Former Democratic congresswoman and conservative-media pundit Tulsi Gabbard gave a guest lecture to students at the Army's psychological warfare school last week on several topics, including disinformation, Military.com has learned.
Gabbard, who has long been criticized by members of both major political parties for peddling pro-Russian talking points including disinformation, was acting in her role as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. She also discussed psychological operations more broadly, including how to improve lawmakers' understanding of it, according to internal 1st Special Forces Command communications reviewed by Military.com.
On Thursday, Gabbard was speaking at an event at the John F. Kennedy Auditorium at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, discussing social media's impact on democracy, information warfare and disinformation, for students at the Army's 43-week psychological warfare school. Two soldiers who were there said she briefly expressed concerns over disinformation polluting American discourse and the need to get U.S. society back to a place "where people trust one another." No phones were allowed in the briefing.
“LTC Gabbard spoke about her personal experiences and perspectives as a Civil Affairs Officer in the Army Special Operations community and her understanding of strategic level policy making. It was not about any one specific topic,” Maj. Rick Dickson, a spokesperson for the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School told Military.com in a statement. “There was a Q&A period after her remarks where students asked many different questions on a wide variety of topics.”
Psychological operations soldiers are a key asset for Special Forces, serving as a tool for the organization's mission of growing guerrilla armies. Psyops focuses on propaganda efforts targeting adversaries, media manipulation, messaging and other unconventional communications tactics on a battlefield.
Gabbard has long flirted with and outright promoted disinformation and conspiracy theories, sometimes while in uniform.
In March, she posted a video on TikTok and other social media sites repeating disinformation about U.S. support for biolabs in Ukraine, falsely implying that the labs worked on bioweapons and diseases like COVID-19 and that the Biden administration was trying to cover it up. That conspiracy theory was seen as a pretext for the war and was pushed by Chinese and Russian state media, as well as QAnon.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, responded at the time on Twitter, saying Gabbard was "parroting Russian propaganda'' and that her "treasonous lies may well cost lives."
A spokesman for Gabbard disputed that she had previously promoted disinformation.
"Gabbard has never said or implied that there are US-financed 'bioweapon labs' in Ukraine," Vanessa Santos wrote in an email to Military.com after this article was initially published. "What she has said is simply fact: there are US-financed 'biolabs' in Ukraine. Furthermore, the former congresswoman presented undisputed evidence of the existence of these biolabs."
Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, is a civil affairs officer in the Reserve and assigned to 1st Special Forces Command, but served the bulk of her career in the National Guard.
Troops are generally forbidden from engaging in political activity while in uniform or on duty. The rules are easily skirted by reservists and Guardsmen, who spend the bulk of their time off duty and therefore outside some of the confines of Defense Department rules. For example, there are multiple members of Congress, including Gabbard when she served in the House, who also serve as part-time troops.
Yet there are no clear rules in the military on spreading disinformation, unwittingly or not. Gabbard is arguably one of the most high-profile part-time troops currently serving, and the reserve and National Guard have effectively no clear apparatus to discipline troops for their conduct off duty, other than drug use.
The Army as a whole has struggled to modernize its social media policies, and service officials have been gun-shy about the appearance of partisanship, paranoid that the wrong move could quickly ignite the ire of right-wing media and conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, multiple sources with direct knowledge of senior service officials' thinking on the matter have told Military.com.
"Part of the Army's problem is they do this false equivalency of right and left disinformation," said Kris Goldsmith, an Army veteran and founder of Task Force Butler, which studies domestic extremism. "The fact they have someone that does Russian disinformation on her off-time on the most popular cable network is perfectly representative of the Pentagon not taking this issue seriously."
Gabbard was previously a congresswoman in a solid-blue Hawaii district and served on the House Armed Services Committee, basing a lot of her platform on being staunchly antiwar. She declined to run for another term in the House, amid a rocky relationship with her own party and a strong primary challenger in 2020.
In the days leading up to and following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russian state media broadcasted translated clips of Gabbard on Fox News' Tucker Carlson program, a show she would go on to guest host. In those clips, Gabbard blamed NATO and the U.S. for provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that the Biden administration's support of the war effort would lead to increased fuel costs.
"These sanctions don't work," Gabbard said on Fox News in February. "What we do know is that they will increase suffering and hardship for the American people. And this is the whole problem with the Biden administration: They are so focused on 'how do we punish Putin' that they don't care and are not focused on what is actually in the best interests of the American people."
Gabbard also dipped her toe in presidential races, serving as a key surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders' White House bid in 2016 and running her own campaign in 2020 that failed to gain momentum. She has since turned to punditry on Fox News, inking a contributor deal last week, and is also relatively active on the podcast circuit.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a comment from Tulsi Gabbard's spokesman that was received after initial publication.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.