The co-owner of a U.S. defense contractor that specializes in Information Operations admitted on Thursday to trying to discredit two USA Today journalists with an online smear campaign.
“I take full responsibility for having some of the discussion forums opened and reproducing their previously published USA TODAY articles on them,” Camille Chidiac, the minority owner of Leonie Industries and its former president, said in a statement.
“I recognize and deeply regret that my actions have caused concerns for Leonie and the U.S. military. This was never my intention. As an immediate corrective action, I am in the process of completely divesting my remaining minority ownership from Leonie.”
Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker reported in February on “dubious, costly” propaganda campaigns carried out by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reporters noted that Leonie Industries was awarded a contract from the Department of Defense, even though the company’s owners owed at least $4 million in federal taxes.
Leonie Industries is a relatively small company that specializes in cyber operations, intelligence analysis, psychological operations, and counter-IED explosives operations. The company said that due to the owner’s financial troubles, they were unable to fulfill their “personal tax obligations on time,” but have since been “faithfully paying their tax liabilities through installment plans.”
After reporting on the company, the two journalists were targeted by a online disinformation campaign apparently meant to destroy their reputation. Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were created in their name, along with websites that purported to be owned and operated by them. Comments quickly sprung up on message boards, Yahoo! answers, Wikipedia, and blogs criticizing the two reporters’ investigation of Leonie Industries. Some comments even suggested the two journalists worked for the Taliban.
Leonie Industries said no federal contract funds were used in the smear campaign and that Chidiac acted alone. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “has directed the department to review this matter and to take appropriate action,” according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
“I am glad to see that we now know who was responsible for these false attacks on Tom Vanden Brook, Ray Locker and USA Today,” Susan Weiss, executive editor of USA Today, said. “We stand behind our reporters and our stories.”
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