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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Burying the lede

Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings had a story about how the military influences public opinion, but he buried it.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan addresses a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 5, 2011. Photo: AP/Altaf Qadri

Last week, Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter most famous for causing the downfall and early retirement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wrote what he must have thought was another bombshell. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO’s mission to train the Afghan army and police, was, according to Hastings, illegally ordering troops to “manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war.”

It sounds like an appalling breach of civil-military affairs, like the plotline from a conspiracy thriller. There is no doubt that the military tries to influence the American public, including its politicians. In fact, the original purpose of embedded journalism — of placing journalists alongside the troops to tell their stories — was to “dominate the information environment,” according to Lt. Col. Rick Long, the former head of media relations for the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq in 2004. So hearing that a flag officer might have assigned his soldiers to influence U.S. politicians is not exactly earth-shattering news: they’ve been doing that, openly, for years.

The crux of Hastings’ piece seems to center around the legality of the troops chosen to influence these visiting dignitaries. In the Rolling Stone piece, we learn of a lieutenant colonel assigned to “psy-ops,” or psychological operations. Only he maybe wasn’t (it isn’t clear what the lieutenant colonel’s exact duties were at this point). And, from the information in Hastings’ article, it’s not clear that what the lieutenant colonel was assigned to do — essentially, provide background information on high-profile visitors and assess if they were “convinced” by their visit — really amounts to anything illegal.

But lost in the buzz this article generated is a worrying single piece of information, wholly unrelated to the main thrust of Hastings’ article. Among a list of targeted visitors, Hastings casually mentions think tankers. This is a topic I’ve brought up before, last summer, when e-mails surfaced that suggested Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was receiving talking points from Gen. David Petraeus, now the commander of all forces in Afghanistan, and not disclosing his relationship. The issue of ethics among think tankers has also been a major focus lately of Peter Singer, the director of the 21 Century Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Unfortunately, the issue of influencing think tankers to provide cover for policy options has not gone away.

I should preface this discussion with my own full disclosure: I work for a think tank, the American Security Project, and used to be a contractor in the defense industry. It’s possible I might be influenced in the future either by donors, or the promise of access, or some other temptation. I have no big moral or ethical objections to think tankers — who are paid for their opinions and analysis, and not necessarily their objectivity — accepting trips, gifts and behind-the-scenes access in exchange for a good story. My only objection comes from the lack of disclosure of such things (and it is to Max Boot’s enormous credit that he stated in his last trip report that it was supported and encouraged by Gen. Petraeus, which is the proper and ethical thing to do).

By focusing on the very weak evidence that Gen. Caldwell might have done something unethical last year — there are no quotes directly implicating him, only, possibly, a colonel serving under him — Hastings missed a huge opportunity. It’s no secret that congressmen and senators who tour the war zones get a filtered view of reality (remember John McCain’s infamous visit to that Iraqi market?). It is, however, something of a secret that many embeds with the military are selected for their adventure tours based on their predetermined beliefs. Jerome Starkey, a writer for the Times of London who exposed the cover up of a civilian casualty incident in Paktia province, described last year how the military denies embeds to writers and analysts it deems too critical. And Hastings himself, after taking down General McChrystal, was mysteriously denied another embed. Both can now embed with NATO forces again, but the message sent was unmistakable: if you embarrass the military, it will not allow you access to the troops.

With think tankers, the process is far less transparent. There’s no mistake that the most pro-war think tankers get to embed with the military whenever they want, with seemingly no limits on funding, trip length or access to high-level officials. It’s more difficult for critical think tankers and analysts to get support to go research the war first hand: funding is far less forthcoming for reports that are critical of the war, and the military has an established record of being unwelcoming of critical analysts touring through its operations. General Petraeus invited Max Boot to tour the war in Afghanistan; he hasn’t invited a prominent critic like Col. Gian Gentile.

While the allegations against Gen. Caldwell merited reporting, if only because they happened, the story of how the military might target think tankers to influence public opinion of the war is far more worrying. These think tankers flood the op-ed pages and cable talk shows with their “firsthand experiences,” which seem to involve sitting in air-conditioned rooms at various bases watching Power Point presentations as much as they involve serious research into the policies, tactics and strategies of the war. Yet, their financial and organizational conflicts of interests are almost never stated, leaving readers without the ability to properly judge the reliability of the stories that result.

In his zeal to take down another general, Michael Hastings missed a critical opportunity to expose some of the rot at the base of the commentary industry.