Bell Pottinger in the spotlight for creating propaganda videos for US military in Iraq

Bell Pottinger created propaganda videos in Iraq on behalf of the US Government in a contract worth more than half a billion dollars over several years, according to revelations unearthed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Conflict: Bell Pottinger made £15m per year in fees from Iraq activities
Conflict: Bell Pottinger made £15m per year in fees from Iraq activities

The work included creating short news segments made to look like Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos, The Sunday Times, which worked with the Bureau on the investigation, and other news outlets reported over the weekend.

The scale of Bell Pottinger’s operation in Iraq was significant; costing, on average, more than a hundred million dollars per year, with the agency at one point employing almost 300 British and Iraqi staff.

Bell Pottinger made about £15m a year in fees from the work, agency founder Lord Bell told The Sunday Times, with the bulk of the money going on costs such as production and distribution.

The agency’s work started in Iraq in March 2004 when it was tasked with "promotion of democratic elections", but the Bureau said it has identified transactions worth $540m (£420m) between the Pentagon and Bell Pottinger relating to contracts issued from May 2007 to December 2011, with a contract worth a similar annual rate ($120m, £93m) reportedly in force in 2006 too.

Quoted widely in the media, former Bell Pottinger employee Martin Wells said his work consisted of three types of products: TV ads portraying al Qaeda in a negative light; news items made to look as if they had been "created by Arabic TV" and with the origins sometimes hidden; and the production of fake al Qaeda propaganda films.

The latter would be put on CDs and dropped into areas that were raided. The CDs had a code embedded in them that gave the location of where they had been played.

The Pentagon has confirmed that Bell Pottinger did work for it as a contractor in Iraq under the Information Operations Task Force (IOTF), producing some material that was openly sourced to coalition forces, and some which was not. It insisted all material put out by IOTF was "truthful".

Wells said Bell Pottinger also carried out some work under the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force, which a US defence official confirmed but declined to give details of.

Wells said Bell Pottinger’s work was signed off by the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General Petraeus, although some of it went higher up the command chaion and was approved by the White House.

Bell, who in August announced his departure from the agency to form a new venture Sans Frontières, told The Sunday Times he was "proud" of Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq, saying: "We did a lot to help resolve the situation. Not enough. We did not stop the mess which emerged, but it was part of the American propaganda machinery.

"I mean if you look at the situation now, it wouldn’t appear to have worked. But at the time, who knows, if it saved one life it [was] a good thing to do."

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism traced Bell Pottinger's activities through US army contracting censuses, reports by the Defense Department's Inspector General and federal procurement transaction records, plus the agency’s own corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda.

Bell Pottinger declined to comment further when contacted by PRWeek this morning.

Some have seen Bell’s departure from Bell Pottinger as an opportunity for the agency to distance itself from the controversial geopolitical work it has been associated with in the past, including work with foreign governments accused of human rights abuses. It remains to be seen if the new revelations will hamper that process.

Bell Pottinger and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism clashed in 2012 in relation to a sting operation in which journalists posed as executives of a fictitious Uzbeki firm and met senior Bell Pottinger executives over a supposed PR brief. The agency complained to the Press Complaints Commission over the incident but the complaint was not upheld.

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