Bell Pottinger, the UK-based multinational PR firm known for its roster of controversial clients, for years worked alongside the U.S. military in a covert propaganda campaign in Iraq, according to a report filed over the weekend by London-based nonprofit news organization the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in conjunction with News UK flagship The Sunday Times.
Bell Pottinger was reportedly paid more than $500 million for the work, which began in 2004 and continued until 2011. Hired as a contractor under the Information Operations Task Force, the firm worked alongside U.S. military intelligence operations in Iraq for the purpose of promoting “democratic elections,” which allegedly included creating TV commercials that portrayed Al-Qaeda in a negative light as well as short video segments made to resemble regional news footage.
The firm also allegedly created phony Al-Qaeda recruitment videos, which the military would reportedly leave on CDs in raided areas. Those CDs contained encrypted data, so that when the video was played, the user’s IP address would be transmitted, allowing the military to know where the videos were being watched.
At one point, BP employed nearly 300 British and Iraqi staff for the work, according to the Bureau’s report, which interviewed a half-dozen former officials and contractors involved in IOTF work in Iraq. The firm also reportedly carried out work under the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force.
Bell Pottinger reported to the CIA, the Pentagon and the National Security Council, according the Bureau’s report. The firm’s work was reportedly signed off by then-U.S. Army General David Petraeus, and on at least one occasion, the White House, the report said.
The Pentagon confirmed with the Sunday Times Bell Pottinger’s work for IOTF, and BP former chairman Tim Bell also confirmed with the newspaper his former firm’s operations in Iraq.
The Bureau accounted for BP’s Pentagon work by analyzing army contracts, Defense Department reports, federal procurement transition records and corporate filings submitted by BP itself. In total, The Bureau identified $540 million in transactions between BP and the Pentagon on contracts issued between 2007 and 2011, and another contract for an annual rate of $120 million in 2006.
BP’s work was just one instance of the Defense Department’s sweeping contracts for PR operations in Iraq that followed the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of that country. The Bureau reported that between 2006 and 2008, more than 40 companies were hired for video production work and TV and radio placement, as well as advertising and opinion polls. “These included US companies like Lincoln Group, Leonie Industries and SOS International as well as Iraq-based firms such as Cradle of New Civilization Media, Babylon Media and Iraqi Dream,” the Bureau reported.
That first agency, the Lincoln Group, was the Pentagon’s go-to PR firm for Iraq wartime communications operations after U.S.-led forces invaded that country in 2003. In 2005 it was reported that the Lincoln Group, amid a PR salvo to inform the Iraqi people of the U.S.'s objectives for that country, had paid Iraqi press outlets to run pro-U.S. news stories. Now-defunct Lincoln Group, which was formerly known as Iraqex, later became Fulcra Worldwide before changing its name once again to Strategic Social.
The Bureau reported that the largest contracts during the period it analyzed were given to Bell Pottinger.
Bell Pottinger, which has performed PR work for the government of Sri Lanka, Venezuela’s national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, and repped the United Nations in war-torn Somalia, is known for aiding embattled and sometimes unsavory foreign clients such as the governments of Belarus and Bahrain, the Palestine Liberation Organization, former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet and Asma Assad, wife of Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
BP in 2012 was divested from UK-based marketing group Chime Communications, and Chime last year was acquired for $580 million by WPP. Tim Bell left the firm earlier this year to start a new PR consulting venture.