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Rolling Stone Psy-Ops Article Exposes Another Breakdown in Military Whistleblower Protections

02/24/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Nick Schwellenbach, crossposted on POGO's blog

Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings has written another article that's gone viral. Here's how it opens:

The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in "psychological operations" to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned--and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators.

The orders came from the command of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops--the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the war. Over a four-month period last year, a military cell devoted to what is known as "information operations" at Camp Eggers in Kabul was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation.

"My job in psy-ops is to play with people's heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave," says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. "I'm prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you're crossing a line."

The idea that the military is misdirecting resources intended to help us fight the war to instead manipulate Congress is bad enough. But Hastings' piece could also point to a systemic weakness in military whistleblower protections. As the story goes, the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) failed to recognize Lt. Col. Holmes as a whistleblower whose disclosures were protected:

Holmes, believing that he was being targeted for questioning the legality of waging an IO [information operations] campaign against U.S. visitors, complained to the Defense Department's inspector general. Three months later, he was informed that he was not entitled to protection as a whistleblower, because the JAG [Judge Advocate General's Corps] lawyer he consulted was not "designated to receive such communications."

From POGO's perspective, this is ludicrous. It's natural for a service member to go JAG attorneys for advice, particularly on a potentially illegal matter.

The Holmes case appears to indicate a weakness in military whistleblower protections. It raises the question: what constitutes a protected channel for military whistleblower disclosures? We've been told by DoD insiders that it is the DoD IG, the service member's chain of command, and Congress. (POGO has posed the question to the DoD IG and will update this post if warranted.) The JAG attorney, Capt. John Scott, handled information operations--could Scott been seen as within Holmes' chain of command or have been seen as another kind of protected channel? We have asked the DoD IG for comment.

This is not the first time the system of military whistleblower protections has seemed to fail. We've written about the systemic problems with the DoD IG and the Military Whistleblower Protection Act in the past (see here, here, here, and here).

POGO has learned that currently the DoD IG is conducting an "Independent Review of MRI outcomes" (MRI refers to Military Reprisals Investigations) because of a perception that there is an unusually low substantiation rate of military retaliation complaints by MRI.

In the second half of fiscal year 2010, "DoD IG and service IGs received 347 complaints of whistle-blower reprisal and closed 359 cases," according to the DoD IG's most recent semiannual report. "Of the 359 cases, 294 were closed after preliminary analysis determined further investigation was not warranted, and 65 were closed after investigation. Of the 65 cases investigated, 11 (17 percent) contained one or more substantiated allegations of whistleblower reprisal."

It's a 17 percent substantiation rate only if you set aside all the cases "closed after preliminary analysis determined further investigation was not warranted"--otherwise the substantiation rate is about 3 percent (11 cases with at least one allegation substantiated out of 347). Was Holmes' case closed after "preliminary analysis" or after an investigation? We have asked the DoD IG's press office for comment and will add it in if they get back to us.

Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations. Follow Nick on Twitter.