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WASHINGTON — The military's top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan is under federal criminal investigation for its possible role in a smear campaign against USA Today, according to a letter from the Pentagon's inspector general.
The Defense Criminal Investigative Service has an ongoing investigation of Leonie Industries. That probe followed a USA Today story in February that found the owners of the company had failed to pay $4 million in taxes on time. The inspector general's office, in an Oct. 24 letter to Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and member of the armed services committee, announced that it would examine the misinformation campaign.
Camille Chidiac, who owns 49 percent of the California-based company, admitted that he had established some websites that targeted USA Today journalists. Leonie officials maintained that Chidiac did not use company resources in the reputation attacks. The Pentagon has suspended him from receiving contracts for his actions.
Neither the company nor a lawyer who has represented Chidiac responded to a request for comment.
"In light of the recent admissions by the minority owner of Leonie Industries, the on-going investigation will also address the company's role in the series of web sites used in an effort to discredit two USA Today journalists to determine if any company resources or personnel were involved," John Crane, an assistant inspector general, wrote to Johnson.
The investigation could result in the company being excluded from federal contracting. In June, the Pentagon retained Leonie's services for another year at the cost of $60 million. The company produces leaflets and broadcasts urging Afghans to support their government and eschew the Taliban. Leonie has received at least $120 million in Pentagon contracts since 2009.
"I applaud the Defense Department for expanding their investigation to include the online dirty tricks campaign," Johnson said in a statement. "Journalists investigating government contractors should never be met with efforts to intimidate or discredit them. When that occurs, all our liberties are threatened."
At least two more federal investigations — one by the Government Accountability Office and an informal one by the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have been launched into the Pentagon's "information operations" programs following USA Today's story. It found that the military had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing and propaganda efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and had difficulty measuring their impact.