Pentagon Contractor Admits to Online Attacks on Journalists

Lindsey Kratochwill

In a press release Thurs­day, Camille Chidi­ac, for­mer pres­i­dent and cur­rent minor­i­ty own­er of Leonie Indus­tries admit­ted that he was behind the orches­trat­ed smear attacks on two USA Today jour­nal­ists.Leonie has received $120 mil­lion in Pen­ta­gon con­tracts since 2009. Chidi­ac claims that none of that $120 mil­lion made its way into pay­ing for the Inter­net mis­deeds, in which fake Face­book and Twit­ter accounts were cre­at­ed for the two writ­ers in an appar­ent attempt to dis­cred­it them. Use of Pen­ta­gon funds might have con­sti­tut­ed a vio­la­tion of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which reg­u­lates the dis­sem­i­na­tion of pro­pa­gan­da domes­ti­cal­ly.No such restric­tions exist for pro­pa­gan­diz­ing over­seas, how­ev­er, and Leonie is one of the chief pro­duc­ers of infor­ma­tion craft­ing” ser­vices for the Pen­ta­gon. The smear cam­paign began in Feb­ru­ary,  when writ­ers Tom Van­den Brook and edi­tor Ray Lock­er began report­ing a USA Today series exam­in­ing over­sight and effi­cien­cy (or lack there of) asso­ci­at­ed with funds giv­en to the Pen­tagon’s infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions sec­tor. The series crit­i­cized the poor­ly tracked mar­ket­ing and pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns” in Iraq, Afghanistan and oth­er coun­tries, on which $580 mil­lion was spent in 2009.
Van­den Brook began notic­ing the false web pres­ence soon after he inter­viewed Chidi­ac about Leonie. New York Mag­a­zine reports that the web­sites, Ray​Lock​er​.com and Tom​Van​den​Brook​.com were cre­at­ed dur­ing the report­ing process. The web­sites were bought along with a proxy to con­ceal the iden­ti­ty of the own­er. Andy Beal, an online rep­u­ta­tion expert told USA Today that it appeared to be a sophis­ti­cat­ed rep­u­ta­tion attack.” Soon after the jour­nal­ists began look­ing into the web­sites, they were tak­en down. On May 10, House Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Hank John­son (D‑Georgia) pro­posed an amend­ment to cut fund­ing to the infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions of the Pen­ta­gon by $122 mil­lion. Dur­ing the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing, John­son said: As incom­pe­tent as this rep­u­ta­tion attack cam­paign appears to have been, it rais­es the deeply dis­turb­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty that a fed­er­al defense con­trac­tor that spe­cial­izes in infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions may have tar­get­ed Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists. It may have done so using tax­pay­er dol­lars and tac­tics devel­oped to counter the influ­ence of adver­saries such as Al Qae­da and the Tal­iban.”But John­son not­ed quick­ly after­ward he intend­ed to with­draw the amend­ment, because he recognize[s] that some of these invest­ments may be effec­tive­ly sup­port­ing our men and women in harm’s way.” but called upon the Depart­ment of Defense to launch an inves­ti­ga­tion into the sit­u­a­tion. Just a few weeks after this amend­ment, Chidi­ac admit­ted that he was behind the attacks – though many media sites already sus­pect­ed Leonie. In Chidi­ac’s press release, he says that he regrets that the actions caused con­cernes for Leonie and the U.S. mil­i­tary.” He also claimed that the web­sites were not smear web­sites, but rather unof­fi­cial fan sites that he cre­at­ed in order to open dia­logue about the jour­nal­is­tic work. That forum proved too open, and Chidi­ac blams the un-mod­er­at­ed nature of the forums, claim­ing that they quick­ly den­er­at­ed from legit­i­mate crit­i­cism to imma­ture and irrelavent rhetoric by unknown users.” The web pres­ence called into ques­tion Van­den Brooks’ cred­i­bil­i­ty and accu­ra­cy, accus­ing him of being spon­sored by the Tal­iban and alleg­ing that he mis­re­port­ed dur­ing the Sago Mine Dis­as­ter in West Vir­ginia from 2006. 
Lind­sey Kra­tochwill, an In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern, is stu­dent at North­west­ern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
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