Army National Guard Lt. Col. Mike Holmes knew when he got the order in Afghanistan that he would have to break U.S. law to comply.
His superiors wanted him to research VIPs visiting Afghanistan on fact-finding tours and recommend how to influence them to support the military's mission there and provide more funding, Holmes said.
That included people like U.S. Sens. John McCain and Al Franken, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee and think tank analysts.
Now Holmes, a former St. Petersburg resident who headed a small information operations team in Afghanistan, said his military career is ruined and his reputation tarnished because he refused to follow an order that he thought violated U.S. law.
David Petraeus, commanding general in Afghanistan, on Thursday ordered an investigation after a story appeared about Holmes in Rolling Stone. The inquiry will look at the actions in question and determine if they were inappropriate or illegal, a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Dave Lapan, told the Associated Press.
"It just depends on what it is they are doing. It's the actions, not just the assignment," Lapan said. "It all depends on how the information is used."
Information operations, called IO in military jargon, is an umbrella term for a variety of ways to influence foreign populations or an enemy. Psychological operations, or PsyOps, is one aspect of IO and can employ deception.
When he got the order, Holmes feared a potential public relations fiasco. "My target is the enemy," Holmes told the St. Petersburg Times last week. "I'm not limited by the truth. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's reality. I was concerned that if I followed the order and got caught, I'd hang for it. And if the command was caught, they'd hang for it."
In fact, military lawyers told Holmes that IO should not overlap a job suited for military public affairs, called PA.
"PA works on the hearts and minds of our own citizens and IO works on the hearts and minds of the citizens of other countries," Capt. John Scott, a military lawyer, told Holmes in a March 25, 2010, e-mail. "While the twain do occasionally intersect, such intersections, like violent contact during a soccer game, should be unintentional."
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the orders given to Holmes would clearly have been inappropriate if it involved deceiving U.S. citizens. But Aftergood said the line between legal and illegal is fuzzy.
After all, Aftergood said, the military often spins facts to influence public opinion, which is no great secret to Americans.
What Aftergood said concerned him more was the possibility that the military retaliated against a whistle-blower.
Holmes, 45, a 25-year veteran of the active Army and National Guard, said he is a career intelligence officer with training in psychological operations.
He attended Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg from 1978 to 1980 and served in the Florida National Guard from 1997 to 2003. He later moved to Texas and now serves in its Army National Guard.
Problems with superiors began soon after Holmes was sent to Afghanistan in November 2009. Holmes said his immediate supervisor verbally ordered him to do background research on visiting dignitaries: What issues are they passionate about? What are their votes in Congress on military issues?
At first, Holmes said he wasn't troubled by the task. After all, it was information available to anyone on the Internet. But as time passed, Holmes said, his superiors wanted more.
"I was persistently pressured to provide themes and messages that the command could insert into their presentations (to the VIPs) that would influence these people to either vote or do something that this command wanted to accomplish," Holmes said.
It might seem fairly innocuous, Holmes said, but the order violates a cardinal rule in the military that bars much IO work against U.S. citizens.
"This is nothing more than persuasive sales techniques," Holmes said. "But for trained (IO professionals) to do this is clearly wrong and unlawful."
Holmes' deputy, Maj. Laural Levine, 38, said IO personnel are often trained to use tools such as deception. Public affairs officers, who deal with U.S. media and the public, do not have such training and would have been the proper people to carry out such an order.
"Psychological operations are part of what we do," Levine said. "You just can't shut that off. The order was blatantly illegal."
Levine said Holmes' boss chewed him out after he was told the order was improper. She and Holmes, Levine said, faced enormous pressure to comply.
The matter came to a head on March 22, 2010, when Holmes got an e-mail from a major telling Holmes and Levine they had to "prep leaders for information engagements" and assess earlier "engagements" with VIPs.
"How did we do with our communications efforts and messaging?" the major wrote. "What results did we get?"
Holmes wrote back, "No — we cannot. We are focused on the adversary, and on the Afghan population by both joint doctrine and U.S. law."
Holmes sought legal advice when his commander ordered him to comply. The lawyer confirmed IO could not be used on U.S. citizens. Holmes said his superiors soon backed down.
Nine days later, an investigation seemingly unrelated to the order was opened against Holmes and Levine. They were accused of improperly leaving the base out of uniform, drinking alcohol, misusing Facebook pages and having improper business and personal relationships.
Levine and Holmes denied the charges and said it was reprisal.
Holmes acknowledged he and Levine were partners in a private communications business, but that did not conflict with their duties. Still, the Army issued a letter of reprimand to both.
Holmes' complaint with the Defense Department's inspector general alleging reprisal was rejected when he was told there was insufficient evidence.
Levine and Holmes are still in the Texas Guard, though both are considering leaving.
"I deal in a world of perceptions," Holmes said. "I play on those perceptions to influence the enemy. If you found out the information you got was from someone in my shop, you wouldn't trust it. It's wrong."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com.