The Pentagon gets a new ‘Psyops’ contractor

An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington © Reuters
After spending more than $425 million on a long-term contractor to rain down pamphlets and produce broadcasts, websites and billboards for Afghanistan citizens, the Pentagon confirms it is switching to another company for its propaganda operations.

The contract with Leonie Industries was denied renewal earlier this year, Col. David Hylton, a spokesman for the Army’s contracting command, said in an email to USA Today.

The severing of its seven-year relationship with the contractor comes after a series of criticisms. The Pentagon admitted it doubted the effectiveness of efforts under its Information Operation program. In 2012, USA Today reported there were hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon had spent on poorly tracked operational programs to persuade hostile populations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report, meant for internal use but obtained by USA Today, the impact of the programs was unclear and the military did not know whether it was targeting the right people.

The news outlet also found out the contractor owners owed the federal government $4 million in taxes a year after winning a $92 million Pentagon contract. The disclosure caused the company to launch a slander campaign against USA Today, using fake Twitter and Facebook accounts opened in reporters’ names, setting up phony fan clubs raising questions about previous work, and even posts to imply they were Taliban sympathizers.

Congress, led by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), pushed for legislation banning contractors with federal tax debts from doing business with the government.

Propaganda programs are more closely tracked now, the Pentagon said, although there is still a lack of transparency around contracts. Military officials would not provide measures of the effectiveness of a pamphlet drop in Syria late last year, for instance, saying that information was classified, reported by The Washington Post.

Scott Amey, general counsel of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, called for a review of the reliance on private contractors for the program.

“The government should be auditing the previous contract to ensure that taxpayer dollars were spent wisely,” Amey said. “Additionally, moving forward, I hope that (Pentagon) brass has determined that this work is truly essential, that it benefits the U.S., and that we are in good hands with contractors taking the lead.”

There is no central public database for finding out which contractors are doing what for the Defense Department.

The Pentagon’s new contractor for propaganda is SOS International, a family-owned business with corporate headquarters in New York City. They have been awarded a $32 million contract.

This is not the first government contract for SOS International. According to the Daily Beast, it was the biggest player on the ground in Iraq and the largest employer of Americans after the US embassy there.

On the company’s board of advisers are former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Butler, former special assistant to former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

In 2015, the company said on its website that its contacts in Iraq had a total value of $400 million. The contracts covered everything from meals to perimeter security to emergency fire and medical services.