U.S. Gov Spent Half a Billion on Iraqi Propaganda Campaign

Given that propaganda is a powerful, dangerous tool, it seems obvious that Americans would overwhelmingly agree that it should not be allowed in our society. What’s less obvious is its use abroad; Is it appropriate to create propaganda campaigns to use against our enemies, though?

That’s something Americans need to stop and think about in light of a scandal that’s just been reported on by The Daily Beast and The Sunday Times. A watchdog organization, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, handed these two publications solid evidence that the Pentagon spent $540 million on an elaborate propaganda campaign in Iraq.

American taxpayers unwittingly footed the bill for a covert propaganda campaign. In exchange for this large sum of money, Bell Pottinger, a British P.R. firm, created and disseminated videos in Iraq that were meant to look like they were made by al-Qaeda operatives.

Former employees of the project – there were up to 300 employees at the project’s peak – came forward to describe their work. Sometimes they edited anti-al-Qaeda television ads. Sometimes, and this is where it starts to get controversial, they’d create reels that supposedly came from al-Qaeda and furnish them to news stations throughout the Middle East.

In other words, the U.S. government paid to plant phony news stories about al-Qaeda on the news. You don’t need to be a fan of al-Qaeda to be disappointed by this U.S. tactic. The military routinely speaks of “winning over the hearts and minds” of the people in the countries it invades, but getting caught planting bogus news isn’t a way to gain any admiration or trust.

One of the anonymous workers called the project “shocking, eye-opening [and] life-changing.” He added, “Somewhere in my conscience, I wondered whether this was the right thing to do.”

Since the story was published, Bell Pottinger has acknowledged it participated in making these “covert” videos. The firm was unable to confirm whether its propaganda efforts had been remotely successful, however. The Pentagon, meanwhile, will only say that the video content it commissioned was “truthful.”

Top government officials will probably wish to distance themselves from this operation, but that will prove difficult for some. Sources provided the Bureau of Investigation with proof that both the White House and General David Petraeus signed off on the overall concept, as well specific propaganda videos.

Even people who don’t have a problem with creating propaganda seem to have some objections to the operations anyway — primarily, why pay the British a half billion dollars to create these misleading videos when plenty of American firms would be capable of doing it, too?

Of course, handing off this work to outsiders was very likely a deliberate choice. According to one of the sources, the U.S. was well aware that it was entering murky, potentially illegal territory by going forward with this project.

Bell Pottinger is no stranger to scandal. In the past, the PR company has worked to alter defaming descriptions of their clients on Wikipedia. It also uses SEO secrets to manipulate search results and prevent stories about clients’ human rights abuses from appearing on the initial pages of Google.

Bell Pottinger’s business in Iraq started small. Back in 2004, the firm was tasked with promoting democracy in the country for a $6 million contract. While Bell Pottinger was probably the biggest and best paid media company working in Iraq, dozens of other agencies were contracted for similar purposes.

Bell Pottinger gets its name, in part, from its one-time chairman, Timothy Bell. Bell is best known for handling the public relations aspects on super conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s election campaigns. He also devised image-improvement campaigns to help keep dangerous regimes like those in Belarus, Syria and Saudi Arabia in power.

Given Bell Pottinger’s history of participating in misinformation campaigns to bolster oppressors, it seems inappropriate for the Pentagon to get into bed with this particular agency, particularly if the agency doesn’t want to look like an oppressor itself.

While a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda does not deserve any of our sympathy, that doesn’t make the plan the U.S. government funded any more right. The truth about al-Qaeda should be damning enough without having to fabricate stories and footage that supposedly came from the radical group.

Let’s not forget that, in the digital age, news in one corner of the globe can quickly travel all over. Back in America, how are we to know whether we’re looking at authentic al-Qaeda footage, or that concocted by our own government?

Americans have every right to read this report and ask themselves, “What other propaganda campaigns is the U.S. paying for?” With the government repeatedly asking us to enter new wars, this plot seems like yet another reason (think Iraqi WMDs) to question whether the evidence we’re being presented is legitimate.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

79 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

Such a waste of money! They are never going to like us! Things like this is why Obama has DOUBLED our national debt since taking office. Yet he continually blames others, nothing ever seems to be his fault. Guess he's perfect...NOT.

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Marie W.
Marie Wabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Philippa Powers
Philippa Powersabout a year ago

Thanks.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Shirley S.
Shirley Sabout a year ago

The more advertising (which is propaganda) the more suspicious re the cause. Surely a true cause doesn't warrant half a billion dollars spent on it if it is legitimate. The aim is to "pull the wool over the eyes" of the public.

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Joe Le Gris
Joe Legrisabout a year ago

The biggest propaganda is the USA represents the good side of the international operations when it clearly is a murderous pirate of a country on the whole. Something I'm sure Al-Quada have not missed. No amount of propaganda can make that go away. Thanks

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S M.
S Mabout a year ago

When one thinks America has infrastructure failing for lack of money what do the citizens think of this amoral behaviour of their leaders?! It is second Gulf War and it this war that America created that the backbone of the rest of happening now in ME.

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william Miller
william Millerabout a year ago

thanks

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeldabout a year ago

Richard A.,
Your welcome. I would add that many members of the current administration and both houses of Congress are similarly war-mongers. Our government, regardless of the ruling party, has been supportive of wars for generations. They have been quick to act, based on lies, for eons. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin, the Lusitania, the Maine, among others?

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Richard A.
Richard Aabout a year ago

Dan Blossfeld, thank you for pointing the dates out for me, although I did read the article and was already aware of the timing.

My comment still stands regarding a war that we were lied into.
If not for the unnecessary conflict brought about by money grubbing war-mongers it is not likely that the Pentagon would have been in a position to waste 450 million dollars on this project. I'm not saying it's right or that it should not have been stopped as soon as it was found out, (not started is more like it), just that the reason for the deed falls to those that started the war. The war-mongers of the G.W. Bush administration.

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