USA Today Washington Enterprise Editor Ray Locker says that the worst thing they said about him was that he “was in bed with the Taliban.”
Who would say that about Locker? He doesn’t know. But what he does know is a timeline: He and USA Today Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook were working this year on an investigative project about Pentagon propaganda contractors — purveyors of what the military calls “information operations,” or “info ops.” Along the way, their Internet footprint gained a size or two. USAToday.com on Thursday night broke the story behind this particular story:
Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in their names, along with a Wikipedia entry and dozens of message board postings and blog comments. Websites were registered in their names.
The timeline of the activity tracks USA TODAY’s reporting on the military’s “information operations” program, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — campaigns that have been criticized even within the Pentagon as ineffective and poorly monitored.
The Web sites RayLocker.com and TomVandenBrook.com were taken down following informal Pentagon inquiries to info ops contractors, according to USA Today. Other postings created to spread bad information about the two journalists, says the story, vanished because they violated their hosts’ terms of service.
In an interview Thursday night, Locker said that the campaign was ”something I’ve never experienced in 30 years” in this business. The sites launched in the names of the USA Today colleagues, suggests Locker, were insidious samples of infocrafting. They contained links to work that the journalists had done, plus a space for comments on the stories. In that space, says Locker, there were “nasty, untrue” remarks from commenters who didn’t appear to be real people. Like an actual news site, in other words.
What troubles Locker is how the campaign depicted Vanden Brook. The USA Today reporter was part of what can only be termed a disaster on top of a disaster: coverage of the Sago mine tragedy of January 2006. That was the episode in which word spread that 12 of the 13 people caught in a West Virginia mine after an explosion had survived the ordeal. The report went out over multiple media outlets, even though it was, tragically, false; there was only one survivor. Vanden Brook was just one among many reporters who’d repeated the bad information.
“They used it to try to undermine his credibility,” says Locker.
The info campaign didn’t slow down the USA Today investigative team as it banged out its story on the info ops. The article ran on Feb. 29, complete with these nut graphs:
A USA TODAY investigation, based on dozens of interviews and a series of internal military reports, shows that Pentagon officials have little proof the [info ops] programs work and they won’t make public where the money goes. In Iraq alone, more than $173 million was paid to what were identified only as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”
“What we do as I.O. is almost gimmicky,” says Army Col. Paul Yingling, who served three tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, including as an information operations specialist. “Doing posters, fliers or radio ads. These things are unserious.”
Looking back, the 52-year-old Locker doesn’t come off traumatized by the Internet tinkering. “It’s been a little bit of a distraction,” he says. But he’s happy that the paper published a story exposing the scheme. “I think it’s good that we called attention to it. . . . I’m glad that the people I work for have my back,” he says.
There is some symmetry to the whole story: Locker and Vanden Brook document in their investigative story that info ops practices in war zones are “dubious.” Just like the ones arrayed against them.