USA Today has published a detailed and critical investigation of the Pentagon's propaganda campaigns - these days called "information operations" - in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling them "dubious" and "costly".
The investigation shows that from 2005 to 2009 spending on such operations rose from $9 million to $580 million. Following the drawdown in Iraq, the figure for 2011 fell back to $202 million. Pentagon officials have little proof that such operations work, says USA Today, nor will the Pentagon say in detail how the money was spent.
USA Today also reveals that the Pentagon's top information operations (IO) contractor in Afghanistan, Leonie Industries, based in California, was started in 2004 by a brother-and-sister team with no experience of working with the military. Camille Chidiac and Rema Dupont's company has US Army IO contracts worth around $130 million and has already been paid $90 million. Despite this, they have more than $4 million in liens on their homes and property for failing to pay federal income tax. The company's response to the USA Today article can be found here.
The main activity of companies such as Leonie Industries is to plant unattributed TV and radio broadcasts and articles throughout the media, to put up billboards in war zones, stage concerts and drop leaflets - all aimed at influencing civilians. There is little external assessment of the effectiveness of these activities.
In Afghanistan, for example, the US military produces at least 11 hours a day of "unattributed" radio and TV programming. The article quotes Rear Adm. Hal Pittman, who until recently was in charge of IO operations in Afghanistan, saying that they have borne fruit, quoting figures that showed 90 per cent of Afghans viewed their Army positively, while 80 per cent approved of the national police. Others may care to disagree with these optimistic figures.
Officials in the past - including former defense secretary Robert Gates - have bemoaned the lack of adequately trained IO personnel. Both Chidiac and Dupont fall into this category, says USA Today, despite their success in winning contracts. Chidiac formerly worked as an assistant director on a series of low-budget direct-to-video movies, while Dupont had been in the advertising industry.
Although their company employees have been praised in some quarters, it has also been criticised for not paying for heat for its Afghan employees or for their medical care. At one point the Army threatened to drop the company's contracts unless it fixed these problems.
It is remarkable that despite the massive spending on IO in Afghanistan in recent years, it is the Taliban that continues to make the running. It operates a highly successful propaganda operation using a multi-language website, twitter and a number of spokesmen who can easily be contacted and who issue timely statements well in advance of any that come from military sources. And all for a few thousand dollars. Talk about asymmetric warfare!