On 2 October 2016, stories appeared indicating that a new investigation had revealed that the Pentagon paid more than half a billion dollars to a British public relations firm in order to fabricate terrorist propaganda.
The stories all source the work of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a British non-profit news organization. That report, published on 2 October 2016, is an investigation into an alleged total of US$540 million spent by the Pentagon on a "top secret" propaganda program in Iraq during the U.S.-led war. The propaganda included videos produced by the London-based public relations firm, Bell Pottinger.
The Pentagon would not confirm the veracity of the report. A defense official told us:
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Multi-National Force Iraq's Information Operations Task Force conducted Military Information Support Operations (the US term for psychological operations) in order to protect Coalition forces, support the nascent democratically elected Iraqi government and security services, and to protect the Iraqi population from insurgent and terrorist attacks. Some of these activities involved contracting communication firms, to include Bell Pottinger, to produce media products to advance these objectives.
The "media products" included "billboards, public service announcements, television news programming, newspaper articles and handbills" that were intended to bolster U.S. military objectives in Iraq, which would include efforts to increase "civic involvement in new Iraqi institutions, to encourage non-interference with Coalition military operations and to incentivize enlistment in the Iraqi Security Forces."
These products contained "truthful information," the official told us, while the alleged effort described in the TBIJ report to target insurgents with fake propaganda was not carried out by Information Operations Task Force:
As a matter of policy we do not discuss intelligence gathering methods for operations past and present, as that information is classified.
The report by TBIJ relies on extensive interviews with former Bell Pottinger employee Martin Wells, along with "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." TBIJ reports they "interviewed half a dozen former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq." Their sources told them Bell Pottinger was to create three types of videos:
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 first two types of videos were known as "grey ops," while the third was "black ops." The terrorist faux-propaganda was laid into CDs, and Wells explained to the TBIJ how the team embedded a code into the CDs which linked to a Google Analytics account, which then gave a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played.
How did the CDs provide intelligence? Wells explained:
If one is looked at in the middle of Baghdad…you know there’s a hit there. 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.
The news agency was able to identify $540 million awarded to the firm for "information operations and psychological operations" between 2007 and 2011, a rate of about $120 million a year. A similar contract was identified by TBIJ in 2006 as well.
We were unable to immediately verify this figure, as a U.S. government database listing contracts puts the total dollar amount awarded to Bell Pottinger at $279,206,834 (a far cry from $540 million) between fiscal years 2008 and 2011. (Fiscal year 2008 is the earliest year that contract information is provided for Bell Pottinger.) Wells told TBIJ that the "black ops" CDs were not produced under the purview of Information Operations Task Force, but instead were overseen by Joint Psychological Operations Task Force.
\While we were able to confirm that Bell Pottinger was awarded millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts, we have not yet been able to independently verify that $540 million went toward psychological operations under JPOTF. We can say it is a mischaracterization of TBIJ's reporting to claim that "over half a billion in taxpayer dollars to a British PR firm to fabricate terrorist propaganda," as the original report says the amount included "grey ops," described as "television commercials portraying al Qaeda in a negative light" and news items which were made to look "as if they had been 'created by Arabic TV.'"