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Pentagon funding for propaganda websites under fire

Jul. 31, 2013 - 04:15PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Pentagon propaganda websites aimed at countering terrorism in foreign countries would be shut down under a Senate measure sponsored by the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, according to his office.

The Pentagon’s Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI), a U.S. Special Operations Command initiative, operates 10 websites around the globe. Sen. Carl Levin’s committee voted to eliminate its $19.7 million in funding in the National Defense Authorization Act.

The committee “believes that the costs to operate the websites developed under TRWI are excessive. The effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense,” according to the defense authorization bill, which will be taken up by the full Senate this fall. It recommended other government agencies, particularly the State Department, take the lead in efforts to shape the opinion of foreign audiences.

Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, had no comment on the measure, said his spokeswoman, Tara Andringa.

Levin’s rebuke of the Pentagon’s website propaganda efforts follows a critical report from the Government Accountability Office on so-called Military Information Support Operations that was sent only to select members of Congress and government agencies. The GAO found the websites had poor coordination with U.S. embassies, among other issues. Last week in the House, a similar attempt to slash funding for the websites failed.

The GAO report on Military Information Support Operations, which it describes as using “information and actions to influence foreign audiences to change their behavior to be favorable to U.S. interests,” found fault with the websites.

USA Today obtained a copy of the report and has run a series of stories about military propaganda efforts.

In 2012, the Pentagon spent $22 million on the sites for each of the combatant commands, including Central Command in the Middle East. The Pentagon, according to the report, “states that the websites are an important tool to influence foreign audiences to counter violent extremism and help achieve combatant commanders’ objectives, but we found instances where the websites were not well coordinated with embassy country team or (other military propaganda) efforts.”

The sites “seek to influence the attitudes and perceptions of foreign audiences who are undecided or do not agree with U.S. positions on some issues, such as countering terrorism.” They provide articles in English and some local languages are accessible to the public. Attribution for the sites is given to the combatant commands but it is not prominently displayed.

The report was critical for the military’s limited coordination of its websites with the State Department and local embassy teams. Although some meetings have taken place, officials from the State Department told investigators that “the websites have the potential to unintentionally skew U.S. policy positions or be out of step with other U.S. government efforts in a particular country.”

In Africa, for example, the State Department had “expressed concern over U.S. Africa Command’s sponsorship of a news web site about the Maghreb region of northern Africa, saying that a program marketed as a (Pentagon) operation may not be well received by countries traditionally sensitive to foreign military presence.”

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