Holmes, Caldwell, Psy-Ops and the Smith-Mundt Act

imageThe recent Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings has brought to the surface a debate over the difference between “inform,” “influence” and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. In his article “”Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators,” Hastings relies heavily – if not entirely – on the statements by Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes concerned over his orders while at the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan.
As I noted in my recent article “Mind Games: Why Rolling Stone’s article on the military’s domestic psy-ops scandal gets it so wrong” (No, I did not come up with either the title or imagesubtitle), what “Another Runaway General” highlights is the deficit in the training, definition, and tactics, techniques and procedures of the informational functional areas in the military. In other words, who does what and why continues to be a confusing mess within the Defense Department. The result is continued confusion and stereotyping both inside and outside the military on the roles, capabilities and expectations that create headlines like “Another Runaway General.”

“Another Runaway General” also highlights, if briefly, the false yet prevalent view of the Smith-Mundt Act. I want to thank World Politics Review for making my article on Smith-Mundt, “Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans,” available outside of their paywall to support the “Mind Games” article.

This post adds additional commentary that could not fit into the ForeignPolicy.com “Mind Games” article.

What Holmes unintentionally spotlighted was the military’s continuing challenge to come to grips with the modern, transparent, global and hyperactive information environment. Holmes was inadequately prepared and unable to adapt to the demands of the environment, either at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan or any similar environment. As I noted, Holmes may not entirely be at fault, however. The Defense Department recently restructured and redefined Information Operations (IO) and renamed Psychological Operations (PSYOP) to Military Information Support Operations (MISO). The doctrinal and legal view of the information environment and its practices remain outdated and out-of-sync with modern realities and requirements. For example, this statutory analysis suggests non-US audiences may only be targeted by Psychological Operations.

Lieutenant General William Caldwell, IV, is one of the best commanders the United States has in the field today. Between his time in Iraq as spokesperson for MNF-I, commanding the Combined Arms Center (CAC) and Fort Leavenworth where he required officers to engage in social media and oversaw the updating of two important Army Field Manuals: FM 3-0 Operations and FM 3-7 Stability Operations (a rewrite of FM 3-13 Information Operations died an ugly death beyond his control), Caldwell understands the requirements of today’s information environment better than most as he tries to push the enterprise to adapt. (As an example of what can be accomplished, the NTM-A website was initially established at a cost of… wait for it… $50.)

imageA key problem that Holmes raises and hangs on and Caldwell and others, like myself, are trying to break, is the utterly false notion that Public Affairs “informs but not influences.” This “inform but not influence” paradigm remains endemic despite the reality that any communication influences an audience and shapes opinion. The result is a still-too-pervasive view that causes military public affairs to be reactive, lacking in planning, and ultimately leaving the U.S. ill-prepared – even unarmed – in the enduring struggles for minds and wills that happen globally and outside the operational and tactical theaters in which IO and PSYOP function.

Another key problem is that far too many believe PSYOP is only “black” or “gray” covert or less-then-honest information activities. In other words, PSYOP is to many the equivalent of military deception. This is utterly false. There is a lot of “white” PSYOP, or operations/activities that are 100% truthful and 100% attributed but done by professionals that understand techniques of communication and persuasion and audience analysis. So, asking the question again as “what is the difference between Public Affairs and “white” PSYOP? The tactics, techniques and procedures that permit and facilitate proactive engagement to preempt or effectively respond to adversarial actions.

Another the other major point in “Mind Games”, I note that Holmes’s improperly invoked the Smith-Mundt Act as a prophylactic for the American public. This resurrected the public’s (including the media’s) bad habits of pretending the Smith-Mundt Act is something it is not nor ever intended to be. The result is false assertions like this:

The use of information operations resources for the purpose of propagandizing American citizens and political representatives is strictly illegal under the terms of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.

and this:

If Caldwell did order the operation, it could violate a decades-old law called the Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids the government from targeting propaganda at American citizens. …

“It is a pretty big old red line,” says Bob Mackey, a retired Army officer with intelligence experience; Smith-Mundt is supposed to block the military from even using “truthful IO” on Americans.

For some additional background and level-setting on the Act, I suggestion you read “Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans” (931 words) and the post “Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010.” I am completing a 10,000-12,000 word booklet on the history of the legislation that spans 1944-1948 that is being revised to incorporate the contemporary movement for freedom of information that is not unlike Secretary Clintons Internet Freedom initiative.

Regarding Defense Department’s lingering, in only a few quarters, like with Holmes, interpretation of Smith-Mundt, neither the Offices of USD(I) nor USD(P), or ASD(PA) for that matter, regard Smith-Mundt as applicable to the Defense Department. In my research, there is only one detailed analysis of the Smith-Mundt Act’s applicability to the Defense Department, a 2006 legal review requested by the Defense Policy Analysis Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This review concluded the Act does not apply to the Defense Department but that Zorinsky’s statements, along with other legislation, indicate implicit Congressional support of the firewall the Defense Department and other agencies believe is imprudent to ignore. I have made a faxed version of the file available here.

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3 thoughts on “Holmes, Caldwell, Psy-Ops and the Smith-Mundt Act

  1. Matt,Thanks for this post. There is too much confusion here, both in the article you’re talking about and the antiquated thinking that messages can be contained by geographic borders.
    I particularly appreciate your reminder that “This “inform but not influence” paradigm remains endemic despite the reality that any communication influences an audience and shapes opinion.” That is, simply reality and I hope that people are listening to you about. As you said, it is making PA too reactive and, if you didn’t say it I will, just ignores the current realities of communications.

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