This month the Bureau for Investigative Journalism broke a remarkable, compelling story; throughout the ‘00s, the Pentagon had paid around $500million to British PR firm Bell Pottinger to create war propaganda videos in Iraq. This in itself may not have been big news – governments have been knocking out biased reportage since cameras have been rolling – but it was the nature of the propaganda that caused both mainstream media and the darker corners of web conspiracy theorists to pay attention.
In a surprisingly candid interview with BIJ, former Bell Pottinger video editor Martin Wells detailed his work whilst on US government contract. From his base in Baghdad he had put together a series of different propaganda pieces coded as white, grey and black. White videos were attributed as being created by American forces, grey were unattributed and black were falsely attributed – the notorious false flag operations that have captured internet attention for years. In Wells’ case the false flag operations took the form of fake Al Quiada recruitment DVDs. These were left lying around combat zones by US forces. The DVDs had a tracking code embedded in them, so the act of watching them would ping back a notification to US intelligence. This would supposedly allow the Pentagon to keep track of potential terrorist threats. In a piece of beautifully cock eyed logic, the act of watching an Islamic fundamentalist film made by America would flag up the viewer as a threat to America.
Here’s the video of the interview with Martin Wells – it gives an illuminating insight into the world of governments contracting private companies to run war.
The BIJ piece was put together by Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith. This was of interest to us over at Ransom Note, because we’ve DJed with Crofton before – when he’s not exposing the inner machinations of the military industrial complex, he’s a heavy bashment and afrobeats DJ – what are the chances, eh? So we thought we’d give him a ring and ask him about the Bell Pottinger affair –and the conversation we had spiralled from Crofton building his own database of Pentagon spending all the way through to the notion of government backed total war as a driver of economic stability. It’s far and away the realest chat we’ve had on Ransom Note for some time.
How do you even go about breaking a story of this level?
The piece originally came about through data searches. I was looking through Pentagon spending – I built a big database of Pentagon spending, and I was just playing around with it, writing little scripts to see what they threw up in terms of different spending with companies
And I’m assuming that info is readily available?
Well the US publishes a lot more material than any other country about its government spending – it’s kind of available, but kind of not – it’s in a database that you can’t access very easily. One of the first things I did when I started working at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism was take the data out of it and build a new database. We downloaded all their data and re-uploaded it because we wanted to do more work on Pentagon spending and their relationships with private contractors. We knew their database existed – I’d done some work on it before, so I knew you couldn’t really use it for anything except very simple operations, and I wanted to do some quite complicated stuff with it, essentially we couldn’t use the government provided front end so we had to build a new database using their data. They release the data on a daily basis, x thousands of records, so every few months I sit down and re-download and upload the new stuff, then run little SQL scripts on it.
I was doing this one day and I came across some high money transactions that had been done with Bell Pottinger, the PR company, so it was a process of wondering what that was for. My editor was curious so we started digging into it. We located the transactions and started analysing the descriptions of what they were for and that led us to the former Bell Pottinger employee that my colleague interviewed.
He was quite open in what he talked about which seemed slightly surprising to me
Is it surprising? I don’t know, he’d signed a non-disclosure agreement which had expired, so he was fine to talk.
Was there a sense that he had something to come clean about?
He was keen to talk about it, and he regarded it as an interesting time in his life. He doesn’t work in security or national security these days. As he says in the interview, when he looks back at it he’s ambivalent about whether what he was doing it was ‘the right thing to do’ or not, but I wouldn’t describe him as a whistle blower – he’s someone who did a job and told us about his job – he’s been very protective of his former colleagues, and he’s never given us the names of anyone else he worked with, or revealed anything other than what he himself personally experienced.
Did you have any inkling before you spoke to him as to what Bell Pottinger were doing out in Iraq, or did what he tell you tally with your suspicions?
It was known that they’d had some role in PR operations, that had been mentioned once or twice – but as far as I’m aware no one really knew what they were doing. The account that he gave of making the fake Al Qaida recruitment videos was quite eye opening. That was certainly unexpected. It’s fair to say though that that has been taken somewhat out of context by some people – sometimes I read stuff saying ‘the Pentagon paid half a billion dollars for fake Al Qaida videos’ – and those videos were actually only a small part of what he was doing – it’s not like the whole sum of money was for that. There are various people who have written in specialist publications about this idea of manufactured news, and how the military works with contractors to create news clips that were then distributed, unattributed, to Arab news channels. The idea that this happened wasn’t particularly new, but we put a figure on it – no one had quantified how much had been spent. And his story; he’s kind of an everyman figure, this ordinary guy who ended up doing extraordinary stuff and I think people find that relatable, and I think that’s helped the story spread as much as us revealing anything that wasn’t known.
A photo taken by Martin Wells of his workplace
Whilst people may not have been surprised, surely there may have been a bit of an eyebrow raised over the possibility that the Pentagon were identifying people as terrorist because said people were watching a video that the Pentagon had themselves made-
Hahaha, well, it’s surprising! We don’t know what happened with those videos. I don’t think Martin knows what happened with those videos. They went out and dropped them in chaotic circumstances. I spoke to one guy who worked for a similar kind of project and his opinion on the idea that you could derive intelligence from that process of tracking where videos were played – he said the intelligence you got from it would be totally worthless.
It almost feels like entrapment..
We don’t know what happened as a result of all this – we’ve not alleged that anyone experienced any consequence from watching the videos because we literally do not know what happened – we don’t know how many videos there were or how long this part of the operation went on for, we don’t know if they tried it for a short time and decided it didn’t work, or if it was something that went on through the years of the contract.
But it was enough of a thing for Martin to have bought up as one of the things he was doing
Oh, for sure. I agree it’s mysterious, and I’d like to know more about it.
How wary are you of encouraging wilder conspiracy theories when you publish a story like this? You’re legitimately detailing false flag operations, which is automatically going to be a big deal in the more paranoid areas of internet discourse –it must be very hard to tell this story in a balanced manner…
Hah – I am quite concerned to be honest. One thing that struck me about the reception – and I’m happy that the piece has had a wide reception because I spent a long time working on it and it’s an interesting story- is that I saw a lot of comments online like ‘this is a story that has been ignored by the mainstream media’ and that’s obviously nonsense.It was in the Sunday Times and re-published in the Mail and the FT. It’s simply not true to say it was ignored by the mainstream media. There’s this mindset that I think is quite problematic that nothing good ever comes out of the mainstream media, and everything good comes out of the underground – and I’ve got nothing against underground media because it has an important role, but it’s not as simple as people make it out to be. I’m not into stoking mistrust of mainstream media- some mainstream media does a good job.
There is something very compelling about the Pentagon spending money on false flag videos – me personally I start playing mind games with it, thinking, well imagine they made a really good video, and converted 5 people to ISIS – surely the idea was to make the videos as convincing as possible?
I can’t honestly say that I have a good grasp on exactly what they thought they were doing and why. From Martin’s interview, he knew what he was supposed to do and how to do it, but I don’t think he was given the strategic background of the operation, or if he was he isn’t saying, so he doesn’t know exactly what it was supposed to achieve. I mean, what he says at the end of his interview is that he’s not sure what it achieved – and there he’s speaking about the whole process, not just the fake Al Qaida stuff. The other thing is, is that the videos was recuts of existing Al Qaida footage – they weren’t going out there and filming people posing as militants
True, but if there wasn’t a lot of power in the way you edit footage then you’d never see directors cuts of films
I hear you.
Has this project changed your opinion on the military in any way? Do you have any feelings on it?
Ummmm…. I suppose a lot of my work has been digging into what’s been done by the US, I’ve spent a lot of years researching renditions and secret prisons and stuff. When I started looking more at the military contracting it was again US focused because the US produces data which we can then analyse. It’s been interesting to me to explore what you can find by exploring publically available data, and how you can use it to come up with interesting results – but it does make you aware of the fact that the majority of countries in the world don’t produce any data of that sort. The UK for example is an extraordinarily non-transparent and I think the same is true of many countries in Europe, let alone elsewhere. I’ve tried to do an analysis of UK government spending with the private sector and it’s extremely difficult – they release these high level aggregates that don’t give you any detail about which specific companies have received which specific amounts of money to carry out tasks.
Presumably this is the sort of video Martin Wells would have been emulating - there's no suggestion that he made this actual video.
Would you extrapolate that if the US model is typical then war is very much being privatised?
Certainly the US is privatising a lot. I haven’t done a year on year trend – I did a follow up piece last Thursday that was just a list of things the Pentagon has bought from the private sector under Obama – it was about $2.3 trillion worth of services and goods from the private sector, and $60 billion of that came from UK based companies, so UK PLC made $60billion out of security trade to the US in that period. $2.3 trillion of private sector transactions over 5 years strikes me as quite a lot – it’s fair to say that war is privatised to that extent.
You might then extrapolate – and I don’t think this is a major reach – that companies involved in this trade require a market place for their goods to exist…
There’s a lot of stuff that’s being done on this. One of my colleagues just published a report on British exports of less than lethal weapons and crowd control, tear gas, all that sort of thing, to repressive regimes in the Middle East – all over the world this is going on. If you look at what’s happening in the Philippines right now with the governments massive war on drug takers – their president was quoted in the paper the other day saying, ‘well if the American’s aren’t going to send me their weapons, no problem, I’ll just get them from the Russians and the Chinese, they just say come and sign and the weapons will be delivered’. So it is a global industry and there’s lots of research groups tracking it. I think it’d be interesting to see what other countries are doing, because it’s just the US who release so much data. There are still ways of seeing what countries like the UK and France are doing, it’s just not so simple. But if you’re asking me whether the military industrial complex has a vested interest in permanent and total war – I suppose it’s hard to answer that question with a negative, right? These are profit making companies that are enormous. Their modus operendi and their means of subsistence is to sell weapons. In some ways if you’re working as a journalist or a researcher, then no one’s surprised by that any more – you’re not gonna get a piece in the newspaper by saying ‘big arms company x sells arms’. There are interesting things happening that are less explored though, like the securitisation of aid, or how companies are diversifying so they offer both security and ‘peace keeping’, whatever that is. Companies are becoming quite clever about how they present themselves, there’s a whole language that goes along with it that’s a perversion of normal language as it would be spoken. All this stuff is interesting and problematic, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s surprising – war has been mankind’s practically primary business since mankind has existed.
Still, the average person struggles with the notion that total war is crucial to first world economic stability
It’s kind of complicated. If you look at Europe through the 16th to 18th century, then pretty much the whole continent was devastated by war. That was the normal experience, there were waves of invasions and alliances, and vast slaughter. In the 20th Century it was the same but spread out over slightly smaller time periods. Europe hasn’t had that kind of war since the end of the second world war except on its peripheries – our generation hasn’t experienced it and our parents have barely experienced it – I’m not sure why that is. We had all these instruments that were created after the second world war like the Geneva Convention, and who knows how long it will last – maybe we’ll enter another age of total warfare or maybe we won’t, but I guess right now our position is pretty privileged compared to other epochs of existence – but I don’t know that the same is true outside of Europe. So I don’t know if we’ve just simply exported our wars into proxy wars outside Europe.
And finally, for transparencies sake, who funds you guys to do all this research?
We have a bunch of funders – you can see the list on our website. We used to be pretty much 100% funded by the Potter foundation. They funded the BIJ in its early existence and now our funding comes from various philanthropic funds. This project was months of work to put it all together, it is expensive to do this sort of thing, building our data base in the first place just so we could do it was months of work in itself – luckily the BIJ believed me when I told them it would be worth the effort to make, and I’m glad there’s some fruits to that labour. I think we’ll continue to do work on US military contracting because the info is there and we have a unique tool to analyse it, but I wouldn’t want to think I’d dedicate my career to the wrongs done by the US as there’s plenty of other countries out there, including Britain and many others- who we should equally look at wrongs by…