The military's Special Operations Command has become an emerging
player in the Pentagon's propaganda efforts to confront violent
extremists around the world, according to documents and a new report
from a non-partisan think tank.
Special Operations Command, based
in Tampa, directs the military's elite commando units — the Navy's SEALs
and Army's Delta Force — in counterterrorism missions. SOCOM, as it is
known, conducted the operation to kill Osama bin Laden and dealt bloody
blows to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Key to its
propaganda efforts is a collection of websites known as the Trans
Regional Web Initiative aimed at foreign audiences. USA TODAY first
reported on its existence in 2008, and it appears to have expanded.
of those websites and blogs are classified programs and appear without
attribution, according to a report released to USA TODAY, titled "The
Pentagon as Pitchman: Perception and Reality of Public Diplomacy." The
report, by the non-partisan Stimson Center, examines the military's
growing role in shaping perceptions about the United States around the
SOCOM has bolstered its propaganda campaign in cyberspace
with trained teams of psychological operations troops. As of March,
according to SOCOM's commander, Adm. William McRaven, it had deployed 22
"Military Information Support Operations" teams around the world at the
request of military leaders and ambassadors. MISO teams, formerly known
as "psychological operations" troops, help "combat VEOs (violent
extremist organizations) and resist the spread of their associated
ideologies," according to SOCOM. Once deployed, they serve for local
Also advising SOCOM is longtime public affairs and
propaganda contractor John Rendon, whose Rendon Group was instrumental
in influencing public opinion before the start of the Iraq War. Rendon
has two full-time employees working at SOCOM and has visited the
command's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base 12 times since Feb. 1,
said Col. Tim Nye, a SOCOM spokesman.
Rendon was paid $24,000 for
its work on SOCOM's Sovereign Challenge exercise with foreign
governments and is a subcontractor on a $1.2 million contract run by
Scientific Research at MacDill.
The military revoked a Rendon
contract in Afghanistan when it was revealed in 2009 that it had
profiled reporters seeking to embed with troops and weeded out those
whose coverage was deemed negative. In all, Rendon, a marketing expert,
has been paid more than $100 million for providing the military with
Unlike other regional combatant commands
such as the Central Command in the Middle East, SOCOM is not bound by
geography. Its mission to combat extremism extends around the globe.
funding for information operations, which include the military's
propaganda efforts abroad, has fallen from its peak of $580 million in
2009 during the toughest fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to $202
million last year. Most of the money is spent on propaganda programs in
war zones, often broadcasts and leaflets aimed at bolstering support for
the Afghan government. A USA TODAY investigation found that the
military has had trouble accounting for the funds spent and measuring
the effects of its campaigns.
Many of these information operations
appear to be consolidating under SOCOM, according to Russell Rumbaugh,
one of the Stimson report's authors. In 2013, SOCOM seeks $58.9 million
for its information operations, according to the Stimson analysis, while
Central Command wants $29.4 million.
"SOCOM's role in U.S.
foreign policy has been changing, and public diplomacy is one of the
more interesting areas we see that in," Rumbaugh says. "By centralizing
them, SOCOM seems to be playing a bigger role than before. Our analysis
found where more traditional parts of (the Department of Defense) have
shied away from this mission, SOCOM has been willing to embrace it. The
truth is SOCOM as such a big player in foreign policy is new, and we
really don't know what all the implications of that are."
Trans Regional Web Initiative includes websites that offer news,
cultural reports, sports and other programming to "target audiences,"
according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report cited by the
Stimson Center. The websites, according to the report, "have the strong
appearance of civilian journalism" and seek "to express the United
States and its operations in a positive light."
The sites started
in 1999 during the U.S. mission in Kosovo, military records show. The
first site, Balkan Information Exchange, was started by the Rendon
Group. It has evolved into Southeast Europe Times, which is run by
General Dynamics Information Technology, records show.
contract records show that General Dynamics has been paid more than $80
million for the sites since September 2009, when they were first
announced as a $10 million contract. SOCOM spending on the sites has
increased each year, from $10 million in 2009 to a $26 million payment
on July 31, records show.
SOCOM is increasingly the go-to
organization in the military for fighting terrorism, and its budgets
have grown over the past 10 years, said Peter Singer, director of the
21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
much of it is because SOCOM is becoming the de facto go-to organization
for everything vs. how much is because less questions are asked about
SOCOM funding?" Singer said. "It's likely both, but the funding issue is
definitely a driver."
Websites run by Special Operations Command:
Southeast Europe Times
Central Asia Online
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