WASHINGTON — Barring a reprieve tucked into the upcoming $1 trillion spending bill working its way through Congress, the Pentagon's worldwide network of propaganda websites is nearing death.
The annual defense authorization bill passed Dec. 19 and signed by President Obama last week calls for the end of the $22 million Trans Regional Web Initiative, a series of websites aimed at providing news to people in areas overseen by various military combatant commands.
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2014 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended for the Trans Regional Web Initiative," the annual defense law says. It makes an exception for a $2 million payment to pay for the termination of the program by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and to transfer some capabilities to other parts of the military.
SOCOM has overall control of the program, the effectiveness of which has been challenged by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' independent watchdog arm.
A GAO report issued in April 2013 but which the Pentagon attempted to keep from the public found that the websites were not well coordinated with other U.S. efforts.
In Nepal, for example, GAO found that the embassy's public affairs office was "unaware of U.S. Pacific Command's website." State Department officials have expressed concern about U.S. Africa Command's website "about the Maghreb region of northern Africa, saying that a program marketed as a (Pentagon) operation may not be well received by countries traditionally sensitive to foreign military presence."
The Pentagon, GAO and Congress attempted to limit the distribution of the report, but USA TODAY obtained it in May and published its findings. By July, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had inserted a provision in the annual defense bill calling for the end of the program.
Military propaganda operations surged in scope during the high points of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many were plagued by waste and poor supervision. In one case, USA TODAY reported in February 2012, the owners of the military's top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan had more than $4.5 million in unpaid federal income taxes despite the company making more than $100 million from the military.
Congress' decision to kill the sites comes after the Obama administration had asked for them to continue, saying in November they were "only synchronized online influence effort able to challenge the spread of extremist ideology and propaganda on the Web."
While the annual defense authorization bills are meant to determine future military policy, the annual defense spending bills have previously committed funding for programs targeted for cuts or elimination in the authorization bills. Congress is developing a $1 trillion spending bill that has a Jan. 15 deadline for passage, and it is possible the money to keep the sites going could be included in that bill.
An attempt last June to strip funding out of the U.S. House defense spending bill failed by a 238-185 vote.