America Supports You

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America Supports You (ASY) is a government-funded public relations program created to generate support for the Bush administration's global war on terror by organizing publicity and support for soldiers. Susan Davis International (SDI) is a Washington D.C.-based PR company funded to work on America Supports You. Pentagon official Allison Barber is credited with developing the idea for ASY, and headed it until her October 2008 resignation.[1][2]

Fundraising and other activities investigated

On May 11, 2007, officials said that the Pentagon is "looking into complaints that Defense Department officials charged with building public support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan might have been engaged in improper fundraising," David S. Cloud reported in the New York Times.[3]

Officials said the inspector general is "examining whether officials who run 'America Supports You,' a three-year-old Pentagon program lauded by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, helped arrange a fund-raiser for a private foundation"—the America Supports You Fund—set up in December 2006 "by former Bush administration appointees," Cloud reported. In a January 2007 memo explaining the ASY Fund, Allison Barber wrote: "What we have learned is that the American people are beginning to fatigue, even in their support for the troops. ... I don't think we have a minute to lose when it comes to maximizing support for our military, especially in the new political environment."[3]

"Internal memorandums and e-mail messages provided to investigators, copies of which were shared with The Times, suggest that Pentagon officials encouraged Mark Vahradian, a Hollywood film producer, to make the private foundation ... the beneficiary of a Los Angeles fund-raiser he is planning for later this year," Cloud wrote. Vahradian was "invited to go on a [Defense] department-financed trip last fall to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, where he and other civilians on the trip met with American troops and with commanders. Participants were also allowed to fire heavy machine guns at a firing range and to participate in mock raids against 'insurgents,' at the Army's Forward Operating Base Dagger in Kuwait," according to the New York Times. "A second Pentagon-organized trip in February [2007] took Mr. Vahradian to the American naval base and detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."[3]

"The inquiry," Cloud wrote, "is also looking into whether money used for 'America Supports You' and other public outreach programs has been shifted improperly from Pentagon accounts intended for other purposes."[3]

Grant Green, a former Under Secretary for Management in the U.S. Department of State under President George W. Bush and former Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan, "said in an interview that he agreed ... to help set up the foundation and seek tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service so that donors could write off gifts," Cloud wrote. "Green said that the foundation had not yet obtained tax-exempt status and so far had raised only about $10,000. He declined to identify the donors. 'DOD can’t accept the money, so this fund is being established so that we have a vehicle to accept contributions,' Mr. Green said."[3]

In October 2008, Allison Barber announced her resignation from the Pentagon. Principal Deputy Assistant of Defense for Public Affairs Robert Hastings commented that he and Barber "have been discussing the timing of her departure since early summer. ... I asked her to stay until DMA was launched. Now that DMA is active and most of Allison's responsibilities have transferred, we agreed this week was a good time." Hastings added that Barber's departure was unrelated to the Defense Department Inspector General's investigation of ASY.[2]

The Pentagon Inspector General's report on America Supports You was released late on a Friday, December 12, 2008. [4] The audit concluded that ASY was run in a "questionable and unregulated manner," including some $8.8 million given to the public relations firm SDI. [5]

After the audit was released, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill called for further investigation and "accountability" for the ASY "fiasco." In a January 2009 letter (pdf) to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McCaskill wrote, "It is my strong opinion that SDI should be made to reimburse the government. ... It is clear to me that there are grounds for official discipline of senior and less-senior [Pentagon] officials." McCaskill also requested "a full review" of ASY, "to determine its utility." In response, former ASY head Allison Barber defended the program as having helped "thousands of troops." SDI's Tom Davis called the audit's claims against his PR firm "unfounded." [6]

Stars and Stripes involvement

In October 2007, the U.S. Defense Department Inspector General's review of "America Supports You" widened to include the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. "Both America Supports You and American Forces Information Service -- the parent organization for Stripes -- are headed by Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs," Stars and Stripes reported on October 20.[7]

In July 2006, Stars and Stripes awarded a $499,000 purchase agreement to Susan Davis International, ASY's PR firm. According to the agreement (PDF file), the PR firm engaged in "scripting, taping and programming with celebrities, regional and national sports organizations, and specific business sponsors," public service announcements and other outreach activities. A description of ASY's dog tag program mentions the firm's "considerable corporate outreach." Stars and Stripes' top editors said the agreement raised "extreme concern among editorial staff," and promised to conduct a review of the paper's reporting on ASY. "We were aware of some interaction between S&S marketing department and ASY, but were appalled to learn the degree of involvement and the use of Stripes finances to fund the Pentagon's public relations campaign," they added. Previous to the 2006 agreement, a Stars and Stripes contracting officer awarded $100,000 for ASY dog tags and arm bands.[7]

In total, $9.2 million in ASY funding was funneled through the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. In January 2009, the paper reported that "no decision has been made whether to launch a preliminary investigation into how Stripes and its former parent organization -- Armed Forces Information Service -- handled" ASY funds. [6] The Stars and Stripes ombudsman concluded that the improper routing of ASY funds didn't impact the paper's reporting. [8]

Converting U.S. troops and Iraqis

The "evangelical entertainment troupe" Operation Straight Up[9], which "actively proselytizes among active-duty members of the US military," is an official arm of America Supports You, reported Max Blumenthal on The Nation blog in August 2007. Among OSU's future plans are mailing "copies of the controversial apocalyptic video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces to soldiers serving in Iraq." The game is based on the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins books, and players must "kill or convert ... non-believers left behind after the rapture."[10]

OSU also plans to mail English and Arabic versions of the evangelical book More Than A Carpenter, "ostensibly intended for proselytizing efforts among Iraqi civilians," Blumenthal reasoned. Lastly, OSU plans to head to the Mideast for a "Military Crusade in Iraq." As OSU leader Jonathan Spinks explained on his website: "At no greater time is our military acceptant of the principles of God and prayer, than when under extreme danger and concerned about their loved ones at home."[10]

Freedom Walks

On September 11 in 2005, 2006 and 2007, America Supports You held a "Freedom Walk" in Washington DC, "to commemorate the attack on the Pentagon and honor all lives lost on September 11." ASY describes the walk as a "new national tradition," and encourages local cities to organize their own Freedom Walks.[11] An America Supports You "teaching supplement" in the Weekly Reader, a periodical for grade-school students, encouraged the students to organize Freedom Walks, among other activities.[1]

Allison Barber personally recruited people to organize a 2006 "Freedom Walk" in Hampton Roads, Virginia, according to a local newspaper. Barber "asked 16 elected officials from Hampton Roads to organize a Freedom Walk," telling them that "we're hoping that Hampton Roads can serve as a template for the rest of the nation." She added, "It's not a war statement. ... You can support the military in this without supporting the war. It's just to keep in mind 9/11. It's something we never want to forget."[12]

"Barber, on behalf of the Pentagon, is pushing for a Hampton Roads effort this year, along with one in New York in which workers at the New York Stock Exchange would leave after the final bell and walk to the former site of the World Trade Center. The Pentagon is also asking that schools nationwide organize walks for children on that date, which is a Monday this year and both a school day and workday."[12]

Other activities

In July 2006, National Public Radio reported that "one recent effort is a campaign to get people at major league baseball games to 'text-message' their support to the troops on their cell phones... even though those messages aren't actually sent to the troops." According to former ASY webmaster Chris Moore, the messages were simply archived on an ASY computer database.[1]

On December 2, 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld presented an "America Supports You" dog tag to Bill O'Reilly on his Fox News show, calling O'Reilly "a terrific supporter of our troops." President George W. Bush also plugged the "America Supports You" campaign during an address to Marines and their families at Camp Pendleton, California.[13]

PR firm

In December 2004, O'Dwyers PR Daily reported that the PR firm Susan Davis International (SDI) "is handling the Pentagon's 'America Supports You' campaign to drum up support for the nearly 150,000 U.S. forces that may be occupying Iraq during the next four years". "America Supports You," a Defense Department campaign, was originally planned to run through May 2005 but as of August 2007 is ongoing. SDI was paid "at least $2.7 million" for the first year of America Supports You alone, reported National Public Radio.[1]

In February 2008, O'Dwyer's reported that the Pentagon "is preparing to review its PR contract for the 'America Supports You' campaign." The Defense Department said it would soon ask Washington DC firms to submit proposals for ASY's "national strategy and outreach program, web and interactive work, events and PSAs." A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that "Susan Davis International's contract has come up for renewal." It's not clear if Susan Davis International will be invited to, or would choose to, submit a proposal to continue its work with ASY.[14]

In May 2008, it was reported that Susan Davis International had retained its ASY contract. The one year contract is good for up to $3 million. "The long-running campaign aims to communicate public support of the military to service members and their families. Among SDI's assignments are developing a national media strategy, partnerships with businesses, celebrities and other entities, PSAs, internal communications, events, and a 'robust' web and interactive campaign." Some claim the bid process heavily favored SDI, reported O'Dwyer's [15] and Stars and Stripes.[16]

Operation Tribute to Freedom

ASY's predecessor of sorts appears to be "Operation Tribute to Freedom," which was launched by the Defense Department in May 2003. A Department press release explained it as "a sustained and widespread program of activities in appreciation for our men and women in uniform and the families that support them." [17] The program's now-defunct website says it "encourages and facilitates public participation at every level -- from corporations and organizations to families and individuals. It reinforces the bond between citizen and soldier."[18]

One of the program's activities was a September 2003 "essay contest for children and teenagers," sponsored by Weekly Reader, a publication distributed to some 11 million students each week. The essay contest topic was "What Does Freedom Mean to You?" According to the Defense Department, "The grand-prize winner will get a trip to Washington, D.C., and a chance to visit the Pentagon. There, the winner will get to be a news correspondent for a day and sit in on an official Pentagon briefing." Allison Barber said of the contest, "What we've learned over the past few years is that our students are very active in supporting our men and women in the military through a lot of different campaigns that they've done in their own classrooms. And so this [essay contest] is the culmination of a lot of different programs that young kids are doing around America to show support for the troops."[19]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Martin Kaste, Pentagon's Fine Line: War Machine, P.R. Machine, National Public Radio, Morning Edition, July 13, 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "America Supports You head Allison Barber leaving DOD," Stars and Stripes, October 22, 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 David S. Cloud, "Pentagon Opens Inquiry of Troop-Support Group," New York Times, May 12, 2007.
  4. U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General, "The America Supports You Program (pdf)," December 12, 2008 (Project No. D2007-D000CH-0213.000).
  5. Diane Farsetta, "America Scams You: Allison Barber's Many 'No-No's'," PR Watch, December 18, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jeff Schogol, "Senator calls for disciplinary action over ASY funding," Stars and Stripes, January 17, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Jeff Schogol, "Stripes part of America Supports You audit: Newspaper’s funds used for DOD’s public relations program under review by IG," Stars and Stripes, October 20, 2007.
  8. Dave Mazzarella, "Dave Mazzarella," Stars and Stripes, January 10, 2009.
  9. OSU, accessed December 2008.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Max Blumenthal, "Kill Or Convert, Brought To You By the Pentagon," The Nation blog Notion, August 7, 2007.
  11. America Supports You, "Freedom Walk 2005", America Supports You website, page archived from October 2007.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Jim Hodges, "Pentagon Official Seeks Help for National 9/11 Walk," Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), March 25, 2006.
  13. "SDI rallies support for troops", O’Dwyers PR Daily, December 7, 2004. (Sub req'd)
  14. "Pentagon to Review 'America Supports You' PR Pact," O'Dwyer's PR Daily (sub req'd), February 5, 2008.
  15. "Amid Controversy, SDI Wins Pentagon Pact," O'Dwyer's PR Daily (sub req'd), May 22, 2008.
  16. Jeff Schogol, "In letter, attorney claims misconduct by Stripes, DOD: Ex-Pentagon lawyer alleges contracting violations, disregard for legal counsel, workplace intimidation," Stars and Stripes, May 14, 2008.
  17. Press release, "Operation Tribute to Freedom launched," U.S. Defense Department, May 22, 2003.
  18. "Briefing slide: Operation Tribute to Freedom website," U.S. Defense Department, June 12, 2003, accessed November 2007.
  19. "Essay Contest Asks Students to Express: 'What Does Freedom Mean to You?'," U.S. Defense Department, September 2, 2003.

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External articles