Fake News and False Flags
The Pentagon gave a controversial UK PR firm over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda programme in Iraq, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal. Bell Pottinger’s output included short TV segments made in the style of Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos which could be used to track the people who watched them, according to a former employee. The agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking US military officers in their Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters as the insurgency raged outside.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- Bell Pottinger's former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times, which worked with the Bureau on this story, that his firm had worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy agreements.” Bell Pottinger reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council on its work in Iraq, he said. Bell, one of Britain’s most successful public relations executives, is credited with honing Margaret Thatcher’s steely image and helping the Conservative party win three elections. The agency he co-founded has had a roster of clients including repressive regimes and Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president.
- The work consisted of three types of products. The first was television commercials portraying al Qaeda in a negative light. The second was news items which were made to look as if they had been “created by Arabic TV”, Wells said. Bell Pottinger would send teams out to film low-definition video of al Qaeda bombings and then edit it like a piece of news footage. It would be voiced in Arabic and distributed to TV stations across the region, according to Wells.
- The American origins of the news items were sometimes kept hidden. In 2005, revelations that PR contractor the Lincoln Group had helped the Pentagon place articles in Iraqi newspapers – sometimes presented as unbiased news – led to a DoD investigation.
- The third and most sensitive programme described by Wells was the production of fake al Qaeda propaganda films. He told the Bureau how the videos were made. He was given precise instructions: “We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use al Qaeda’s footage,” he was told. “We need it to be 10 minutes long, and it needs to be in this file format, and we need to encode it in this manner.” US marines would take the CDs on patrol and drop them in the chaos when they raided targets. Wells said: “If they’re raiding a house and they’re going to make a mess of it looking for stuff anyway, they’d just drop an odd CD there.”
- The CDs were set up to use Real Player, a popular media streaming application which connects to the internet to run. Wells explained how the team embedded a code into the CDs which linked to a Google Analytics account, giving a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played. The tracking account had a very restricted circulation list, according to Wells: the data went to him, a senior member of the Bell Pottinger management team, and one of the US military commanders. Wells explained their intelligence value. “If one is looked at in the middle of Baghdad…you know there’s a hit there," he said. "If one, 48 hours or a week later shows up in another part of the world, then that’s the more interesting one, and that’s what they’re looking for more, because that gives you a trail.”
- Iraq was a lucrative opportunity for many communications firms. The Bureau has discovered that between 2006 and 2008 more than 40 companies were being paid for services such as TV and radio placement, video production, billboards, advertising and opinion polls. These included US companies like Lincoln Group, Leonie Industries and SOS International as well as Iraq-based firms such as Cradle of New Civilization Media, Babylon Media and Iraqi Dream. But the largest sums the Bureau was able to trace went to Bell Pottinger.
- Wells left Iraq after less than two years, having had enough of the stress of working in a war zone and having to watch graphic videos of atrocities day after day. Looking back at his time creating propaganda for the US military, Wells is ambivalent. The aim of Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq was to highlight al Qaeda’s senseless violence, he said – publicity which at the time he thought must be doing some good. “But then, somewhere in my conscience I wondered whether this was the right thing to do,” he added.