Defense investigates information-operations contractors

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

An expanding network of Pentagon contractors with professed expertise in information operations has become the focus of an investigation ordered last week by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Gates's action was prompted by news reports that Michael D. Furlong, a senior civilian Defense Department employee, had used $25 million in funds from the Pentagon's program against roadside bombs to hire private contractors to gather information on suspected insurgents in Afghanistan -- activities that Furlong says were authorized by top U.S. military commanders.

But Furlong's now-halted operation is just one example of units in every branch of the armed forces spending millions of dollars on private contractors -- many of them retired military, CIA and other intelligence specialists -- to satisfy military commanders' new interest in information operations.

"Information operations is the hot thing, and somebody turned on a hose of money," said W. Patrick ("Pat") Lang, a retired senior Defense Intelligence Agency officer who served in Army Special Forces. "Retired colonels and senior executive service officers are forming teams to compete."

Gates told reporters Thursday that such operations are "critical" to the war in Afghanistan, albeit in need of "an overall strategy or perhaps adequate oversight." Beyond the Furlong case, he said, "there are broader problems in terms of oversight in these important areas that need to be corrected, and that's what I'm focused on."

Based in Lackland Air Force Base, Tex., the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center is the 435-person lead unit that "plans, integrates and synchronizes information operations in direct support of joint forces commanders . . . across the Defense Department," according its mission statement. Those operations may include "psychological operations . . . and military deception," according to a 2006 publication from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Because senior military officers have had little experience in those areas, they frequently have relied on private contractors.

The Warfare Center, where Furlong is based, has a relatively small budget of its own. But it also gets funding from across the Defense Department, from the Joint Forces, Special Operations, Air Combat and Army's 1st Information Commands, wrote Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Curry, chief of media operations for Strategic Command, in answer to a question.

Between 2006 and 2008, Central Command alone had 172 contracts worth $270 million just for information operations in Iraq, according to a Defense Department inspector general report released in September.

Purchases of products and services made through major contracts included "military analysts, development of television commercials and documentaries, focus group and polling services, television air time, posters, banners, and billboards," the inspector general reported. Smaller individual purchases under information-operations programs included "magazine publishing and printing services, newspaper dissemination, television and radio airtime, text messaging services, internet services and novelty items," the report said.

Another aspect of information operations is the complicated chain out of which they develop. One such chain was illustrated on Jan. 9, 2009, by JB Management of Alexandria.

JBM announced it was part of a winning team selected by the Warfare Center to provide "Human Network Analysis and Information Operations Support" for one year with "three additional year-long option periods."

JBM's president, Harry Gibb, is a retired Army colonel and its chief operations officer, Andy L. Vonada, is a retired Marine Corps officer whose last assignment was as "lead politico-military planner for the strategic plans and policies directorate for the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Alex J. Johnson, chairman of the JBM board of directors, is another Army veteran.

And the firm's director of capture and strategy, Robert Cordray, is a West Point graduate who left the Army after five years, went to work for another private contractor and was deployed to Iraq to assist with information operations.

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