did his best to resist the orders. Holmes believed that using his team to target American civilians violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which was passed by Congress to prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens. But when Holmes brought his concerns to Col. Gregory Breazile, the spokesperson for the Afghan training mission run by Caldwell, the discussion ended in a screaming match. "It’s not illegal if I say it isn’t!" Holmes recalls Breazile shouting.
In March 2010, Breazile issued a written order that "directly tasked" Holmes to conduct an IO campaign against "all DV visits" – short for "distinguished visitor." The team was also instructed to "prepare the context and develop the prep package for each visit." In case the order wasn’t clear enough, Breazile added that the new instructions were to "take priority over all other duties." Instead of fighting the Taliban, Holmes and his team were now responsible for using their training to win the hearts and minds of John McCain and Al Franken.
On March 23rd, Holmes emailed the JAG lawyer who handled information operations, saying that the order made him "nervous." The lawyer, Capt. John Scott, agreed with Holmes. "The short answer is that IO doesn’t do that," Scott replied in an email. "[Public affairs] works on the hearts and minds of our own citizens and IO works on the hearts and minds of the citizens of other nations. While the twain do occasionally intersect, such intersections, like violent contact during a soccer game, should be unintentional."
In another email, Scott advised Holmes to seek his own defense counsel. "Using IO to influence our own folks is a bad idea," the lawyer wrote, "and contrary to IO policy."
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesman for Caldwell "categorically denies the assertion that the command used an Information Operations Cell to influence Distinguished Visitors." But after Scott offered his legal opinion, the order was rewritten to stipulate that the IO unit should only use publicly available records to create profiles of U.S. visitors. Based on the narrower definition of the order, Holmes and his team believed the incident was behind them.
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