Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) fired off a letter to the Pentagon on Tuesday, demanding an investigation into activities by New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers posing as Joe Six-Pack citizens, attacking critics of the Corps on web forums and blog comments in the wake of levee failures in Hurricane Katrina.
Why is this important? Because it involves the fate of New Orleans and that of millions of other of Americans protected and supplied by Corps projects. The Corps spends a massive amount of our money . . . it’s one of the main troughs of the public pork barrel. Government leaders and contractors from coast to coast are influenced by the Corps’ economic muscle. Criticize and crack down, and perhaps those contracts won’t be signed. Play along and get the bacon.
Community activists have called for a Congressional "8/29 Commission" to fully investigate what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina. And just as the 9/11 Commission was about more than New York City, such a commission would be about more than New Orleans. Corps levees protect communities around the country, keep waterways open to vessels and other vital tasks.
But New Orleans is Ground Zero for government failure at the local, state and federal levels. And the Corps is the 800-pound gorilla.
It was revealed months ago that the Corps had hired a new public relations firm to – as the firm bragged on its web site – kneecap critical media coverage of the entity at the heart of the most costly national disaster in U.S. history. Much of this involved personal contacts with movers and shakers. At the same time, a deluge of forum postings and commenting on blog posts began emanating from Corps of Engineers IP addresses, posing as regular New Orleans citizens who supported the Corps, deriding and often viciously attacking Corps critics.
Further, these posts sometimes attempted to tap into racial animosity, by using verbal hot buttons, and noting that the destruction of some majority black areas of the city might not have been such a bad thing.
That this happened is not in question. The Corps has admitted it and apologized for what it characterized as an isolated incident (it wasn’t) that had been put to a halt (it hadn’t). After the release of my affidavit in June, the Corps characterized the postings as being done on coffee breaks (which evidently occur every few minutes from punch-in to punch-out), and being allowed by Corps policy.
So with very serious questions still hanging about the Corps’ culpability in the federal levee collapses that destroyed New Orleans, the Corps has responded with a $5 million public relations campaign that operated alongside (or directed) a deluge of covert web postings meant to marginalize those posing the questions.
Interestingly such covert postings are a clear violation of the Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, and also might be a violation of upcoming FTC regulations requiring disclosure by those posting on the internet on behalf of someone who’s paying them.
And then there are potential legal and policy issues. Do U.S. military regulations REALLY allow its members and contractors to use taxpayer-funded resources and computer networks to covertly savage a command’s critics? That’s apparently the last word out of the Corp’s New Orleans headquarters. Would it have been OK for the guys and gals at Abu Ghraib to launch a taxpayer-funded, covert public relations campaign and assault on critics of that command post? Sure there’s a difference . . . the collapse of the Corps’ levees killed a heck of a lot more people and caused a lot more damage.
If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend reading John Barry’s excellent book "Rising Tide", which among other things, deatails activities of the Corps of Engineers before, during and after the Great Flood of 1927 and the collusion of the New Orleans power elite in damage control.