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The Pentagon's million-dollar propaganda networks and covert operations

By Pratap Chatterjee | Last updated: Mar 31, 2010 - 2:50:06 PM

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The Pentagon’s War on the Internet (ICH, 02-13-2006)
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Information Operations Roadmap (US Dept. of Defense, PDF, 2003)

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WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) - Propaganda networks that conduct “psychological warfare” for the Pentagon have been in vogue for a long time. Mike Furlong, a senior Pentagon official who is now being investigated for running a covert network of contractors to supply information for drone strikes and assassinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, had a long history of working in this field.

Mr. Furlong's first major project was to establish transmitting and broadcasting networks in the former Yugoslavia, when he was commander of the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force in Bosnia from 1995 to 1997.

After he left the U.S. military, Furlong took a job as the director of the Strategic Communications and Information Operations Division of San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation.

Founded in 1969 by physicist J. Robert Beyster, SAIC's biggest source of income has always been surveillance, especially for U.S. spy agencies: it is reportedly the largest recipient of contracts from the National Security Agency and one of the top five contractors to the Central Intelligence Agency.

For example, in 2002 SAIC won the $282 million job of overseeing the latest phase of Trailblazer, the most thorough revamping in the NSA's history of its eavesdropping systems.

“We are a stealth company,” Keith Nightingale, a former Army special ops officer, told a now defunct magazine named Business 2.0. “We're everywhere, but almost never seen.”

On the third floor of the Baghdad convention center, in a suite of offices tucked away from the bustle of U.S. and Iraqi bureaucrats and soldiers who were using the sprawling complex as a nerve center to run the country in the weeks following the 2003 invasion, Mike Furlong set up a small media empire called the Iraqi Media Network (IMN).

The public face of IMN was the Al Iraqiya radio and television station and Radio Sawa. The television station was widely derided by most Iraqis as propaganda, but the radio station, with its mix of Arabic and Western pop music, was very popular.

At the time, Alaa Fa'ik, an Iraqi American from Ann Arbor, Mich., the second in command at IMN, denied that the Pentagon had any influence on IMN reporting.

“Yes, we are getting money from the Department of Defense. That is from you and me, the taxpayer. Are you reporting the fact that the ministry of education is funded by the United States government, the ministry of health is funded by the United States? I don't understand why when it comes to the media, you say, no, no, no. So who is going to fund it?”

Mr. Fa'ik may have believed that he was building democratic media institutions but his own employees had their suspicions about Mr. Furlong. “He had some TV experience but not much. He was doing other stuff on the side so he was running away from meetings. He didn't establish a professional-running TV station,” one worker told the now defunct Baghdad Bulletin.

As a project, IMN was a failure. Don North, a correspondent in Vietnam, Washington and the Middle East for ABC and NBC News, called Al Iraqiya “Project Frustration” when he quit in July 2003.

“IMN has become an irrelevant mouthpiece for CPA (the U.S. provisional government in Iraq) propaganda, managed news and mediocre programs. I have trained journalists after the fall of tyrannies in Bosnia, Romania and Afghanistan. I don't blame the Iraqi journalists for the failure of IMN. Through a combination of incompetence and indifference, CPA has destroyed the fragile credibility of IMN,” he wrote.

Mr. Furlong was fired in late 2003 from the IMN project and went to work for Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton, another major CIA and NSA contractor.

In August 2005, Mr. Furlong returned to work with the Pentagon but as a senior civilian official—deputy director for the Pentagon's Joint Psychological Operations Support Element out of the U.S. Special Operations Command in Florida.

At the time, he set up a $300 million contract in Iraq to hire three contractors for “media approach planning, prototype product development, commercial quality product development, product distribution and dissemination, and media effects analysis.” In other words—propaganda.

“We're looking at programs, for example, to counter suicide bombers,” Mr. Furlong told USA Today. “While the product may not carry the label, ‘Made in the USA,' we will respond truthfully if asked by journalists.”

The first contractor was SAIC, his old employer, the second was L-3 subsidiary Sy Coleman and the third was a new outfit called the Lincoln Group that had been set up in Washington, D.C. by Christian Bailey, a co-chairman of a political group aligned with the Republican Party called Lead 21.

The Lincoln Group's efforts ran into trouble when Mark Mazetti, then a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, revealed that the company was secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by U.S. troops.

Willem Marx, a former intern at the Lincoln Group, later described to Democracy Now! how his boss worked: “He was choosing which of those articles would be published in Iraqi newspapers. He was sending them to Iraqi employees, getting them translated into Arabic, getting them okayed by the command back at Camp Victory and then having other Iraqi employees run them down to Iraqi newspapers, where they would pay editors, sub-editors, commissioning editors to run them as news stories in the Iraqi newspapers.”

(Pratap Chatterjee is a senior editor at CorpWatch. This article was produced in partnership with CorpWatch. It is the second of a two-part series.)

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