A new investigation reveals that the Pentagon paid over half a billion in taxpayer dollars to a British PR firm to fabricate terrorist propaganda.
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) — an award-winning British nonprofit news agency — General David Petraeus signed off on the creation of the propaganda videos between 2006 and 2008 when he was serving as commander of U.S. armed forces in Iraq. The videos were made to resemble footage of terrorist insurgents appearing in Arabic-speaking news outlets in order to track down the people who watched them.
TBIJ interviewed Martin Wells of the controversial firm Bell Pottinger, who gave an in-depth explanation of how the propaganda videos were made and distributed. Wells, a former freelance video editor, took a job with Bell Pottinger in May of 2006, and was told very little about his assignment until he was told on a Friday afternoon that he would be flying out to Baghdad the following Monday. Wells described his work environment as extremely secretive.
“It was a very secure building,” Wells told TBIJ, describing “signs outside saying ‘Do not come in, it’s a classified area, if you’re not cleared, you can’t come in.’”
Photo by Martin Wells, for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Wells told TBIJ that the content he made for his employer fell into three genres: television commercials portraying al-Qaeda in a negative light, and fake news segments intended to look like they were “created by Arabic TV.” Bell Pottinger would film low-definition video of terrorist attacks, which would then be edited to look like a news package, with voice-over in Arabic. The finished product would then be sent to TV stations throughout the Middle East.
The third genre of content Wells was hired to produce was the most classified: He would oversee the production of fabricated propaganda films made to look like they came from al-Qaeda. Wells told TBIJ he was given very specific instructions from U.S. military officials about how the videos would be made.
“We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use al-Qaeda’s footage,” Wells recalled to TBIJ, relaying the instructions he was given. “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.”
While U.S. Marines were on patrol in Iraq, they would periodically place DVD copies of the fake terrorist films Wells made inside of houses they raided, to suggest the home was part of an al-Qaeda terror cell. Each copy planted at the scene of a raid had a Google Analytics code embedded within, which showed the Pentagon a list of places the DVD had been played.
“If they’re raiding a house and they’re going to make a mess of it looking for stuff anyway, they’d drop an odd CD there,” Wells told TBIJ.
The Penatgon confirmed its relationship with Bell Pottinger to TBIJ, classifying their work under the Information Operations Task Force. An official with the United States Department of Defense (DoD) also told TBIJ that Bell Pottinger’s work was used by the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force. TBIJ identified approximately $540 million in contracts ranging from May 2007 to December 2011 between the DoD and Bell Pottinger for information operations and psychological operations, amounting to roughly $120 million per year.
However, the Pentagon official, whose name was not divulged by TBIJ, would not elaborate further on the scope of the work Bell Pottinger was contracted to produce.
“We do not discuss intelligence gathering methods for operations past and present,” the official said.