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Congress probes Islamic State counter-propaganda operations

FILE - In this July 7, 2016 file photo, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, right, confers with the committee's ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. on Capitol Hill in Washington. Congressional investigators are demanding documents and contacting witnesses in a wide-ranging probe of the Defense Department’s troubled anti-propaganda efforts against the Islamic State. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By DESMOND BUTLER and RICHARD LARDNERAssociated Press

 (AP) — Congressional investigators are demanding documents and contacting witnesses in a wide-ranging probe of the Defense Department’s troubled anti-propaganda efforts against the Islamic State.

The investigation by the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee follows reporting by The Associated Press in January that uncovered critical problems with the program known as WebOps and revealed conflicts of interest in a new contract potentially worth $500 million to expand psychological operations against terrorist groups.

The AP found the WebOps programis so beset with incompetence and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of it say it’s having little impact.

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“Recent allegations of failings in our fight against ISIS, particularly among leadership, are disturbing,” the committee’s Republican chairman, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, said in a statement.

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Chaffetz, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, and other lawmakers on the panel requested corporate and government information about the program in separate letters to the contractor running WebOps, Alabama-based Colsa Corp., and to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis .

WebOps relies on dozens of Arabic-speaking analysts who scour Twitter and other social media platforms for people whose postings suggest they are vulnerable to the Islamic State’s sophisticated propaganda. Using fictitious identities, the civilian analysts then reach out to these potential recruits and urge them not to join the extremists. But as AP reported, many of the analysts are not fluent and don’t have the cultural background the work requires.

As one former worker told the AP, translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.”

“The news account details several examples where employees mistook words and ISIS recruiters laughed and insulted them,” the lawmakers wrote in the Feb. 15 letter to Frank Collazo, Colsa’s chairman and CEO. “In one particular instance, WebOps employees repeatedly referred to the Palestinian Authority as the ‘Palestinian salad.'”

Colsa said it was cooperating with the committee.

“Colsa welcomes the chance to share the success of the WebOps program with members of the committee as well as the opportunity to set the record straight,” the company said in a statement provided by Greg Vistica of Washington Media Group, a reputation management firm. “Colsa is contractually prohibited from releasing any information related to the program without the government’s approval.”

The congressional probe adds…

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