As Washington cuts back efforts to counter Russian propaganda, the Kremlin is hiring American communications talent straight from the Pentagon.
A year ago, multilingual editors and writers ran online news websites worldwide for the Trans Regional Web Initiative - a Pentagon effort to support U.S. military efforts against Islamic extremism, Iranian subversion, Russian and Chinese aggression and other threats.
Now, with their jobs eliminated in Congress's budget wars, some of them are working for President Vladimir Putin’s publicity machine as it ramps up its operations in the United States.
Zlatko Kovach is one of them. Just blocks from the White House, the 48-year-old editor runs the Washington office of Sputnik, which styles itself as a straight news service that aspires to compete with the Associated Press and Reuters. Three of Kovach’s fellow ex-Pentagon contract workers joined him. Two have moved on, but Sputnik is actively recruiting others.
Kovach, a naturalized American citizen, doesn't see his move as unpatriotic but rather as economically justified. “Despite the big superpower relations, the media has developed in such a way as that’s the nature of the market," he said. "It isn’t harming the U.S.”
Sputnik is part of a news and information outlet known in the United States as RT, the initials of its parent entity, Russia Today, which operates under the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media in Moscow. With State Department approval, RT opened the Washington office of Sputnik last year just as civilian contractors who shaped U.S. military messaging overseas were put out of work when Congress shut down most of a $22 million program.
They practiced what used to be called psychological operations, or PSYOP, a name that was changed to something more benign-sounding in the Pentagon's alphabet soup of acronyms: MISO, for "military information support operations."
Under either name, the purpose has been, as the Pentagon puts it, to influence foreign audiences' “emotions, motives, objectives reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives.”
The Web Initiative program, begun under the George W. Bush administration in 2008, drew criticism both from opponents of such information operations as a matter of policy and supporters who wanted them to work better. A classified Government Accountability Office report in 2013, leaked to USA Today, faulted the program for a lack of co-ordination with other U.S. efforts.
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), then the powerful Armed Services Committee chairman, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to eliminate funding after reform efforts failed. Some elements of the Initiative remain in operation at the Pentagon's Special Operations Command.
The move by Pentagon contractors such as Kovach to the employ of the Russians is a symptom of a larger problem with national defense strategy, some observers say.
"What seems to be clear is that the anti-status quo powers in the world today - Russia, China, Iran, and the Islamic State - know the value of information warfare and invest heavily in it,” said Robert W. Reilly, a former director of the Voice of America, the federal government’s civilian international broadcasting arm.
“This is illustrated by the fact that these people" - former Pentagon contractors - "have nowhere else to go and are being picked up by Putin,” said Reilly, who served as a senior adviser for information strategy at the Defense Department following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “I'm not trying to rationalize what they're doing, but it's a powerful illustration of who takes information warfare strategy seriously and who doesn't."
The Pentagon may have to restart some of its efforts from scratch. Citing U.S. ineffectiveness at stopping ISIS recruitment propaganda, and finding NATO allies clamoring to counter Moscow after its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, Congress authorized new Defense Department information efforts in the 2016 defense authorization bill. Leaders from Vice President Joseph Biden to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) have called for improved information campaigns to help keep Moscow in check.
That was too late for Kovach and others like him. A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he speaks six languages. He worked for General Dynamics on the Pentagon contract to run the Southeast European Times, a multilingual website (setimes.com), aimed at the volatile Balkans region.
He arrived in the United States a student from Communist Yugoslavia and now lives in the Washington area, proud to be an American. Hawkish on defense issues, he notes that he was born on the Fourth of July.
Kovach is the only one of his colleagues who would speak on the record about why he went to work for RT/Sputnik. He said he views Sputnik as just another job in a new world of journalism. As editor for the Washington office, he said he receives no instructions about how to edit the roughly 40 articles a day his team produces.
“The nature of the game has changed,” he said. “You have media that’s shrinking. U.S. government communication efforts were being canceled. The media is evolving. There is a media space, and the question is, who’s going to fill that space? Then I had to ask, who’s offering jobs?”
Correction: February 12, 2016, 3:00 PM
An earlier version of this article misstated Zlatko Kovach's status when he arrived in the United States. He was a student, not a refugee.