There’s a renewed focus this week on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, based on my sworn affidavit detailing a nearly three-year-old pattern of attacks on Corps critics, posted from Corps computers onto blogs and forums on NOLA.com.
During my tenure as founding editor-in-chief of the New Orleans-based sites affiliated with The Times-Picayune, my duties included management and oversight of an aggressive program of community engagement features. As detailed in the affidavit, I began observing a group of about 20 user aliases deriding any story or user comment questioning the Corps’ performance in protecting New Orleans from flooding. These comments tracked Corps talking points and media statements, often almost verbatim. Comments were often abusive, and at times reached the level of harassment.
I learned in mid-2008 that the IP address associated with these postings belonged to the New Orleans office of the Corps of Engineers. At that point I watched the postings more closely. The Corps later admitted that posts were being made from within its network, but described them as an isolated event. In the latest response, Corps representatives said that any postings were made by people on breaks, as allowed by Corps policy.
This clearly was not the case. At the height of this wave of postings against Corps critics, I observed dozens of comments a day, normally made within minutes of a critical post. This indicated that the blogs and forums were being continually monitored inside the Corps. And postings made by individual accounts were distributed throughout shifts. It would have been, in fact, a full-time job for one or more people to have conducted this activity.
Even after the Corps commander said the issue had been addressed, the activity continued, as described in the affidavit.
But what crystallized the issue for me was the news about the multimillion-dollar public relations campaign, whose launch tracked the beginning of the attacks on critics of the Corps on NOLA.com. The public relations firm – Outreach Process Partners (OPP) — bragged on its web site that it had influenced the coverage of the Corps by major news organizations. I know that the use of covert postings is a recognized, if somewhat crude, tactic by many public relations campaigns. Red flags were going off.
When I was laid off, I was actively investigating this matter using the tools at my disposal. And that was before I learned of the public relations contract. If I were still in New Orleans, in the context of this new information, I would be investigating the heck out of this. Does the Corps have a vigilante employee? Or more than one? Did the Corps know this has been going on for nearly three years? If so, was its inaction an unofficial blessing? Are these postings being made by a highly-paid contractor working inside the Corps? Is it OK for a government agency – on the defensive in the wake of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history – to spend taxpayer money to try its case in the media? These are reasonable questions, given the evidence, and they demand an answer. The Corps can easily answer the questions – it has the evidence of its server logs, traceable in every way to those responsible. Perhaps it already knows the answer.
But what really motivated me to speak out is this:
During Hurricane Katrina, NOLA.com’s blogs, forums and other community tools became a primary way for New Orleans residents to communicate – to report their experiences, share their photos, send out cries for rescue and search for missing friends and relatives. The community used these features to inform one another of destruction, or the opening of a grocery store, or the switch flipping electricity on. In the most horrible moments of the deluge, people trapped in attics messaged friends on cell phones, and this information was posted on NOLA This led to uncounted rescues. Responder agencies begged NOLA to keep the reports coming – the blogs were guiding their rescue efforts. A mother who lost her children after she collapsed at the Superdome and was evacuated separately was reunited with her kids weeks later. A man clinging to his roof at the height of the storm in Chalmette sent in 83 photos that captured the drowning of St. Bernard Parish.
I’ve spoken to many journalism groups about community journalism and community engagement in crisis settings. NOLA has been mentioned in textbooks. Advance Internet – the company that operates NOLA.com and other web sites around the country – showcases NOLA as the poster child for its company mission statement. The Knight Foundation awarded its first Online Public Service award to NOLA in 2006. Every journalist hopes to make a difference. Not every journalist knows for certain that something he was involved in saved lives. What happened between New Orleans and NOLA.com is precious to me.
The idea that those same community features would be used to attack people calling for accountability, to silence critics and deflect independent review of the Katrina disaster – potentially putting those same New Orleans residents at risk again – is obscene.