US Defense Department network of influence websites
Over the past three years, a subdivision of Virginia-based General Dynamics has set up and run a network of eight “influence websites” funded by the Defense Department with more than $120 million in taxpayer money. Over the past two years, the budget for the TRWI websites has increased from $10.1 million to $121 million, according to DOD records.
The sites, collectively known as the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI) and operated by General Dynamics Information Technology, focus on geographic areas under the purview of various U.S. combatant commands, including U.S. Central Command. The target is “online audiences” in the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics, plus Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the material — mostly about security and published in English, Russian, Urdu, and Farsi — also seeps into local newspapers and websites.
Take Uzbekistan, for example. In its coverage of Uzbekistan, a repressive dictatorship increasingly important to U.S. military goals in Afghanistan, a TRWI website called Central Asia Online has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy’s rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 163rd out of 178 countries in the organization’s 2010 Press Freedom Index and called the country an “Internet Enemy” this year.
Central Asia Online was created in 2008, a time when Washington’s ability to rely on Pakistan as a partner in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan was steadily waning. In the search for alternative land routes to supply U.S. troops, Uzbekistan seemed the best option. Nearby Iran was a non-starter, and Uzbekistan’s infrastructure — used by the Soviets to get in and out of Afghanistan during their ill-fated war there — was far superior to that of neighboring Tajikistan. Today, the U.S. military moves massive amounts of military cargo across Uzbekistan.
The question: Is U.S. taxpayer money being given to a for-profit military contractor to shill for a Central Asian dictator, just because he’s a useful ally in the war on terror?
[Excerpt of a Foreign Policy article by David Trilling]