WASHINGTON - Is the Pentagon trying to control Sen. Al Franken's mind?
While mind games might not be involved, an article in Rolling Stone magazine has alleged that the military ordered a team of soldiers fluent in psychological operations to manipulate Franken and other senators into supporting more funding and troops for the war in Afghanistan.
The story prompted Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to order an investigation Thursday into whether the "psy-ops" team in Kabul directed by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell improperly targeted U.S. officials.
"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. Michael Holmes, a member of the team, told 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."
Franken said Thursday that nothing out of the ordinary occurred during his January 2010 trip with Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin to Afghanistan, where he met with Caldwell.
"I didn't think there was anything unusually manipulative during my time in Kabul, but even if there had been, it wouldn't have been successful," Franken, D-Minn., said. "My perspective on Afghanistan wasn't formed because of that single trip.
He said that while that was his first trip to Afghanistan as a senator, "it was my fifth trip to the country since the war started, and I've learned that to get a clear sense of what's happening on the ground you have to talk to everyone from privates to generals."
Franken said that he knew he "would have to cross-check" the assessments he received in Afghanistan. "I always raise skeptical questions when discussing this topic." He said he would cooperate with any investigation.
The story said five senators were involved in the psy-ops -- Franken; Levin, D-Mich.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; and Jack Reed, D-R.I. -- as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and others.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Caldwell "categorically denies" the article's allegations. The article was written by Michael Hastings, whose June 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal led to the general's removal as the senior military commander in Afghanistan.
The military uses psy-ops to influence foreign groups, but it is barred by law from using those tactics on U.S. citizens. More than half of the current Minnesota delegation has been to Afghanistan since the war began, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat.
On MSNBC Thursday, Reed said of his trip: "I didn't feel anything unusual going on."
In response, Steven Smith, a Washington University political scientist who specializes in Minnesota politics, tweeted: "The perfect senatorial victim of psy-ops." Joking aside, he said the allegations have the potential to be explosive, depending on the degree of manipulation that may have occurred. Rolling Stone said the psy-ops team conducted background checks and looked for "hot-button issues," but it doesn't mention any further specifics.
"This is playing with fire," Smith said. "To put a psy-ops team on these guys is a pretty risky business."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723