A stunning investigative report has revealed that the Pentagon paid British P.R. firm Bell Pottinger almost half a billion dollars to run a propaganda campaign in Iraq, just after the US invaded the country in 2003. The firm was first hired in 2004 but the report in question accessed records of its contracts between 2007-2011 when the bulk of the work took place. Bell Pottinger ceased its operations once American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011.
The firm worked on three different types of things for the US government. According to the Daily Beast, the first was commercials which depicted al Qaeda “in a negative light”. The agency’s work also included producing news items in the same style as Arabic television networks, which were then distributed to news channels, at times without it being made known that the videos were from the US government. The Daily Beast interviewed a former employee who explained that, “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.” The firm also made fake news videos that were made to look as if they were produced by insurgents, so the US could monitor the people who watched those videos, according to the same Daily Beast report.
The videos would be recorded onto CDs, which were coded to link to a secret Google Analytics account that only a select number of American military commanders and Bell Pottinger employees could access. When American troops raided houses, they would drop the CDs amongst the mess caused by them, allowing US intelligence to keep track of the people who eventually found and watched the videos on the CDs. A former employee recalled the videos being opened in Iraq, Syria and even the US, according to the Daily Beast.
The report, produced by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, gathered information from a number of sources inside the US government and former employees of Bell Pottinger. According to Salon, “Reporters reviewed government and corporate reports and interviewed half a dozen former officials and contractors involved in the Iraq propaganda campaign”.
According to the Daily Beast, Martin Wells, an ex-employee of the firm told the bureau that he worked out of Camp Victory, the US military base in Baghdad, alongside high ranking US military officials to produce the content.
The report also added that General David Petraeus, who led the US invasion of Iraq and later went on to become the CIA’s director, personally approved the videos produced by the firm. Salon added that the White House too gave the go ahead on some materials.
When asked about the report’s claims, Bell Pottinger’s former chairman Timothy Bell confirmed that the company had worked on a “covert” military operation but did not elaborate further than saying the work was “covered by various secrecy documents”. Salon added that Bell Pottinger reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council.
Bell himself is famous for crafting Margaret Thatcher’s image and the firm has also been in the news before for running campaigns for authoritative regimes, according to Salon. The Economist referred to Bell as a “spin doctor” in 2008 when he was hired by the Saudi monarchy.
The Pentagon confirmed that Bell Pottinger worked for them under the Information Operations Task Force and another employee confirmed Well’s claims that the firm also did work for the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force. However, the US defence official who confirmed the news also refrained from providing details, telling the Daily Beast, “We do not discuss intelligence gathering methods for operations past and present”.
The investigators behind the report determined that the operation probably cost about $ 100 million a year, totalling $540 million for the entirety of its contract from 2007 to 2011. It was paid an additional $120 million in 2006, making the potential total up to $660 million.
Although Bell Pottinger was not the only firm hired for propaganda purposes – Salon reported about 40 firms were hired around the same period – it was the one with the largest number of contracts. The Daily Beast added, “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”.