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Pentagon Contractor Admits to Online Attacks on Journalists

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, RayLocker.com and TomVandenBrook.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 concerns 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 blames the un-moderated nature of the forums, claiming that they "quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevaant 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.

This article was originally published by In These Times.