A slew of fake websites, social media accounts, and even a Wikipedia page popped up. False content was published in their names, set up to make Vanden Brook and Locker look like disreputable journalists.
The trigger for the attacks proved to be a report they'd been working on about highly-expensive, failed U.S. military propaganda efforts in the Middle East.
It's now known who exactly was behind the malicious online activity. And it's a high-ranking individual.
Gregory Korte at USA Today reports:
The co-owner of a major Pentagon propaganda contractor publicly admitted Thursday that he was behind a series of websites used in an attempt to discredit two USA Today journalists who had reported on the contractor.
The contractor is "strategic communications" company Leonie, and the culprit is co-owner Camille Chidiac. He owned the company with his own sister, but has now been booted out.
In a statement made yesterday evening, Leonie announced it is cutting ties with Chidiac:
On Sunday, May 20, Leonie’s management bywas informed Camille Chidiac, who owns a minority interest in Leonie and who was personally referenced in the USA Today coverage, that he was involved in the online activity.
This was the act of an individual, not the company. Leonie was not aware of and did not authorize Mr. Chidiac’s online activity concerning the reporters.
In addition, Leonie has contacted government officials to inform them of the situation and will continue to work with government officials on this matter.
Chidiac confirms he conducted the online activity and registered the websites on his own, with his own funds.
But he says, "They were intended to create open dialogue in an open forum related to the reporters past articles. Due to the un-moderated nature of the forums, some of these discussions quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users."
Still, at the end of the day, he admits:
"I take full responsibility for having some of the discussion forums opened and reproducing their previously published USA Today articles on them ... 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."
As for the Pentagon, it chimed in and tried to distance itself from the bad press about one of its contractors. The attacks against Vanden Brook and Locker had people wondering if the Pentagon itself was behind the whole thing, which became known as a "misinformation campaign" against the two reporters.
"We were deeply disappointed to read this disclosure from Leonie Industries. Smear campaigns—online or anywhere else—are intolerable, and we reject this kind of behavior," Pentagon press secretary George Little said.