The Pentagon poured over half a billion dollars into UK PR firm Bell Pottinger in order to create and distribute fake Al Qaeda propaganda films during the Iraq War, a joint report by The Sunday Times and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has unearthed.
As headhunting goes, being sounded out by the US military is near the more ‘extreme’ end of LinkedIn, especially if you are a British freelance video editor. Ex-Bell Pottinger employee Martin Wells was told by to head to London by his agency to interview for a potential new job “doing new stuff that’ll be coming out of the Middle East.”
Wells was immediately told he’d already gotten the job and that he would start in Baghdad in 48 hours. He would soon discover that, rather than working in the coalition-controlled Green Zone as he had assumed, he would instead be working in Camp Victory, a military base.
His video editing was split into three tasks. The first was creating television adverts which would portray Al Qaeda in a negative light – easy enough. The second was to editing ‘Arabic TV’ style news footage from Al Qaeda attacks, which would then be distributed across the Middle East and presented as Arabic news. Finally, and most intriguingly, Wells was told to produce fake Al Qaeda propaganda.
These ‘Al Qaeda’ videos would be burnt onto CDs and covertly dropped by US marines when raiding targets. The video files on the CDs would play through Real Player – which requires an internet to run – and contain an embed code which would be linked to Google Analytics. From this, the US military could obtain data on where these films were being viewed and distributed.
Wells explains: “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.”
It was a fairly ingenious scheme, however questions will certainly be raised over the long arm of the Pentagon. Not only were they able to surreptitiously plant their own versions of news footage presented as unbiased local news, but the ethics involved in disseminating their own Al Qaeda propaganda – even if their was essentially phishing targets in order to ascertain potential security risks and terrorist networks – are extremely dubious at best.