Flight deck crew prepare to launch an F/A 18 Hornet during early morning flight operations from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Thursday March 20, 2003. (Credit: AP/Richard Vogel)
An explosive new report reveals how the U.S. government paid a British public relations company linked to right-wing politics and repressive regimes more than $500 million from American taxpayers to spearhead a top-secret propaganda campaign in Iraq.
Bell Pottinger, a London-based P.R. firm, created fake videos that appeared to be the work of al-Qaida, the Islamist extremist group formerly headed by Osama bin Laden. It also created news stories that looked as though they were produced by Arab media outlets, and distributed them through Middle Eastern news networks.
The company worked in Camp Victory, the U.S. military base in Baghdad, side-by-side with high-ranking U.S. military officers.
The propaganda videos were personally approved by Gen. David Petraeus — then the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, who would go on to become the director of the CIA. On some occasions, even the White House signed off on the propaganda materials.
These findings are the result of a major investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British watchdog organization that is also known for its extensive reporting on the covert U.S. drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism jointly published its findings in The Sunday Times of London and The Daily Beast. Reporters reviewed government and corporate reports and interviewed half a dozen former officials and contractors involved in the Iraq propaganda campaign.
The former chairman of Bell Pottinger, Timothy Bell, told reporters that his company worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy documents.” The firm reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council.
Bell is a P.R. virtuoso who carefully crafted the image of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a hard-line right-wing leader. Bell helped propel the Conservative Party to win three elections. (Thatcher later returned the favor by nominating Bell for a knighthood.)
Bell has also worked with several repressive regimes. He has lobbied on behalf of the draconian Saudi monarchy, and The Economist reported in 2008 that the authoritarian regime in Belarus had “hired a U.K. spin doctor, Lord Timothy Bell, to polish its image abroad.”
In 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposed how senior executives at Bell Pottinger suggested they could manipulate Google results to “drown” out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labor. They also revealed that the P.R. firm has a team that “sorts,” or alters, negative Wikipedia entries on its clients.
According to the organization’s new investigation, Bell Pottinger worked during the Iraq War as a contractor under the U.S.’s Information Operations Task Force and Joint Psychological Operations Task Force.
The fake al-Qaida propaganda films the P.R. company helped to produce were used to monitor people watching them. The videos were burned on CDs, which U.S. Marines would drop in locations such as houses they were raiding. The CDs included software with an embedded code which linked to a Google Analytics account, allowing the U.S. to monitor IP addresses that played the CDs.
In addition to the fake al-Qaida videos, Bell Pottinger made TV segments that looked as though they were produced by Arabic-language news networks. Teams would create news packages and then send the videos to TV stations across the Middle East. The fact that the stories were created with the support of the U.S. government was sometimes kept hidden, the Bureau reported.
A former Information Operations Task Force employee said the U.S. government used contractors partly because they were operating in a legal “gray area.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism called the propaganda campaign “a huge media operation.” It cost more than $100 million per year, on average, and employed as many as 300 British and Iraqi staff.
From 2007 to 2011, the Pentagon paid Bell Pottinger $540 million, the Bureau confirmed. The reporters were also told that the P.R. company made an additional $120 million in 2006, putting the potential total at at least $660 million.
Bell Pottinger entered Iraq in 2004 with the goal of “promotion of democratic elections” and a $5.8 million contract. This soon grew enormously.
The British P.R. company was not alone. “Iraq was a lucrative opportunity for many communications firms,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporters Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith wrote. They found that at least 40 media companies were paid for services in Iraq from 2006 to 2008. But Bell Pottinger received the largest contracts.
A former video editor for the company called the work “shocking, eye-opening, life-changing.” He also said, “Somewhere in my conscience I wondered whether this was the right thing to do.”
In 2005, it was revealed that the Lincoln Group, a Washington P.R. firm, had worked with the Pentagon to plant news articles in Iraqi newspapers, in what U.S. military officers called an essential part of an “information war.”
Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.