The top United States commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has ordered an investigation into allegations that members of a psychological-operations team – known as psy-ops – were ordered to target American Senators and other dignitaries visiting the country to help to persuade them to provide new troops and money.
Among politicians reportedly targeted by the team, whose ostensible mission is to manipulate the thought processes of the enemy, were former presidential candidate John McCain and fellow senators Al Franken, Carl Levin, Joe Lieberman and Jack Reed.
The man in charge of psy-ops, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Holmes, told a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine that he received orders to turn his focus on visiting politicians from Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, one of the top commanders in the country. "How do we get these guys to give us more people? What do I have to plant inside their heads?" the chief of staff to Lt-Gen Caldwell purportedly asked Lt-Col Holmes.
That General Petraeus reacted so quickly reflects the potential gravity of the claim. Using psy-ops on your own side is prohibited by Pentagon policy and is likely to be seen as against US law. The article was penned by Michael Hastings, who last year wrote an article about a climate of disrespect among commanders towards President Barack Obama. That piece resulted in the firing of the then US Commander, General Stanley McChrystal. Lt-Col Holmes told the magazine that he resisted the order but was reprimanded for it. Among the allegations was a claim that his men were told to compile profiles of the politicians ahead of their arrival in the country to identify not just things such as their voting records on the war, but also their likes and dislikes and the things that aroused their passions.
"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," Lt-Col Holmes was quoted as saying by Rolling Stone. "I'm prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressmen, you're crossing a line."
Senator Reed, of Rhode Island, said he found the accusations "very serious and disturbing", while Senator Levin, of Michigan, implied that any attempts to mess with his mind would have been unnecessary. He said: "For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation's future."
* In the Second World War, loudspeakers were used to amplify the noise of engines to convince German troops they faced a bigger force than was there.
* During the Korean War leaflets calling on enemy troops to surrender were said to have influenced up to a third of the soldiers who were taken prisoner by the United Nations forces.
* A technique adopted in the first Gulf war was to drop leaflets warning of an impending bombing raid, carry out the attack, then drop more leaflets telling Iraqi troops they should surrender. The tactic was to make them trust the word of the Allies.