Media on Edge
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|Jude Freeman||May 26th 2012|
Cutting Edge Correspondent
A co-owner of a pentagon propaganda contractor has admitted responsibility for a number of websites involved in a ‘mis-information’ campaign that sought to cast doubts over the character of two USA TODAY journalists. USA TODAY reported that Camille Chidiac, former president of Leonie Industries, claims he personally funded the websites he used to discredit Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, who had reported on the Pentagon's "information operations" program, which came under fire for appropriating millions of dollars to marketing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that were said to be poorly monitored.
Using proxy services to conceal his identity, Chidiac, whose presidency of Leonie Industries ended in 2008, mounted what online reputation expert, Andy Beal, described as a “sophisticated reputation attack.” Twitter and Facebook accounts were registered in Tom Vanden Brook’s name before the stories were published and a Wikipedia entry and group postings included a misrepresentation of his report on the West Virginia Mine Disater. Stating that he made clear that the websites were “fan sites” of editor Ray Locker and reporter Vanden Brook, Chidiac admitted that comments “quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users." Chidicac’s attorney stated that the entries on Wikipedia and Twitter came from someone with "absolutely no relationship or connection with Leonie Industries."
When first reported in April, questions were asked about the Pentagon’s involvement in the smear campaign but Chidiac said that he was responsible for the slurs and that it was not the work of the Pentagon or Leonie Industries, whom he continued to represent in an informal basis. Using federally funded propaganda against domestic targets could violate federal law which disallows the Defense Department using funds for "propaganda purposes within the United States."
Speaking through his Atlanta attorney, Lin Wood, Chidiac stated, “I take full responsibility for having some of the discussion forums opened and reproducing their previously published USA TODAY articles on them. "I recognize and deeply regret that my actions have caused concerns for Leonie and the U.S. military. This was never my intention. As an immediate corrective action, I am in the process of completely divesting my remaining minority ownership from Leonie."
According to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been informed of Chidiac’s admissions and has “directed the department to review this matter and to take appropriate action." Pentagon press secretary George Little added "We were deeply disappointed to read this disclosure from Leonie Industries. Smear campaigns — online or anywhere else — are intolerable, and we reject this kind of behavior."
Since its creation in 2009 by Chidiac and his sister, Rema DuPont, Leonie has acquired $120 million in Pentagon contracts. The siblings had $4 million in liens after failing to pay federal income taxes. These bills have now been settled according to a report by USA TODAY.
In a statement, Gar Smith, Leonie’s director of marketing and communications said "Mr. Chidiac does not have access to Leonie's bank accounts and other financial resources, derived from government contracts or otherwise, and he used non-Leonie funds to participate in the online activity. This was the act of an individual, not the company." Leonie is said to be "in the process of informing government officials of the situation." It is as yet unclear how these events will affect Leonie’s Pentagon contracts.
The Pentagon’s inspector general told congress in March that the Defense Criminal Investigative Services were looking into the concerns in the USA TODAY report. The House committee voted last week, to slash the Pentagon’s “information operations” budget by a third.
Chidiac’s attorney said his client felt that he was unfairly characterized in USA TODAY’s report into his taxation woes and said that he was “personally offended,” adding “I do not believe the previous reporting has properly recognized the excellent work that has been performed by the employees of Leonie in support of U.S. military efforts over the past several years." In a statement released on his website on May 24th Chidiac said "Even though the USA Today articles written about my family included unfair personal attacks and false statements by the reporters, it did not motivate me to post anything personally nor did I encourage anyone to post anything that was untrue or defamatory in any way. The blogs registered under my name were all clearly marked “unofficial fan site(s)”, were not “fake websites” and were not intended to “smear”, mislead or misinform anyone. Instead, they were intended to create open dialogue in an open forum related to the reporters past articles. Due to the un-moderated nature of the forums, some of these discussions quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users. Following USA Today’s release of a new article falsely claiming a “smear campaign” had been instituted against its journalists, I had the blogs audited and then removed so that there would be no consequences to Leonie for something I did personally."
Executive editor Susan Weiss told that USA TODAY stand by their reporters and stories and that she was glad that the person responsible for the attack on Tom Vanden Brook, Ray Locker and USA TODAY had been identified.
Cutting Edge Correspondent Jude Freeman writes from London.