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Ombudsman blog archive


Behind the media contractors' veil

 Ombudsman’s Note: Congress established this position to conduct “aggressive and objective oversight” of Stars and Stripes’ relationship with the military to foster independent, quality journalism and a “free flow of information” to the paper’s readers absent censorship, propaganda or other forms of news management. This admittedly lengthy column is offered in support of that mandate.


When the U.S. military in Afghanistan canceled a media services contract with the Rendon Group last summer, Stars and Stripes, which had assailed Rendon’s analyses of journalists’ work as an affront to press freedom and a Pentagon effort to skew public perception of the war, saw it as a white flag and moved on.

Had journalists here and elsewhere instead pressed on, they might have found more to report with regard to the untold millions of dollars spent yearly on information services provided by contractors like Rendon.

For one, the identities of large companies are sometimes masked in public records with the designation “miscellaneous foreign contractors” – even when they are prominent, registered American firms, their contracts are unclassified, the companies and Pentagon officials are open about what they do, and the contractors have not asked to be shielded from public view.

One effect of this practice, which has been made harder to penetrate since I began asking about it early this year, is to hamper journalists, watchdog groups and members of the public in following the money trail of who is being paid by the government to inform and influence mass audiences in an ever-shrinking global media environment.

This comes as the Defense Department is reported to be planning to spend up to $1 billion next year on Psychological Operations while also imposing new rules that more tightly control information about the military and the Pentagon.

PsyOp is a component of what are called Information Operations (IO), which are persuasive actions that by law are supposed to be kept overseas and distinct from more neutral activities like public relations/Public Affairs (PA), which are supposed to factually inform audiences, including the American public. 

Rendon is one firm in the information field whose identity the military has at times screened from public scrutiny, though an executive told me he was surprised to learn that.

Another is Wall Street-based SOS International Ltd., whose Web site says it provides intelligence and media support services to government and business around the world. Its two listed spokesmen did not respond to e-mail requests for information.

SOSi provided Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the civilian media adviser, Duncan Boothby, who arranged the fateful Rolling Stone “media engagement” that cost the general command of the Afghan war last month.

SOSi’s Web site says the company also provided a key aide to McChrystal’s successor, Gen. David Petraeus – a translator, Sadi Othman, who SOSi says rose to become a senior adviser while the general, himself a strong proponent of Information Operations, was leading the war effort in Iraq.

Rendon and SOSi contractors worked concurrently in the main military Public Affairs shop in Afghanistan last year, though only Rendon drew journalists’ attention. SOSi is still there.

Both are among nine firms I encountered with media-related contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan shrouded in the designation “miscellaneous foreign contractors” – even though the contracts in question for six of those firms did not seem to fit the criteria for masking vendors’ identities as laid out in the governing Federal Acquisition Regulation.

Moreover, since the Pentagon was provided with extensive details of this research into “miscellaneous foreign contractors” in the context of a query last month, key contract data that had been publicly accessible before then is now no longer so.

In nearly six months of pestering Pentagon offices, military PAO’s on two continents, officials elsewhere in government and contractors themselves, among others, no one was willing or able to explain the “miscellaneous” listings, which were found on usaspending.gov, the open, online government database for contract information.

That site was established in late 2007 by legislation co-sponsored the year before by, among others, then Sen. Barack Obama to increase government transparency for the $1 trillion in federal contracts awarded annually. Since 2000, $41.6 billion has been paid out to “miscellaneous foreign contractors,” according to usaspending.gov. 

The Rendon ‘distraction’

Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith and his deputy, Army Col. Wayne M. Shanks, the chief of Public Affairs in Afghanistan, announced in late August that they were canceling the Rendon contract on Sept. 1, 2009, because five days of pesky coverage by Stars and Stripes and, to a lesser extent, other news outlets had become a “distraction.”

Such an abrupt capitulation led this skeptical old reporter to wonder if the cancellation itself was a distraction – that there might have been more to the story and that the scrapping of the contract might have served as a bone to throw any pursuing newshounds off the scent.

I began with two primary objectives: get a copy of the Rendon contract, to compare what it had actually prescribed in the way of “media analysis” against what had been written about it by journalists who by all accounts had not seen it; and to learn how the military was compensating in the wake of Rendon’s departure.

Along the way, more compelling issues arose.

The controversial Rendon contract was let by the Bagram Regional Contracting Center in Afghanistan and was processed and signed on Jan. 21, 2009. It called for the Rendon Group of Washington, D.C., to be paid $1,550,283.37 to provide “public relations services” for one year in support of military Public Affairs in Afghanistan.

But on Jan. 28, the date that contract took effect, another transaction listed at usaspending.gov appears to have taken place, also for $1,550,283.37.

That latter listing differed in some notable respects, however.

“Miscellaneous items” replaced “public relations services.” “Media analyst” replaced “news monitoring and media analysis.” And there was no mention of Rendon, only “miscellaneous foreign contractors” in the space marked “vendor name.” It was also labeled a same-day “purchase order,” instead of a one-year “delivery order.”

Most notably, although the “date signed” was given as Jan. 28, 2009, which was the effective date of the Jan. 21 contract, the later transaction was not processed by the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan until Oct. 5, 2009 – more than a month after the military said it had canceled the 12-month Rendon deal with five months to go.

The two listings are not a coincidence of like dollar amounts.

While the Jan. 28 listing had its own Procurement Instrument Identifier number, it referenced the PIID number for the Jan. 21 contract. And at a related federal contracting Web site, fpds.gov, a data field for the Jan. 28 document labeled “contractor name from contract” gave the name “Rendon Group,” although the vendor was still identified as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”  

Rendon’s contracts manager, Gary L. Miconi, told me by e-mail that all this was news to him – “We have never seen or signed” the Jan. 28 document – and he insisted that his firm only does business under its own name.

If there is some routine or benign explanation for the Jan. 28 contract listing, it is puzzling that no official has offered it during the considerable time I have pressed for it.

SOSi and Rendon

SOSi’s Web site, which says the company has 1,200 employees worldwide, was recently advertising a number of “journalist/public affairs” positions to assist military Public Affairs in Afghanistan with monitoring and analyzing news coverage and with “media engagements.”

SOSi currently has a broad contract for “Foreign Media Analysis: Print Media” that dates to June 2006 and accounts for a total of $52.5 million spread over 43 listings at usaspending.gov that appear to apply to operations in multiple venues.

I provided Shanks with that contract number via e-mail last month and called his attention to one of those 43 transactions: $1.6 million on Jan. 27, 2010, the day Rendon’s $1.5 million contract would have expired.

After checking with contract officials, he did not dispute the contract number, but he discounted the significance of the date and amount.

“Not sure where these figures came from, but SOSi's initial contract with ISAF/USFOR-A was for approximately $4.7 m[illion],” he said by e-mail, noting elsewhere that he was referring to June 2009. “After a recently approved modification to increase advisement, translation and technical support, the contract's value rose to $9.1 m[illion].”

This past February and again in June, Shanks told me that SOSi had taken up some of the slack when Rendon departed. But even more recently he said that after checking with contract officials, he had concluded that he had misspoken on that point.

“I was incorrect to assert that SOSi quickly stepped in after Rendon's departure in that capacity,” he wrote.

Shanks has been consistent, however, in saying that SOSi does not provide the sort of “positive/negative/neutral” assessments of journalists’ work that Rendon had sometimes delivered and that Stars and Stripes and other critics had pilloried.

“SOSi's contract and its effort have always been focused squarely on strategic communication/Public Affairs advisement, technical support and media monitoring, with emphasis on clipping Afghan media reports,” he said.

Shanks said the military assumed primary responsibility for vetting journalists’ requests for credentials, interviews and embeds with the troops after Rendon left.

SOSi, IO, PsyOp, PA, IG

In September 2008, New York-based SOSi (pronounced SOH-see) was one of four prominent U.S. firms awarded what proved to be controversial Information Operations contracts for Iraq, the others being the Lincoln Group (Washington), Leonie Industries (Los Angeles) and MPRI/L-3 Services (metropolitan-area Washington).

Last summer, the Defense Department’s Inspector General issued a report that found no ill intent but nonetheless faulted the military because the contracts did not observe the legal stonewall between PsyOp and Public Affairs and held the potential “unintended consequence” of targeting Americans with Psychological Operations.

“It is essential to the success of the new Iraqi Government and the Coalition mission,” the contracts had stated, “that both communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (i.e., Iraqi, pan-Arabic, international, and U.S. audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of their core themes and messages."

The Inspector General wrote that “although we did not obtain any evidence that Psychological Operations were intended for a U.S. audience, the contract language did not clearly differentiate between Psychological Operations and Public Affairs, as required by doctrine, creating the appearance that Psychological Operations were associated with a U.S. audience.”

Citing “joint doctrine,” the IG defined PsyOp as “selective information” intended “to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals.”

Public Affairs is “truthful and factual unclassified information” intended for audiences that may include Americans.

Information Operations are intended “to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp” an opponent’s “decision making while protecting our own.” Information Operations can incorporate PsyOp, but not Public Affairs.

The IG said objections had been raised during the contract-writing process after Public Affairs was added to the Statement of Work.

But rather than delete it, the IG said, the military instead retitled the proposal, from “Psychological Operations/Information Operations Services” to “media services,” and then “remove[d] nearly all references to PsyOp.”

All four contracts, which had a potential value of $300 million, were modified shortly after they took effect to delete references to “U.S. audiences.” But by then they had become such a headache that according to the IG, they were shelved not long after they were awarded.

Most notably, though the four contractors were all identified by name and the nature of their work was disclosed in some detail, the contract numbers the IG printed alongside their names all track back to “miscellaneous foreign contractors” at usaspending.gov. (For example, this is SOSi’s listing).

The public identification of the contractors does not appear to have been a security lapse on the part of the IG, whose report was published July 31, 2009.

Ten months earlier, on Oct. 3, 2008, Pentagon officials enthusiastically discussed the contracts in an article in The Washington Post that also named all four contractors and featured an interview with SOSi’s chief operating officer, Julian Setian, who noted that “we definitely believe this is a growth area in the DoD.”

‘I have no idea’

Spokesmen for the Defense Department, various military commands and the General Services Administration, which provides “miscellaneous foreign contractors” with a generic business ID number required for contract reports and with an office near the Pentagon to serve as their pro forma, proxy address, mostly either rebuffed, redirected or did not respond to repeated requests for information.

The frankest response came from Shanks, whom the Pentagon had instructed for a time to handle my queries. He told me by e-mail from Afghanistan that even after asking around, “I have no idea what the ‘miscellaneous foreign contractors’ is,” but that “all our current SOSi employees are U.S. citizens.”

The Pentagon did respond to a related query last year, when Aviation Week’s Aerospace Daily and Defense Report noticed “miscellaneous foreign contractors” near the top of the list in an analysis of Defense dollar recipients, in the company of titans like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In its report on Sept. 1, 2009 (not currently available on the Web), Aerospace Daily quoted an e-mail from a Pentagon official it did not identify as explaining that the pseudonym was authorized:

() for classified contracts,

() to protect vendors, like translators, who might be put at risk if their work with the American military were made public,

() or to cover small overseas transactions with vendors who didn’t have a unique business ID, called a DUNS number, on file with the U.S. government – “the donkey-rental guy in the middle of the desert,” the official added by way of illustration.

But none of those criteria – nor others contained in the GSA’s published contract regulations – appears to apply to the four established, American-based companies identified in the IG’s report on “Information Operations Contracts in Iraq.”

Nor do they appear to apply to the controversial $1.5 million Rendon contract, which officials have consistently maintained was not classified and which was awarded to a prominent Washington firm with a DUNS number, a Web site that makes no bones about its business, and an established public face in the person of John W. Rendon Jr., a self-described “information warrior” who once served as an aide to President Jimmy Carter and as a senior Democratic Party official.

Liberal use of generic identifiers like “miscellaneous foreign contractors” has drawn sharp but little-noticed criticism from such disparate entities as Amnesty International, which believes they have cloaked arms sales, and the American Small Business League, which believes big contractors use them to steal business set aside for companies of more modest scale.

But I have not seen the issue raised before with regard to public relations/Public Affairs contracts.

Pulling down the blinds

During the last month of the 2009 fiscal year, which were also the 30 days following the announced Sept. 1 cancellation of the Rendon contract, the Bagram contracting center awarded $4.3 million in “public relations services” contracts to four Afghan firms all designated “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”

Three do not appear to have DUNS numbers nor tout their work for the Americans, so they won’t be identified here. But the fourth, Wise Strategic Communication, does on both counts.

Yet every one of its contracts is listed under “miscellaneous foreign contractors,” though a top executive told me that the firm, like Rendon, was unaware that this was so.

Over several months last year, Wise advertised online for skilled professionals to work on a spectrum of information and media-related projects for clients in Afghanistan that it said included the U.S. Army and the Defense and State Departments.

A senior executive, whose name I am withholding out perhaps an excess of caution, recently told me by e-mail and phone that none of the firm’s current U.S. work is classified and that it maintains a standing policy of keeping persuasive projects (IO and PsyOp) apart from informative ones (PA) for all its clients, which Wise says also include the U.N. and the Afghan government.

Speaking from Washington, the executive said Wise’s current efforts are focused on research, polling and “holistic communications,” which the company defines as a comprehensive approach intended to “achieve sustained behavioral change on the target audience(s).”

The executive is European and the company is listed as Afghan-owned. But other than those international credentials, Wise does not appear to differ from the other firms named in this column.

It has a DUNS number and representation in Washington, and its company Web site and online job advertising are robust about what the firm does and for whom.

I emphasize that everything in this column comes from public sources and no military, administration or corporate official waved me off by telling me that I was inquiring about classified or restricted matters.

Nonetheless, since detailed information was shared with various government officials in the course of making and explaining these inquiries, data that had been publicly accessible before has now been made more difficult or even impossible to find.

For example, a lengthy query e-mailed to Pentagon press officers on June 12 noted that SOSi had “numerous” contracts listed on usaspending.gov as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”

They had been included in a long list of SOSi contracts generated by putting SOS International’s name into the usaspending.gov search engine.

A few days after that June 12 inquiry, all those “miscellaneous” contracts were gone from the results when the search was repeated.

And the blinds were not drawn solely on SOSi contracts.

When Wise Strategic Communication was put into the search window on May 28, usaspending.gov returned 14 transactions between June 2009 and January 2010 totaling $2.8 million, all in the name “miscellaneous foreign contractors.” (I made a printout.)

That same search now yields nothing – zero contracts, zero dollars.

Wise Strategic Communication has ceased to exist at usaspending.gov.

Nor has any other search of a company name since turned up “miscellaneous foreign contractors” listings like Rendon’s unexplained Jan. 28 purchase order, as was the case in February, when it surfaced in a search for all Rendon contracts. It is now excluded from search results for Rendon contracts.

‘Widespread inconsistencies’

The recent curtailment of usaspending.gov’s search capabilities makes it more difficult to track not only a company’s contracts – or to learn if it even has any – but can also misrepresent the total amount of federal contract dollars it has received.

For example, the 2008 Washington Post article noted that SOSi had won a $200 million Defense contract in 2006. The company had also issued a press release about it that year.

But a name search for SOSi at usaspending.gov now returns a total of just over $130 million in all government contracts for the last 10 years.

SOSi contracts that had been included under the heading “miscellaneous foreign contractors” no longer appear in search results using SOSi’s name, even if they had been disclosed by the company and discussed by Pentagon officials.

Similarly, a declassified 2007 DoD Inspector General report found that the Rendon Group had received $81.1 million in Defense contracts alone over the six previous years.

But a recent search of Rendon’s name at usaspending.gov turned up just $74.3 million in contracts from all government agencies for the last 10 years – and omitted the unexplained Jan. 28, 2009, entry and two others like it for that same year that had previously been included in previous contract searches. (I made a copy before things changed.)

Contracts under the name “miscellaneous foreign contractors” are still accessible in usaspending.gov’s database, but there no longer appears to be any ready, reliable way there to link them to identifiable vendors.

Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the site.

This spring, even before the tinkering with the search engine, an audit by the Government Accountability Office found that usaspending.gov, which is managed by the Office of Management and Budget but dependent on data from individual agencies, could be unreliable and that there were “numerous…widespread inconsistencies” and “gaps in the required information.”

“Not everything that should have been reported was reported,” the GAO official who led the inquiry, David A. Powner, told the Los Angeles Times, “and that which was reported was not always accurate.”

The study did not mention “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”

Congressional concerns

Late last month, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon plans to spend nearly $1 billion next year on PsyOp worldwide. Contractors would get about 40 percent of that money over all and 95 percent of the $180 million earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the IG noted last July, PsyOp/IO is supposed to be kept distinct from Public Affairs activities that can reach American eyes and ears. Yet there is no bar to the same company getting separate contracts to perform both simultaneously.

The Post also reported that the Senate Armed Services Committee had expressed concern about the Pentagon’s “ability to oversee adequately and manage appropriately the large sums of money flowing into a variety of Information Operations programs.”

That sentiment dovetailed with the IG’s finding last July that at least with regard to the Iraq contracts it had reviewed, “an internal control weakness exists in the oversight of the media services contracts.”

To that end, the Senate committee’s proposed version of the 2011 Defense Authorization Act would require Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to review and report within 90 days of enactment “on the organizational structure and policy guidance of the Department of Defense with respect to Information Operations,” including the proper role of Public Affairs and “the use, management and oversight of contractors.”

Without a reliable mechanism to track dollars and vendors, it will be difficult for anyone other than people inside the government to know who should be held to account for preserving – or crossing – the line between operations intended to sway audiences and activities intended to inform them, as well as just determining who major government contractors are.

For example, the recent GAO report also noted that usaspending.gov fails to list subcontractors, as it is required to do, furthering clouding the picture of who is doing what and getting what in the byzantine, trillion-dollar world of federal contracting.

None of this should be read as urging the disclosure of legitimately classified work or the identification of anonymous vendors who could be put in danger. Nor is it quarreling with the legitimate and laudable goals of Information Operations aimed at harrying enemies and protecting allies and friendly forces.

But when there is no legitimate need for secrecy, a strong argument can be made that the contract process ought to be accessible and transparent, as Congress intended, especially with regard to efforts designed to inform or to shape the public mind as carried out by big companies that speak loud and proud about their prowess at doing just that.

Journalists at Stars and Stripes, as at news outlets elsewhere, depend heavily on Public Affairs operations to either get or seek confirmation of information for their news reports.

The “free flow of information” to Stars and Stripes readers can be compromised as much by subtle means as by overt interference, by a whisper as much as a shout.

Understanding who is responsible for particular information and their possible motives in providing – or not providing – it is crucial to assessing its integrity and reliability.

Yet the trend seems headed the other way, and not just by virtue of the new restrictions at usaspending.gov.

On July 1, the Defense Department issued rules to tighten the flow of information from the military and the Pentagon to the news media, the public and the Congress.

Last summer’s cancellation of the $1.5 million Rendon contract was not the end of a big story, just the turning of a page.


This is the fourth part of a review of Stars and Stripes' coverage of the Rendon Group's media-analysis work for the military in Afghanistan. Previous installments were published  Feb. 12, Feb. 24 and March 17.

 

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Ernie Gates

Stars and Stripes ombudsman

As a journalist for more than three decades, Ernie Gates has been a reporter, editor and news executive, including 10 years leading the enterprising print and digital newsroom of Tribune Co.’s Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va.

News for and about service members, families and veterans has always been a key focus in Hampton Roads, where every branch of the armed services has a significant presence.

As vice president and editor, Ernie was responsible for all news, business, features and sports coverage and oversaw the editorial page. He also wrote the daily Feedback column, responding to readers’ questions and comments about coverage, news judgment, journalism ethics, taste and other issues. Representing the paper as a public speaker, he focused on News Values and Credibility.

He is a past president of the Virginia Press Association and a past chairman of Virginia Associated Press Newspapers. 

Since leaving the Daily Press in 2010, Ernie has stayed active in public affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School.  He is also serves on the Coalition Partners Advisory Panel of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Ernie and his wife, Betsy, live in Williamsburg, Va. They have three adult children.

Ernie Gates can be reached at ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil or (202) 761-0587.

Follow ombudsman Ernie Gates on Twitter


The ombudsman

Congress created the post in the early 1990’s to ensure that Stars and Stripes journalists operate with editorial independence and that Stars and Stripes readers receive a free flow of news and information without taint of censorship or propaganda.

The ombudsman serves as an autonomous watchdog of Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment rights. Anyone who fears those rights are imperiled should alert the ombudsman.

The ombudsman is also the readers’ representative to the newsroom. Readers who think a journalistic issue or event was misrepresented or ignored or who feel complaints were not properly addressed by Stripes reporters or editors should contact the ombudsman.