US misfires in online fight against Islamic State, Part I

AP17013690788644.jpg

In this screen grab of a photo from a Facebook posting, Col. Victor Garcia, left, who served as the senior officer overseeing CENTCOM’s counter-propaganda program from 2013 to mid-2016, poses on vacation with his friend Simon Bergman at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo, Fla. The photo was removed from Facebook shortly after it was posted on Sept. 16, 2016. Two weeks later, a $500 million contract was awarded to a team of companies that included Bergman’s firm M&C Saatchi. A whistleblower complaint filed with Central Command’s inspector general said the photo created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.” (AP Photo)

On any given day at MacDill Air Force Base, web crawlers scour social media for potential recruits to the Islamic State group. Then, in a high-stakes operation to counter the extremists’ propaganda, language specialists employ fictitious identities and try to sway the targets from joining IS ranks.

At least that’s how the multimillion-dollar initiative is being sold to the Defense Department.

Part II: ‘Do you speak Arabic?’
Part III: ‘Shouldn’t grade your own homework’
Part IV: ‘Untouchable’

A critical national security program known as “WebOps” is part of a vast psychological operation that the Pentagon says is effectively countering an enemy that has used the internet as a devastating tool of propaganda. But an Associated Press investigation found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it’s having little impact.

Several current and former WebOps employees cited multiple examples of civilian Arabic specialists who have little experience in counter-propaganda, cannot speak Arabic fluently and have so little understanding of Islam they are no match for the Islamic State online recruiters.

It’s hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when — as one former worker told the AP — translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.” That’s led to open ridicule on social media about references to the “Palestinian salad.”

Four current or former workers told the AP that they had personally witnessed WebOps data being manipulated to create the appearance of success and that they had discussed the problem with many other employees who had seen the same. Yet the companies carrying out the program for the military’s Central Command in Tampa have dodged attempts to implement independent oversight and assessment of the data.

Central Command spokesman Andy Stephens declined repeated requests for information about WebOps and other counter-propaganda programs, which were launched under the Obama administration. And he did not respond to detailed questions the AP sent on Jan. 10.

The AP investigation is based on Defense Department and contractor documents, emails, photographs and interviews with more than a dozen people closely involved with WebOps as well as interviews with nearly two dozen contractors. The WebOps workers requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the work and because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

The information operations division that runs WebOps is the command’s epicenter for firing back at the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine, which uses the internet to sway public opinion in a swath of the globe that stretches from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

Early last year, the government opened bidding on a new counter-propaganda contract — separate from WebOps— that is worth as much as $500 million. Months after the AP started reporting about the bidding process, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service told the AP that it had launched an investigation. NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said the service is investigating a whistleblower’s “allegations of corruption” stemming from how the contract was awarded.

The whistleblower’s complaint alleges multiple conflicts of interest that include division officers being treated to lavish dinners paid for by a contractor. The complaint also alleges routine drinking at the office where classified work is conducted. The drinking was confirmed by multiple contractors, who spoke to AP and described a frat house atmosphere where happy hour started at 3 p.m.

One of the most damning accusations leveled by the whistleblower is against Army Col. Victor Garcia, who led the information operations division until July 2016, when he moved to a new assignment at Special Operations Command, also in Tampa. The whistleblower contended that Garcia steered the contract to a team of vendors that included a close friend’s firm. The whistleblower requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

The AP obtained a screen-grab from a Facebook page that shows Garcia and the friend at a tiki bar in Key Largo two weeks before the winning team was officially announced Sept. 30. The photo was also turned over to NCIS investigators by the whistleblower, who said the photo created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.”

Garcia, a West Point graduate and decorated officer, denied any wrongdoing and described the complaint as “character assassination.” Garcia, who moved to his new post two months before the contract was decided, said he scrupulously avoided any discussions about the contract with both his friend and his former deputy. His former deputy served on the five-member panel that reviewed all of the bids.

“Because I was aware of these conflicts of interest, I intentionally kept myself out of that process — with any of these contract processes,” Garcia said.

The whistleblower is a senior manager at a company that lost its bid for the work. He told AP that he was investigated for attempting to accept kickbacks on an unrelated government contract. He denied the allegations, which were made four years ago, and no charges have been filed in the case.

The problems with the WebOps operation and the personal bonds underpinning the new contract illustrate challenges awaiting President Donald Trump. He has promised to boost military spending by tens of billions of dollars while also cutting waste at the Defense Department and ensuring that contractors aren’t getting sweetheart deals.

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore’s law school and a government contracting expert, reviewed AP’s findings and called Central Command’s lack of rigorous oversight inexcusable.

“These people should not be wasting the money consigned to defend us against terrorism,” said Tiefer, who served on a bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. The commission reported in 2011 that at least $31 billion was lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the first in a four-part series on issues plaguing WebOps and the U.S. counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State.