The Pentagon paid a British PR firm more than $660 million to run a top-secret propaganda program in Iraq from at least 2006 to December 2011, Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith reported for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in October 2016. The UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger produced short TV segments made to appear like Arabic news stories and insurgent videos, according to a former employee.
According to Bell Pottinger’s former chairman, Lord Tim Bell, his firm had worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy agreements.” He said that he reported to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the National Security Council on his firm’s work in Iraq. According to a former employee, Martin Wells, who worked as video editor in Iraq, the firm’s output was approved by former General David Petraeus—then–commander of the coalition forces in Iraq—and on occasion by the White House.
The Bureau reported that Bell Pottinger’s work consisted of three types of products, including TV commercials portraying al-Qaeda in a negative light, news items intended to look like they had been “created by Arabic TV,” and—the third and most sensitive type—fake al-Qaeda propaganda films. Wells, the firm’s former video editor, said that he was given precise instructions for production of fake al-Qaeda films, and that US Marines would take CDs of these films on patrol to drop in houses that they raided. Codes embedded in the CDs linked to a Google Analytics account, which allowed US military personnel to track a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played, providing crucial intelligence for US operations. “Key people who worked in that unit deny any involvement with tracking software as described by Wells,” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report noted.
Black and Fielding-Smith reported that the US used contractors because “the military didn’t have the in-house expertise and was operating in a legal ‘grey area.’” Documents show that Bell Pottinger employed as many as three hundred British and Iraqi staff at one point; and its media operations in Iraq cost more than $100 million per year on average. After a 2012 buyout, Bell Pottinger changed ownership. Its current structure, Black and Fielding-Smith clarified, has “no connections with the unit that operated in Iraq, which closed in 2011.”
Black and Fielding-Smith reported that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism “traced the firm’s Iraq work through US army contracting censuses, federal procurement transaction records and reports by the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General, as well as Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda.” They also interviewed former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq.
In a year when pundits and politicians of all stripes as well as members of the public and the establishment press crowed over “fake news,” the US corporate media completely ignored the story of how one of the most powerful US government institutions, the Department of Defense, secretly used taxpayer money to create fake news of its own.
Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “Fake News and False Flags: How the Pentagon Paid a British PR Firm $500 Million for Top Secret Iraq Propaganda,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, October 2, 2016, http://labs.thebureauinvestigates.com/fake-news-and-false-flags/.
Student Researcher: Matthew Misiano (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)