Meet the Pentagon Contractor That Ran a Disinformation Campaign Against Two USA Today Reporters

Last night USA Today reported that two of its staffers, Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, were the targets of a smear campaign, including fake Twitter accounts and web sites established in their names, launched by a Pentagon contractor specializing in "information operations." For some reason, the paper declined to name the perpetrator: Leonie Industries.

According to USA Today's Gregory Korte, fake web sites purporting to be maintained Vanden Brook and Locker emerged several weeks ago as the pair were reporting a story on "the military's 'information operations' program, which [has] been criticized even within the Pentagon as ineffective and poorly monitored." The site TomVandenBrook.com, for instance, was first registered in January just days after Vanden Brook began making inquiries on the story. It prominently mentioned an erroneous story Vanden Brook had written about the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia—Vanden Brook, like the Associated Press, Reuters and several other outlets—had mistakenly reported that 12 of 13 trapped miners had survived based in part on inaccurate information provided by the governor. The site for Ray Locker, who shared a byline with Vanden Brook, listed his stories along with prominently featured negative comments calling his reporting into question. (Both links are to Google's cached copies; the sites have been taken down).

Oddly, the USA Today story on the mischief names only "Pentagon contractors" as likely culprits. But a source familiar with the story confirms that the contractor responsible is Leonie Industries, an information operations company with more than $90 million in Army contracts in Afghanistan. It's doubly odd that USA Today didn't at least seek comment from Leonie on the disinformation, since Leonie was the primary target of the investigation that apparently sparked the sculduggery, and would be the inescapable suspect to anyone who put two and two together.

"We didn't name who's responsible because we don't know," Vanden Brook told me via email. "The circumstances point to somebody in the information operations community." When I asked him whether USA Today sought comment from Leonie, Vanden Brook referred me to Korte. Korte did not return a phone call.

Leonie Industries, which the Vanden Brook and Locker investigation called the U.S.'s top contractor in Afghanistan, is an interesting company. It was founded in 2004 by a Lebanese-American brother and sister, Camille Chidiac and Rema Dupont, and has cobbled together $130 million in Pentagon contracts for, as Vanden Brook and Locker put it, "plant[ing] unattributed broadcasts, plaster[ing] the countryside in war zones with billboards, stag[ing] concerts and drop[ping] leaflets" in Afghanistan. An Army colonel told the USA Today reporters that the stuff the Pentagon was paying Leonie to was "gimmicky" and "unserious." The Pentagon has cited Leonie for failing to adequately heat its facilities in Afghanistan.

According to a 2010 lawsuit filed against Leonie, Chidiac, and Dupont—by none other than their father—the brother and sister had no experience at all in Middle East affairs when they founded the company, and in fact stole Leonie from their father after he asked them to establish it to house a family business. Chidiac, the lawsuit claims, left Boston University under a cloud in 2002 after accusations of "serious academic misconduct and/or plagiarism," which Chidiac blamed on a "Jew professor." Prior to his involvement in Leonie, USA Today reported, Chidiac "worked as an assistant director on a series of low-budget, direct-to-video movies."

After wresting Leonie from his father, the lawsuit says, Chidiac began paying himself $95,000 per month. Chidiac and his sister both own multi-million dollar homes in Los Angeles; according to USA Today, they both have been slapped with more than $4 million in federal tax liens.

Calls to Leonie were not immediately returned. A personal spokesman for Chidiac said that he appears to be out of the country and "is a minority shareholder that has no executive position at Leonie anymore."