The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently discovered that Pentagon paid a UK PR firm $500 million to film fake terrorist videos in Iraq secretly. The PR firm in question is Bell Pottingerand they’ve had their fair share of criticism in the past – they have been accused of working for notorious leaders such as Chile’s Pinochet as well as the Saudi government.
Bell Pottinger was supposed to portray Al-Qaeda negatively to track their sympathizers, and the content was approved by the White House and General David Petraeus, who was discovered to have shared classified data with his mistress in the past.
The operation was put into motion not long ago after the invasion of Iraq (2003). Bell Pottinger was first tasked with promoting “democratic elections”, before starting psychological and informational procedures.
Martin Wells, a former video editor at the firm, says that they sent him to Iraq in only 48 hours to edit content for “psychological operations” at Camp Victory. The firm released videos which portrayed Al-Qaeda in a negative way and made the videos look like they were coming from genuine Arabic TV stations. Crews were filming bombings non-stop and editing them later to give them a more authentic look.
The firm also scripted Arabic soap operas where characters rejected terrorism happily, while creating fake Al-Qaeda propaganda videos as well, which were later planted in the homes of suspects.
Everything was done professionally, and employees had specific instructions for the videos. “We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use Al-Qaeda’s footage,” Martin Wells 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.” The videos were meant to play in Real Player, and the CDs contained a secret code linking to Google Analytics which allowed the military to track IP addresses of the computers the videos were played on.
The videos, according to Wells, were created in Syria, Iraq and the USA. “If one, 48 hours or a week later shows up in another part of the world, then that’s the more interesting one,” he says. “And that’s what they’re looking for more, because that gives you a trail.”
The Pentagon admitted to hiring the firm for “truthful” content under the Information Operational Task Force (IOTF). Bell Potinger also worked on the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force (JPOTF), although the U.S. Department of Defensedidn’t comment on these operations.
According to US law, the government shouldn’t use propaganda on its population, which is why the firm was hired in the first place. The hiring is well documented – documents show the Pentagon paying $540 million to Bell Pottinger for contracts between 2007-2011, with an additional $120 million contract in 2006.
In 2009, another report claimed that the Pentagon paid millions to The Rendon Group, another PR firm which was supposed to assess if journalists with in the military were giving positive coverage of the missions. In 2005, it was discovered that the PR firm The Lincoln group was releasing articles in Iraqi newspapers secretly written by the US army, but a later investigation cleared the group of charges.