Media Insurgency : Marketing the War on Terror

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Bush administration had dispensed over $1.6 billion in public relations contracts over two and a half years. Of that, $1.1 billion went to the Pentagon, which used $100 million to hire an outside firm to secretly plant over 1,000 news stories in Iraqi newspapers through a secret program of bribes and subterfuge.

The PR men take over as Donald Rumsfeld declares war on the media

By Sam Urquhart, 26.02.2006


The same week, we learned that the British taxpayer is financing their own fake news operation – a global satellite news service selling British foreign policy, mainly to the Middle East. This month, U.S. military planners requested 3,700 new psy-ops personnel, presumably for military use.

The exposure of propaganda operations, far from embarrassing the British and American governments, have only made them bolder. Rather than curtailing the controversial operations, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are expanding their information manipulation programs as they seek not to remove, but to normalize propaganda as a weapon of war.

The paranoid manipulation of information for foreign policy ends has only just begun.

Managing reality

A Defense Science Board Task Force report, instigated by Paul Wolfowitz, outlined the basis for such propaganda. “Strategic communication is a vital component of U.S. national security,” it said. “It is in crisis, and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security. Presidential leadership and the bipartisan political will of Congress are essential. Collaboration between government and the private sector on an unprecedented scale is imperative.”

The U.S., said the report, needed to be more like “insurgent” companies, forever shifting their brand position. This cannot be done through traditional methods, but by ”[mobilizing] greater private sector initiatives that contain a built-in agility, credibility and even deniability that will be missing from government-sponsored initiatives.” The U.S. needs to focus attention on its perceived strengths, “respect for human dignity and individual rights, individual education and economic opportunity, personal freedom, safety and mobility.” That is, away from the messy reality of their military operations.

The report suggests that U.S. foreign policy needs to be aggressively promoted to “winnable” constituencies in sensitive areas of the world, and maybe at home. Information campaigns need to be tailored to win over a core element of a target population. To win these people over, the administration need a watertight media campaign, and they need it to be hidden.

As the Defense Department report recommends, ”[any] new strategic communication function must be more comprehensive, substantive, locally agile and below the radar than public diplomacy today.”

Donald Rumsfeld has made it clear that he sees a strategic media as essential. In a February 1 DoD briefing, Rumsfeld said, “The only place we can lose is if the country loses its will, and the determinant of that is what is played in the media.”

This marks a shift in his attitude towards information operations. For a long time, he has played dumb about psy-ops and strategic communications. In 2002, during the invasion of Afghanistan, he was questioned about the $100,000 a month contract doled out to the Rendon Group, a secretive public relations company. In typical fashion he blustered, “It’s not clear to me that what you just read is true. You read it as though it were fact. To my knowledge, no people are quoted by name as to whether or not those things are true. I don’t believe they’re true. I know that if they are true, they won’t happen, so—because I’m not going to allow it to happen.”

But he did. The Rendon Group have profited mightily under Rumsfeld’s authority. Between 2000 and 2004 the company received contracts totaling between $50m and $100m, according to journalist James Bamford. In September 2005, they retained a $6m contract to provide “Strategic Communications Operation Support” in Baghdad.

Even as recently as October 2005, Donald Rumsfeld played down the need for an information strategy, remaining sensitive to charges of propagandizing. In a 31 October Defense Department briefing he said to reporters, “I thought you were thinking that we were going to fashion and announce a strategic communications plan for the Department of Defense, and that I doubt.” There have been recent signs that Rumsfeld was not being entirely honest.

Come February 2006 and the Quadrennial Defense Review, U.S. military planners included 3,700 psy-ops staff in their plans for future overseas operations. Few media outlets linked this expansion to the recent revelations concerning military propaganda.

Recently, the Pentagon have also seemed far more confident about adopting a strategic communications strategy. The way they’ve hit upon to do this is by attacking the media. In a February 17 speech, for example, he compared Ayman Al-Zawahiri to an “image consultant,” and compared Al-Qaeda to a “media relations committee.” Extremists “plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people,” said Rumsfeld. “They know that communications transcend borders – and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause and as helpful to theirs, as any other method of military attack. And they are doing it.”

The heart of this rhetoric is the idea of a media war. As Rumsfeld urges, “Let there be no doubt – the longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers, that most assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking place.”

According to Rumsfeld, we can expect targeted campaigns to paint a positive view of America such as one carried out in Pakistan after the earthquake last year that – despite the terrible winter that many refugees endured – was deemed by the administration as a PR success story. “It was not long,” he said, “before the new favorite toy in Pakistan was a small replica of a Chinook helicopter, because of the many lives our helicopters saved, and the mountains of relief supplies they delivered.” Or so Rumsfeld says. If so, this is just the kind of “focused campaign” on winnable constituencies that the Defense Department Report envisaged back in 2004.

Rumsfeld also mentioned that “several hundred” blogs are currently “receiving CENTCOM content” and talked of the need for “24-hour press operation centers” and “rapidly deployable military communications teams” to cover crises. His overarching theme though, is the need to win that war of ideas. “It is a test of wills and it will be won or lost with our public and the publics of free nations across the globe. We will need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts, to correct the lies being told which so damage our country, and shatter the appeal of the enemy.” Yet he provides just one example, that of the Koran-in-the-toilet furor sparked by a Newsweek report.

To this end, the U.S. military engaged PR firm Hass MS&L to provide bloggers with “exclusive editorial content.” Hass then e-mailed military bloggers in January 2006 hawking their goods. As the message read, “The Army believes that military blogs are a valuable medium for reaching out,” but according to William Arkin, writing in the 6 January Washington Post, this outreach “is not the nitty gritty of deployments and living conditions overseas. It is planned to be an official counter to the perceived unwillingness of the mainstream media to report the “good news” from Iraq and the war on terror.”

Rumsfeld and his cronies have their sights trained on the media and their wallets wide open for the PR industry.

Branding Britain abroad for the War of Ideas

Rumsfeld is far from alone in waging a post-modern war of ideas. Britain pioneered branding as a tool of foreign policy, and now it may be going further.

Few governments in the world are as keen to shape public opinion as the Blair government. Few are as closely wedded to corporations either. It was no surprise therefore, when the Guardian reported on a little known satellite broadcaster called British Satellite News (BSN).

As David Miller reported, BSN supplies a “news service” to fourteen out of seventeen Middle-Eastern nations, and to 400 news organizations around the world – all at the British taxpayers’ expense. In 2001, the Foreign Office spent £340m, a figure that has surely grown as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken off.

The genesis of the current BSN came about as the Blair government began to make the case for the British role in the Iraq invasion. The Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), a London based think-tank, led the way in calling for an effective “public diplomacy” to construct a British narrative of the war distinct from that of the U.S., in order to “differentiate itself from American foreign policy and counter suspicions that war is motivated by a clash of civilizations,” according to a February 2003 press release. A form of the service had existed before, and was utilized during the Kosovo conflict, but had fallen into disuse. With war looming in Iraq, the image-conscious Blair government sought to resurrect it as a means of selling the conflict abroad.

What was proposed was a self-conscious plan to promote Britain abroad, in the Middle East in particular, as the representative of a tolerant, multicultural, cosmopolitan and democratic world. Yet “Propaganda doesn’t work”, the center wisely counseled and criticized State Department initiatives to portray the U.S. in a similar light as lacking content and appearing insincere. U.S. strategy, “has given international broadcasting “a reputation for propaganda” whilst videos of Muslims living happy lives in the US fail to address concerns about foreign policy.”

Somehow, the FPC wanted the British government to manipulate the image of Britain abroad without being seen as a cynical tactic to sell unpopular foreign policies. Perceptions that the West was anti-Islamic, and that Muslims were discriminated against in Britain had to be combated by a media assault, but there was no paternalistic talk of teaching democracy to Arabs. “A higher percentage (around 88%) of Muslims approved of the statement ‘I approve of democratic ideals’ than Western Christians,” they pointed out, “higher, in fact, than all other religious groups.”

From the start, BSN was different to American schemes that sought to instruct Iraqis and Afghanis in “civil society.” BSN sought to promote Britain as a “brand.” Spawned from the ideology of the market, it would out-compete Islamic radicalism and promote British interests where there might be a doubt about their reception.

One of the flagship products provided by BSN was “Toward Freedom,” a news feed beamed into Iraq from a modified C-130 aircraft codenamed “Commando-Solo” although it eventually found a ground transmitter. Running during 2003 and 2004, Towards Freedom carried speeches by Blair, as well as footage of British and American troops liberating Iraq. Absent were pictures of cluster bomb victims, missile wreckage, prison abuse or the widespread allegations of incompetence and corruption inside the CPA.

That was, of course, never the purpose. “Toward Freedom” took on the challenge of defending the coalition regardless of whether evidence showed their inevitable faults or betrayed the complexities of occupying a nation such as Iraq. It bore little relation to the ideals proposed by the FPC in 2003. Since then, BSN has expanded, and extended its reach around the globe, with the implantation of its stories in 400 news outlets worldwide.

A classier brand of propaganda

BSN has remained propaganda, despite its initial good intentions. A search on its website for “anti-war” produces one hit, tucked inside a report about the Middle-East Studies department at Exeter University, as does a search for “peace movement,” which describes a prayer vigil held by Pax Christii. “WMD” produces a more fertile bunch of results, but on closer inspection they come up lacking. The most recent is a press conference transcript in which Tony Blair repeats a discredited canard from the pre-invasion case for war, “he [Saddam] was developing ballistic missile programmes of a long-range strategic nature in breach of the United Nations resolutions.”

“Torture” is a fruitful term. The most recent result is not an investigation of torture in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, but a rambling denial by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw from December 2005, of British involvement in the “torture flights” furor broken by Dana Priest in the Washington Post the week before. “First of all,” he begins, “there are no secret prisons in the United Kingdom, all right. I think that is an allegation not yet been made, unless I deny it, it quite soon will be. You heard it first, this denial of an allegation which may yet to be made [sic].”

Searches for news items about actually existing torture, such as at Abu Ghraib, return 0 entries. BSN appears to offer little actual news, critical discussion or analysis to speak of.

An item on cluster bombs is a case in point. On Nov 11 2005, BSN ran an item highlighting charities that work to mitigate the effects of cluster bombs and landmines across the world. However, at no point did the news item make any mention of who put many of the cluster bombs there to explode, whilst giving the impression that Britain stood for their removal. Britain does not. It is one of the most prolific users of cluster bombs in the world today.

In Kosovo, according to the UK Working Group on Landmines the British government suppressed the actual figures of casualties from cluster bombs, claiming a failure rate of 5% when the actual rate was 11-12%. In March 2002, the Guardian reported refugees living amongst unexploded cluster bomb droplets in Eritrea that had clearly been manufactured in Bedford, England. During the war in Iraq, a map released by the British Army showed hundreds, perhaps thousands of unexploded cluster bombs around Baghdad and Kirkuk and the Guardian reported in September 2003 that cluster munitions had been responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 Iraqi children during the war.

At the time, U.K. Defense Minister Adam Ingram said, “cluster bombs are not illegal…There were troops, there was equipment in and around the built-up areas…the bombs were used accordingly to take out the threat to our troops.”

Britain might be better advised to shut up.

BSN is run by World Television, a corporation that specializes in providing “rich communications solutions” for customers who wish “to use television to influence audiences, motivate employees, excite customers, change perceptions, or inform investors.” They claim that their service, “uses many news services, including Reuters World News Service (WNS) and APTN, to distribute your news to broadcasters across the world,” and always seek to “meet or exceed the high editorial and production standards required by the world’s major broadcasters.” Past clients include GlaxoSmithKline, BP and Nestlé, excellent training for promoting the murderous and immoral.

They are refreshingly open about their appeal for governments. “Do you work in government communications?” they ask, suggesting “you might want to support diplomatic work by giving news and features to the world’s media.” They understand “that governments can use television actively to sow a deeper, broader understanding of key policies and idea [and] can also improve perceptions of a country overseas.”

Now, however, John Reid and Donald Rumsfeld are trying to paint the media as propagandists. In his Kings College speech of 20 February, Reid stated this hypocrisy in outrageous clarity. “One observer” he told us, “with one videophone, or today even one mobile phone, standing in one square metre of a vast and hugely complex theatre of operations can convey an oversimplified and sometimes misleading picture with an impact that is incalculable.” Yet that is what the U.S. and British governments do day after day – and will escalate in the future.

From publicity to propaganda

This is not just about branding. The U.S. and U.K. do not simply want to make their “products” look good in a global marketplace. They actively seek to condition the choices that people make through the strategic use of media and the manipulation of debates. A small group of secretive, scandal-ridden companies provide the means to make this happen.

A striking example is Strategic Communications Laboratories , a leader in the field of modern propaganda – exhibiting prominently at DSEi 2005, the largest defense fair in Europe – where they reminded customers that “In a world where the perception is the reality, all countries need to have the capability to manage their own perceptual alignment – otherwise someone else will.” On their website, they promise to provide the technological know-how to set up “Op-centres” in sensitive regions, computerized hubs for information processing which put “influence, control and power back into the hands of the government and military, giving them greater power to influence the enemy in time of conflict and enhanced access to their citizens during a crisis.” They even promise to provide the means of overriding national media networks during crises. In their opinion, “The Opcentre is a formidable tool for Homeland Security, Conflict Reduction, International Public Diplomacy and un-mediated Government communications.” For others, it may seem like a propaganda production line.

The Fellowes Group are linked to SCL via somewhere called the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, a quasi-academy for propaganda studies. According to their website, they specialize in breaking “paradigms” – the opposition held by people to GMOs for example – and remaking them in terms favourable to their clients. These paradigms, they say, hold their force by providing a “predictive function.” The Fellowes group, and strategic communicators in general, believe in breaking this function – rebranding companies as green, selling wars as humanitarian interventions, reduced safety standards as ‘modernization’. We’ve all seen them at work.

Their operations are equally applicable to the media, or as Fellowes calls it, the “Infosphere.” Propaganda succeeds by “overcoming… source credibility issues. Reliable evidence of the invalidity of the [paradigm] model cannot, by definition, come from the source that the model is set up to monitor.” Hence the need to plant stories in the Iraqi press, set up NGOs to destabilize governments, and create opposition groups through PR companies as the Rendon Group did with the Iraqi National Congress.

SCL now provide an exclusive “homeland security” deal for governments (their own site claims that they have built a psyops center for an unspecified “Asian government”). Amongst many services, they promise to “Engender support within the national community for proposed military action,” “develop national resilience and behavioural compliance for homeland security issues” and to “launch a powerful psyop campaign against an engaged enemy.” The company, like Rumsfeld, see such operations as integral parts of modern war. With the Pentagon launching a revamped psy-ops campaign, the State Department funding new “democracy promotion” strategies and the ever ready Blair government to pay public money to private propaganda companies, the means of deceiving entire nations has rarely been more accessible, or profitable.

Squeezing the independent media into the corner

Individuals and the conventional media have good reason to worry. One is that government intrusion into the media is making reporting less safe across the world. As Maggy Zanger, professor at the University of Arizona and a supporter of the free Iraqi media puts it,, “If these revelations are true that a U.S. defense contractor paid to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers and paid a number of Iraqi journalists, it has put all Iraqi journalists in even more danger…As if they don’t face enough already, they now have to overcome the public assumption that they may be on the US payroll. People get killed for far less.”

The second is the defense of a free media as an essential element of democracy. The U.S. and Britain are actively opposing the media in Iraq by funding propaganda which discredits other journalists, breeds mistrust and prevents Iraqi citizens obtaining accurate information. Zanger again, “The past two years presented an opportunity to develop a free and independent press, and many of us worked hard to do that—not for the US government, but for the benefit of the Iraqi people.”

Borzou Daragahi, an experienced observer of Iraq, makes a similar point in an interview with GNN from December 2005. “Iraqis do care [about the media bribes scandal]. In many ways, it reminds them of what went on during the time of Saddam Hussein, who also used to pay off journalists to write flattering pieces about him.” Every planted story pushes Iraqi society away from openness and towards fear and paranoia.

The third reason is the obvious one, that it is immoral to use false information to launch a war, and to lie to the citizens in whose name the war is launched. The beauty of the propaganda offensive is that separating reliable information from planted stories, or calculated half truths, is becoming harder and harder. Despite the rapid rise of the Internet and the widespread democratization of news dissemination, spinning war is actually getting easier. The greater the volume of propaganda produced, the harder it seems to tell lies from facts, even if much of it is hopelessly inept. The rest of us have to be vigilant – and keep a close watch on our paradigms.