The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said on Thursday the Army will investigate whether a special "psychological operations" unit was ordered to manipulate American senators into providing more troops and money for the war.
The announcement Gen. David Petraeus made in a brief statement from Kabul said only that the probe would "determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue," and that it would be "inappropriate to comment any further at this time."
Rolling Stone reported that psyops, intended to target "hostile foreign groups," are banned by federal law for use on Americans. When Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, the leader of the information operations unit, tried to deflect the Army order given by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, he found himself the target of a military investigation to investigate his behavior, which allegedly included alcohol use and having an "inappropriate" relationship with a subordinate.
A spokesman for Caldwell declined comment on the report.
The magazine reported that Holmes said the operations were initially intended to include "seemingly innocuous" work, such as compiling detailed profiles of special visitors to Afghanistan, profiles that included voting records and their personal preferences.
Caldwell's chief of staff is reported to have asked Holmes how the military could manipulate the lawmakers without their knowledge. In an e-mail, Caldwell's staff commissioned Holmes's team for information to shape the general's presentations to the visitors and to "refine our messaging." Holmes said that the team was supposed to provide a "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds."
Among those singled out in the campaign were Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Joe Lieberman , I-Conn.; Jack Reed , D-R.I.; Al Franken , D-Minn.; and Carl Levin , D-Mich.
Senators who received briefings while in Afghanistan said their views have little to do with such sessions and shrugged off their significance.
"I didn't feel anything unusual going on," Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said on MSNBC.
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted: "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. I have never needed any convincing on this point."
Franken added: "My perspective on the effort in Afghanistan is the product of countless face-to-face meetings with soldiers and Marines, Pentagon officials, State Department officials, outside experts, and my constituents in Minnesota, as well as extensive review of reports and classified material."
Pentagon spokesman Dave Lapan said he could not give an outright denial of what was published in the magazine. He did say that the investigation is "not focused on any particular person other than determining the facts and circumstances that were raised in the story."
When asked if it was inappropriate for an information officer to do the types of tasks specified in the article, Lapan said that it depends on the circumstances of "what's being done and how [the information] is being used."
The investigation is going to look into "what actions took place and what, if any of them, were illegal...inappropriate," the spokesman said.
Rolling Stone won the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting on Tuesday because of reporter Michael Hastings's last piece, a controversial profile last year of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal was fired by President Obama shortly after its publication.
Yochi J. Dreazen and Dan Friedman contributed to this report.