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Pentagon's information operations chief moves on

Aug. 8, 2013 - 08:43AM   |  
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The Pentagon’s point man for “information operations,” Austin Branch, is moving on to the National Counter Terrorism Center.

Branch has led military’s IO effort — referred to by some as propaganda — during a period of rapid expansion and, of late, criticism from Capitol Hill. He will be replaced by Mike Banaszewski, who is chief of staff for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Counter Terrorism, according to Navy Commander Amy Derrick-Frost, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Neither Branch nor Banaszewski was available for comment.

Information Operations has operated in a gray area for the military, an acknowledged specialty but whose practices are mostly kept secret. Despite the high costs, the programs’ effectiveness is hard to prove, according to numerous reports, including one by the Government Accountability Office this spring on what the military calls Military Information Support Operations.

The report, meant only for government eyes but obtained by USA TODAY, described the program as using “information and actions to influence foreign audiences to change their behavior to be favorable to U.S. interests.”

Spending on IO rose from $9 million in 2005 to $580 million in 2009, mostly for programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon and congressional records show. The budget has dropped as the war in Iraq ended and the drawdown in Afghanistan continues. Its recent budgets: $488 million in 2010; $355 million in 2011; $202 million in 2012.

In 2011, USA TODAY published an investigation of the program and found that much of the money was spent on efforts whose effectiveness could not be measured. The programs include leaflets and billboards urging Afghans to support their government. Millions are also spent on radio and television broadcasts and advertisements whose U.S. sponsorship is often hidden from Afghans because, military officials acknowledged, the information wouldn’t be trusted if Afghans knew its source.

The Pentagon relies heavily on contractors to produce the propaganda, and has allowed the private firms to grade their own work. USA TODAY had found that the owners of the top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan, Leonie Industries, had failed to pay $4 million in federal taxes on time despite earning more than $200 million in contracts from the government. Their tax bills were paid after the story was published.

After USA TODAY asked about the tax bills, fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as phony fan-club websites, were set up to disparage USA TODAY reporters. The co-owner of the company, Camille Chidiac, took responsibility for setting up some of the sites but said he did not use company resources in doing so. He had been suspended from receiving federal contracts because of the campaign, but the military lifted the suspension late last year.

The Pentagon’s inspector general has undertaken a criminal investigation of Leonie and its owners. The company continues its work in Afghanistan.

In an exit interview in February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed doubt about the value of IO programs.

“It’s always been tough to quantify, frankly,” Panetta said. “I’ve always been a little skeptical about how much good you can get out of that.”

The GAO report in April raised more questions about IO’s value. It found that the propaganda programs are inadequately tracked, their impact is unclear, and the military doesn’t know if it is targeting the right foreign audiences.

Last week, a spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that he had sponsored a measure to strip $19 million dollars in IO funding for Pentagon propaganda websites aimed at countering terrorism in foreign countries. The 10 sites are known as the Trans Regional Web Initiative.

The committee “believes that the costs to operate the websites developed under TRWI are excessive. The effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense,” according to the defense authorization bill, which will be taken up by the full Senate this fall. It recommended other government agencies take the lead in efforts to shape the opinion of foreign audiences.

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