Propaganda Contractor Admits to Running Smear Campaign Against USA Today Reporters (UPDATE)

Camille Chidiac, the minority owner of Leonie Industries, which we identified last month as the Pentagon information operations contractor that ran an operation against two critical journalists, has admitted playing a role in the subterfuge.

"I take full responsibility for having some of the discussion forums opened and reproducing their previously published USA Today articles on them," Chidiac said of USA Today reporters Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker in a statement released to the newspaper. "I recognize and deeply regret that my actions have caused concerns for Leonie and the U.S. military. This was never my intention. As an immediate corrective action, I am in the process of completely divesting my remaining minority ownership from Leonie."

Vanden Brook and Locker wrote a highly critical story about Pentagon information operations in general, and Leonie Industries in particular, last February. As he was reporting the story, Vanden Brook realized that someone had registered TomVandenBrook.com, established a Twitter account in his name, and begun editing his Wikipedia page to highlight an erroneous report he filed about survivors of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia in 2006—an error that virtually every other news outlet covering the incident made at the same time, since it was sourced to false information provided by the governor. Locker got similar treatment.

USA Today reported on the campaign last month, but declined to name Leonie Industries as the guilty party, citing only "Pentagon contractors." I published a subsequent story naming Leonie. At the time, a spokesman for Chidiac didn't directly address the charge.

Interestingly, in his statement Chidiac took responsibility only for establishing the web sites, and claims that the forums associated with those sites—which were rife with criticism of Locker and Venden Brook—were full of "immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users." Likewise, Chidiac's attorney told USA Today that the Twitter accounts and Wikipedia editing were the work of unnamed persons with "absolutely no relationship or connection with Leonie Industries." That seems like an effort to take responsibility for creating the sites themselves but not for the potentially defamatory commentary contained on those sites.

Update: We received the following email from Phalanx PR:

Hi John,

Your recent story with the headline "Propaganda Contractor Admits to Running Smear Campaign Against USA Today Reporters" is wrong and we need you to fix it please. At no point did Mr. Chidiac admit to running a smear campaign. He simply setup a site that reposted the reporters stories. I simply don't see how that is a smear. I realize there were posts on the site that were not positive, but Mr. Chidiac did not make those. There are plenty of posts on your site about him, I assume you did not make those personally. That is just the way of the internet, please change your headline as it currently is misleading and libelous.

Thank you,

David