To someone who has been writing about the military’s Massive Message Machine for a few years now, or as the military more politely puts it, Strategic Communications, a whopping $4.9 billion of our taxpayer money for winning hearts and minds here and abroad in 2009 alone, Michael Hastings’ latest piece, “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators,” is no real surprise.

It could be almost funny, imagining our senators, delivered up to the Men in Fatigues upon landing in their CH-47 Chinook helicopters, like the hapless victims in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or the hilariously MST3k-lampooned Devil Doll (1964). I prefer The Stepford Wives analogy when writing about the lawmakers and think tankers who get all goofy-eyed after spending five minutes “in the field” on the generals’ turf. They come back home spouting things like, “timelines are dangerous,” “long hard slog,” and “political will to continue,” and start green lighting budgets and blocking measures to hasten the end of the war.

It might be funny if it weren’t so true. Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer who brought Gen. Stanley McChrystal down, writes that Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan troops, demanded in 2009 that U.S military psy-ops be turned on visiting Senators and other “distinguished visitors” during routine CODELs (congressional delegations) to the warzone. Seems that the truth wasn’t good enough to convince the military’s paymasters that they deserved more money and time to fight it. Sadly, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Al Franken were among the “targets” for this mission, which, as the Army whistleblower who helped Hastings break the story concluded, clearly violated the law against propagandizing our own citizens. Consequently,  as I wrote about last year, both Levin and Franken fell down on the job when it came to resisting the push for the Afghan surge. In fact, it was immediately after one of these CODELs that the two senators softened their tone against the war policy.

Antiwar.com, Jan. 26, 2010:

Sure, the lawmaker may fly into Bagram air field with a head full of steam against sending 30,000 more troops, or at least a healthy skepticism toward escalating of a war in which every additional day, month, and year of the occupation seems to breathe new life into the forces against us. But like Joanna Eberhart’s fateful discovery at the Stepford Men’s Association, nearly every member of Congress who travels overseas these days to meet the boss returns mouthing the same rhetoric, like a plastic simulacrum of the man or woman their constituents elected.

“What I saw here is almost totally positive,” gushed Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after a hand-holding walk through a forward operating base in Afghanistan. “We went to places away from Kabul today. We saw real partnering with Afghans … it’s reassuring to see that happening.”

Levin traveled to the region earlier this month with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), spending one day in Pakistan and two whole days in Afghanistan. “Our counterinsurgency strategy may be taking hold … we are offering [the Afghans] terms of security better than the false security offered by the Taliban,” he told reporters.

“I came back more optimistic about where we are,” Franken shared with Minnesota Public Radio upon his return.

“Gen. McChrystal did say momentum and perception are so important in Afghanistan. I believe we are seeing a change in that,” Franken said. “We need to clear, hold, and build, we need to secure these areas … we’re using classic counterinsurgency tactics and I feel much better.”

Just last month I mentioned how Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell was helping the military Svengalis get their hooks into budget cutting conservatives on a more recent CODEL. I think Hastings has helped expose something essential here, and it’s great to see that his source, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, leader of the Information Operations unit tasked with turning their skills on senators and others, had the guts to stand up to the general and tell him he was breaking the law. He paid for it, with petty retaliation by the General’s office, according to Hastings. But it is always good to know that there are still levels of resistance from within the machine.