Rogue “Info Ops” Agents Go After The Wrong Target
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
As many have learned the hard way, protecting your reputation online can be difficult. The way the web works, once just one person publishes something bad or inaccurate about you, it lives forever in the net’s cache. Should you be unfortunate enough to have someone, or even a team of people, who know their way around the Internet writing malicious things about you, it can be impossible to ever fully correct the record. Bad stuff tends to thrive online.
Just ask Tom Vanden Brook or Ray Locker. They’re both reporters at USA Today; Vanden Brook covering the Pentagon for the paper since 2006, and Locker the White House and other agencies. Recently they teamed up to explore what the Pentagon calls “information operations” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. A term of military art, “Info Ops” is frankly just another phrase for propaganda: the transmission of information, factual or not, with the specific goal of changing beliefs. “Winning the hearts and minds,” as President Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying during the Vietnam war.
Vanden Brook and Locker began digging into the effectiveness of current Pentagon information operations in overseas war zones, and their overall assessment was not positive. “U.S. info ops programs dubious, costly” read the headline in the February 29th story. “From 2005 to 2009, such spending rose from $9 million to $580 million a year mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon and congressional records show,” they write:
“Last year, spending dropped to $202 million as the Iraq War wrapped up. A USA TODAY investigation, based on dozens of interviews and a series of internal military reports, shows that Pentagon officials have little proof the programs work and they won’t make public where the money goes. In Iraq alone, more than $173 million was paid to what were identified only as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”
In particular, the reporters ask hard questions about one of the Pentagon’s largest info ops contractors, Leonie Industries. The firm, they write, was founded in 2004 by a brother and sister team “with no apparent experience working with the military.” Of the $130 million dollars in awarded contracts, the reporters conclude there is little to no oversight, and uncertainty about Leonie’s effectiveness. Worse still, the founders Camille Chidiac and Rema Dupont together owed more than $4 million in unpaid taxes.
Leonie responded quickly. “As of March 23, 2012 all tax obligations for Leonie’s owners have been met,” read the curt post on the firm’s blog.
Locker and Vanden Brook kept digging. “Pentagon defends millions to contractor despite unpaid taxes” read the next story on April 16, detailing congressional calls to garnish Leonie’s contracts and increase oversight.
Around the same time, the two reporters began to notice something odd. Twitter accounts purporting to be them popped up, as did Facebook pages, and even websites like www.raylocker.com. These fake accounts began to post messages and stories that, to put it mildly, cast the reporters in a negative light. Needless to say, neither Locker nor Vanden Brook had any connection to these phony accounts.
Then on April 19, in a little noticed story, USA Today reporter Gregory Kane wrote “A USA TODAY reporter and editor investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors have themselves been subjected to a propaganda campaign of sorts, waged on the Internet through a series of bogus websites.” Kane and his colleagues worked to track the origins of the campaign: when it began and who was behind it. Kane concluded:
“Internet domain registries show the website TomVandenBrook.com was created Jan. 7 — just days after Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook first contacted Pentagon contractors involved in the program. Two weeks after his editor Ray Locker’s byline appeared on a story, someone created a similar site, RayLocker.com, through the same company. If the websites were created using federal funds, it could violate federal law prohibiting the production of propaganda for domestic consumption.”
The websites, fake social media accounts and other mischief, such as altering Wikipedia entries, all painted the journalists in a negative light. Some posts suggested that the two were working in cooperation with the Taliban. In other words, someone with motive was trying to smear Vanden Brook and Locker.
Although a Pentagon spokesman denied any knowledge of any such operation, it didn’t take long for fingers to point back to defense contractor Leonie Industries. Among those pointing were Gawker‘s John Cook:
“Oddly, the USA Today story on the mischief names only “Pentagon contractors” as likely culprits. But a source familiar with the story confirms that the contractor responsible is Leonie Industries, an information operations company with more than $90 million in Army contracts in Afghanistan.”
Cook doesn’t name his source, and says that Vanden Brook told him via email that he didn’t know who was responsible for the smear campaign. Numerous calls and emails from VOA to Leonie went unanswered, however the company on April 24 posted the following to its corporate blog:
“Leonie condemns the activities described in the article. While Leonie has no reason to believe that any employee was involved in this activity, an internal investigation is being conducted to determine whether any employee was so involved. If that investigation determines that there was such involvement, appropriate action will be taken.”
At present, the two bogus websites are blocked, and the fake social media accounts have gone dark. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t done damage, or that the story ends here. Vanden Brook called the campaign “creepy” and Ray Locker told the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple it was “something I’ve never experienced in thirty years.” Since last week, the story has gone quiet, but it’s a guarantee that more reporters now are paying attention to “info ops” and online smears, at home or abroad.
In 2011, the Leonie Group won 12 Defense Department contracts for a total of $92, 324, 165. They won their first DoD contract in 2008, and since then have been awarded a total of $145, 190, 686 dollars. Of the 2011 contracts, funds were spent in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia. For the first two, services provided were listed as “other professional services” while for Colombia they were “training and curriculum development.”
Leonie describes itself as a “strategic communication and mission support” firm with offices in Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, Baghdad and Kabul. Among the services offered:
“Consulting with our clients to understand your messaging goals and objectives, we research and analyze how we can best reach your target audience, maximizing effectiveness by intrinsically understanding the environment before coordinating, integrating and disseminating your communications campaign via TV, radio, print, digital media and other creative channels.”
In corporate terms, “strategic communication.” In military terms, “information operations.” In plain English, propaganda.
The Pentagon, like every other military organization, has long used various forms of propaganda, at home and overseas. However, early in the 20th Century, Congress and the White House sought to curb or eliminate any U.S. government propaganda that might be aimed at U.S. citizens.
For example, 5 U.S.C., Section 3107, passed in late 1913, states: “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.” The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 further defined what types of communications the U.S. government could have with those overseas, and within the United States. [Full disclosure: the Voice of America and its parent organization, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, are also bound by this measure not to actively distribute any material to a U.S. audience.] And further various appropriations measures through the years, like 2004′s omnibus spending bill, prohibit funds to be used “…for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofor authorized by Congress.”
This means that if any U.S. tax funds, equipment or personnel were used, knowingly or not, in constructing the smear against the two USA Today journalists, it would very likely constitute a violation of federal law. Both the Pentagon and Leonie say investigations are underway. In any event, the smear appears to have backfired badly.
So here’s the ironic bow on the package: what began as a story about the questionable effectiveness of propaganda overseas is turning now into questions about its use at home. And what started as an effort to tarnish the public image of two journalists may end up dimming the reputation of those firms that try to control it.