US misfires fighting ISIS online, Part IV: ‘Untouchable’

AP17017753260453.jpg

This document, photographed in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, details the announcement of a five-year, $500 million contract awarded to Northrop Grumman on Sept. 30, 2016. The contract, for an expanded psychological operations campaign against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, is one of the largest such efforts to date. Contractors with some of Northrop Grumman’s competitors allege that a close relationship between one of the defense giant’s subcontractors and officers at Central Command gave the company an inside track on the bid. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

This is Part IV of a four-part series on issues plaguing WebOps and the U.S. counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State. Start here at Part I.

Despite the problems behind the scenes at WebOps, Central Command will play a key role in the new $500 million psychological operations campaign against the Islamic State and other groups. The five-year contract was a hefty commitment to “degrade and ultimately defeat extremist organizations,” according to a document detailing the scope of the work. It would run parallel to WebOps.

The request for bids was announced in April. Four separate teams of companies competed for the contract, including one led by defense giant Northrop Grumman.

US misfires in online fight against Islamic State
Part II: ‘Do you speak Arabic?’
Part III: ‘Shouldn’t grade your own homework’

From the start, competitors complained among themselves that Simon Bergman, an executive with the British advertising firm M&C Saatchi, had an advantage because he was friends with the information operations lead, Army Col. Victor Garcia. Bergman was working with Northrop to prepare the bid.

A former British officer, Bergman was deployed to Iraq while Garcia was there working on psychological operations during the Iraq war. It was well known that the two men were close and, in recent years, contractors often saw Bergman at CENTCOM offices.

In April, defense contractor CACI International held a meeting in Tampa to discuss the bid. Three contractors on the team said a CACI manager warned a roomful of people that Garcia had already told him that he would decide who got the contract. The manager said that Garcia indicated that having Bergman on the team would help.

So in mid-September, when a photo appeared on Facebook showing Garcia and Bergman together in the Florida Keys, it did not look good in the eyes of many contractors. Garcia’s girlfriend captured the old friends inside the Tiki Bar at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo. They were on her Facebook page, shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling and giving the thumbs up.

Within days, the photos had been taken down from her page.

Two weeks later, the government announced Northrop had won the contract. Its team included M&C Saatchi, Bergman’s firm.

A panel led by the U.S. General Services Administration chose the winner of the contract. Chris Hamm, a senior GSA acquisition executive, said a five-member team scrutinized the technical merits of the proposals for the contract. That team was led by two GSA officials and included three military officers — one of whom was Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matt Coughlin, who reported directly to Garcia before Garcia left his post. Coughlin is the information operations’ liaison with contractors.

In an interview with AP, Hamm said the contract award was handled properly.

“The process is designed to avoid bias,” Hamm said.

But several other contractors on losing teams said Coughlin would clearly have been the person on the panel with the most sway, because of both his technical expertise and the fact that he represented CENTCOM. And given Coughlin’s ties with Garcia, they found that troubling.

Garcia said that while the bids were being considered, he stayed away from any discussions of it with Coughlin, his deputy. So he didn’t even realize the award announcement was imminent when he went with Bergman to the Keys.

“I wasn’t involved with the contracting process at all,” Garcia said. “So I had no idea what the timing of the contract was.”

When asked why the photo with Bergman was taken off Facebook, Garcia declined to comment.

Bergman said that his friendship with Garcia, one of many he has with military officers, is irrelevant. He noted that M&C Saatchi was only a subcontractor.

“I don’t see why my relationship with somebody in the military would have any influence over anything,” he said.

The whistleblower complaint however, filed in December with Central Command’s inspector general, contended the photo of Garcia and Bergman created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.”

The four-page complaint, now under investigation by NCIS, said the atmosphere at the CENTCOM division, with routine drinking at the office and myriad conflicts of interest, led to an “air of untouchable invincibility.”

Several contractors who spoke to AP, among the nearly two dozen either bidding for work or involved in CENTCOM information operations, said they suspected undue influence in the decision for the $500 million contract. In his complaint, the whistleblower alleges that Garcia told him directly at one point that “any team must include Simon Bergman.”

All the contractors asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive work because they feared repercussions for their companies.

Colsa Corp., the primary WebOps contractor, was not involved in Northrop’s bid. However, nothing prevents Northrop from bringing the company in as a subcontractor.

That’s the plan, said several contractors who have been briefed by Northrop. Such a move would provide ample funding to keep WebOps running for up to five more years.

Associated Press researchers Jennifer Farrar, Rhonda Shafner and Monika Mathur contributed to this report.