In the past year it’s been reported that the U.S. Department of Defense may not be able to meet its “audit readiness” deadline of September 30 this year for its first ever audit. A big part of the problem is that the Army has reportedly been making improper financial statements amounting to trillions of dollars in errors on an annual basis.
It was also a year in which much was written about the alleged gravely serious threat of Russian “election hacking,” and in which, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election win, then-President Obama took steps towards further separating U.S. Cyber Command from the National Security Agency, though it’s possible that Trump has other plans.
There has been a growing focus on “cyberspace as an operational domain” of warfare — “just like air, sea and land,” as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now recognizes it — along with a growing understanding of the power of influence operations and the renewed attention on the DoD’s embarrassing distinction as the only federal agency that doesn’t undergo an annual audit. All of this set the stage for stunning revelations this week about incompetence and corruption in the military’s online psychological warfare campaign against the Islamic State extremist group.
A new investigation by the Associated Press reveals that the “critical national security program” called WebOps — which uses an automated process to scour social media until it finds potential ISIS recruits, at which point “language specialists” jump in to “employ fictitious identities and try to sway the targets from joining IS ranks,” has been a dismal failure so far. The AP “found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it’s having little impact.”
Given some of the revelations in the AP story, one might easily argue that the program is doing more than “having little impact.” It seems entirely plausible that WebOps is having a counterproductive effect, building support for ISIS rather than diminishing it. Incompetent translators, for example, have routinely mixed up Arabic words for “salad” and “authority,” which has “led to open ridicule on social media about references to the ‘Palestinian salad.'”
The report continues:
The WebOps contract is run by Colsa Corp., based in Huntsville, Alabama. A major challenge for Colsa — and contractors working on other national security programs— is finding people who can speak Arabic fluently and can also get security clearances to handle classified material.
The problem, according to six current and former Colsa employees, is that to engage with operatives of the Islamic State, or their potential recruits, you need to be fluent in language, nuance and Islam — and while Colsa has some Arabic experts, those skills are not widely distributed.
“One of the things about jihadis: they are very good in Arabic,” said one specialist who worked on WebOps.
Another former employee said common translation mistakes he personally witnessed, including the “Palestinian salad” example, were the result of the company hiring young people who were faking language abilities.
He mockingly described the conversations between managers and potential hires: “‘Do you speak Arabic?'” he mimicked. “‘Yes. How do you say ‘good morning?’ Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.'”
Aside from honest mistakes caused by a lack of competent translators, however, the AP investigation also revealed rampant corruption in the WebOps program, including drinking at the office and encouragement “by a manager to indicate progress against radicalism in their scoring reports even if they were not making any.”
A former Colsa employee told the AP that her “boss told her that the scoring reports should show progress, but not too much, so that the metrics would still indicate a dangerous level of militancy online to justify continued funding for WebOps, she said.”
The report also indicates that the ongoing problems in the WebOps program may be just the tip of the iceberg, given plans to vastly expand the military’s online psychological warfare efforts against ISIS. A $500 million contract for a new counter-propaganda initiative — separate from WebOps but overseen by some of the same people — was awarded to defense contractor Northrop Grumman in the fall. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is reportedly investigating allegations from an anonymous whistleblower of “allegations of corruption” regarding the awarding of that contract.
“One of the most damning accusations leveled by the whistleblower is against Army Col. Victor Garcia, who led the information operations division until July 2016” the AP reports. “The whistleblower contended that Garcia steered the contract to a team of vendors that included a close friend’s firm.”
That friend was Simon Bergman, who helped prepare Northrop’s bid for the contract. According to the contractors and insiders interviewed anonymously by the AP, suspicions were widespread that Northrop got the contract because of Garcia’s friendship with Bergman.
“Colsa, the primary WebOps contractor, was not involved in Northrop’s bid. However, nothing prevents Northrop from bringing the company in as a subcontractor,” according to the AP. “That’s the plan, said several contractors who have been briefed by Northrop. Such a move would provide ample funding to keep WebOps running for up to five more years.”
As has become abundantly clear over the past year, information operations can have an immense and perhaps immeasurable effect in influencing the outcome of a conflict, violent or otherwise. Yet the way the Pentagon is running its psychological warfare campaign against ISIS appears to be a textbook example of the kind of incompetence and waste — not to mention fraud and corruption — that has long been obscured by the Defense Department’s inexcusable accounting practices.
These latest revelations about WebOps and the Northtrop contract illustrate clearly that the government could and must do a much better job at both holding the Pentagon accountable for its spending, and taking seriously any anti-ISIS psychological warfare campaigns it engages in. As it stands, WebOps appears to be a counterproductive program that is probably generating greater support for Islamist extremism and pushing at-risk individuals further towards radicalization and sympathy for ISIS.
America — the world’s sole and sinking military superpower — continues to concentrate on building more jets, drones, battleships and bombs. Yet as long as it continues its present approach to influence operations, those that have a greater appreciation for the psychological dimension in any conflict — whether it is a diplomatic fight with a relatively powerful nation-state like Russia or an asymmetric war against non-state actors like ISIS — will continue to run circles around the U.S.