Friday, 11 September 2009

David Miller: The Propaganda Machine

This essay appeared in the book Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq edited by the author.

The Propaganda Machine

David Miller

Since 11 September 2001 both the US and UK governments have comprehensively overhauled their internal and external propaganda apparatus. These have been globally co-ordinated as never before to justify the “war on terror” including the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and the assault on civil liberties at home. To win the war on Iraq the US and UK governments evidently believed that they could not rely on the media to report consistently in conformity with the official line. Consequently there has been serious investment in an extensive machinery of propaganda.

There is very little public debate on the propaganda apparatus and very few people know of the extensive machinery which has been built up in the past two years. The UK Foreign Office public diplomacy operation alone costs £340 million annually for operations taking place in London and not including work done in embassies around the world.[1] In the US the Pentagon has its own machinery and the State Department has the Office of Public Diplomacy. The latter tries to win hearts and minds in the Arab world and operates with a budget in excess of $1 billion.[2] The overall cost of the propaganda campaigns to justify the “war on terror” and the attack on Afghanistan and Iraq is a secret, but it must run into billions of dollars in the US and hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK.

The machinery has a number of parallel elements in the US and UK and the efforts are also co-ordinated globally between the US and UK. In the US the White House has the Office of Global Communications (OGC) which sits at the top of the global pyramid. The OGC was set up by the Bush White House based on the experience of the Coalition Information Centers (CIC) operated during the Kosovo and Afghanistan adventures. These drew on the propaganda expertise of the British government and are reported to have been the idea of Alastair Campbell, the former No.10 Press Secretary.[3] The CIC was set up in October 2001 for the Afghanistan campaign with offices in Washington, London and Islamabad to co-ordinate across time zones. According to reports it was this initiative which sparked information sharing to ensure that the US and UK (and other governments) “sang from the same hymn sheet”.[4] The CIC was made permanent under the auspices of the White House with the creation of the OGC in July 2002. It was the OGC which fed out the lies about the threat posed by the Hussein regime including the faked and spun intelligence information supplied by the UK and by the secret Pentagon intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans. This was set up by Rumsfeld to bypass the CIA, which was reluctant to go along with some of the lies.[5]

According to Suzy DeFrancis, deputy assistant to President Bush for communications, the aim during the attack on Iraq was to ensure information dominance by constant feeding of the official line:

When Americans wake up in the morning, they will first hear from the [Persian Gulf] region, maybe from General Tommy Franks … Then later in the day, they’ll hear from the Pentagon, then the State Department, then later on the White House will brief.

The day’s message was set “with an early-morning conference call to British counterpart Alastair Campbell, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke, and White House Office of Global Communication (OGC) director Tucker Eskew – a routine that mirrors procedure during the conflict in Afghanistan”.[6] The OGC produces each day’s “talking points”. “[C]ivilian and military personnel, for example are told to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a ‘war of liberation’. Iraqi paramilitary forces are to be called ‘death squads’.”[7]

From the White House the message is cascaded down to the rest of the propaganda apparatus. In the US, the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy is responsible for overseas propaganda. It also underwent a reorganisation and appointed a new director after 11 September. According to the new director Charlotte Beers, a former ad agency executive (and who lasted only until March 2003), the Office’s 800 staff in the US link into some 16,000 embassy staff globally. “We reach them through web, through e-mail, through cable, and our own American Embassy television channel. They can take our products and activate them locally in ways that we in Washington cannot.”[8] Every night the Office sends an email bulletin known as the “Global Messenger” “containing talking points and ready-to-use quotes”.[9]

In the UK there is a parallel apparatus. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office have the biggest propaganda operations of any UK government departments and their efforts are co-ordinated with Downing Street. The co-ordination was accomplished by means of a cross-departmental committee known as the Communication and Information Centre, later changed back to the Coalition Information Centre as it had been in the Afghan campaign. It is administratively based in the Foreign Office Information Directorate, yet, was chaired by Alastair Campbell and run from Downing Street.[10] Campbell also chaired a further cross-departmental committee at No.10 – the Iraq Communication Group.[11] It was from here that the campaign to mislead the media about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was directed. In particular it oversaw the September dossier on WMD and the second “dodgy” dossier of February 2003 which was quickly exposed as plagiarised and spun. In another parallel with the US, Downing Street has “exasperated” the Foreign Office by setting up an alternative diplomatic policy centre in No.10 which is linked straight in to the centres of power in Washington, particularly via Sir David Manning, the most senior diplomat in No.10, who regularly speaks on the phone with his “friend” Condoleezza Rice. In the Foreign Office the parallel machinery is known as the “cosa nostra”.[12]

The propaganda apparatus below this had four main elements. First was the external system of propaganda run by the Foreign Office and co-ordinated by the Public Diplomacy Policy Department. Second was internal propaganda focused on the alleged “terrorist threat” co-ordinated out of the Cabinet Office by the newly established Civil Contingencies Secretariat. Third and very much subordinate to the command and control propaganda systems in Washington and London was the operation “in theatre” – the stage for the crushing of Iraq. This was Centcom in Doha, Qatar, the Forward Press Information Centre in Kuwait and the embedded reporters with their military minders. Lastly, there were the US and UK military psychological operations teams undertaking overt and covert operations inside Iraq which are said only to target enemy opinion to break resistance. All of these operations have their own contribution to make to the attack on Iraq although most public debate has focused on the Centcom/embed system and latterly (in the UK) on the Downing Street operation overseen by Campbell.


The Foreign Office has undergone a major review of all its propaganda work “using”, as an internal report puts it, “the events of 11 September as a peg”. Following the US example the Foreign Office “re-branded” its propaganda work as “public diplomacy” in the late 1990s. The review of public diplomacy has brought together all Foreign Office activity in this area including the BBC World Service and the cultural propaganda outfit the British Council. The review concluded that the government needed an “overarching public diplomacy strategy”[13] which would shape the “core messages that we wish to put across to our target audiences”.[14] To oversee this propaganda effort a strategy board was appointed.

Mark Leonard of the Foreign Policy Centre, a think-tank set up by Blair and then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has written extensively on public diplomacy. His view on honesty and openness in communication is that neither should be an obstacle to government propaganda: “If a message will engender distrust simply because it is coming from a foreign government then the government should hide that fact as much as possible.”[15] One can guess how much this reflects official thinking by the fact that Leonard is now one of the members of the Public Diplomacy Strategy Board which oversees Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) propaganda.

The Foreign Office has a long history of covert and semi-covert propaganda operations via the secret Information Research Department, closed down in 1978, and its successor the Information Department which continued the tradition of “grey” propaganda in the production of briefings, news stories, radio and TV items which were planted in news outlets around the world. The Foreign Office was historically rather coy about the fact that these were produced by the British government.[16] Today the tradition continues. Four “grey” propaganda operations run by the FCO are the London Press Service, the London Radio Service, the London Television Service and the relatively new British Satellite News. These provide pro-British news and information free of charge and copyright to news organisations across the world. There is little indication in the material itself that it is produced by the British government and it is then published in international media as if it was genuine news.[17] The response to 11 September has been to step up such material and reshape the entire information apparatus with renewed emphasis on managing perceptions overseas.

A favoured tactic is to conduct trips for journalists. The Foreign Office departmental report brags about the success of one to Afghanistan in 2002. According to FCO propaganda official, David Dearnley, the journalists from Islamic media were shown “what Britain and the British-led forces were doing to help rebuild Afghanistan”. The journalists were also taken “through some of the most devastated parts of [Kabul] to a recently refurbished school where many girls and young women were eagerly taking the opportunity to catch up on their education”. Little is shown of the truth of the situation in Afghanistan which by July 2003 was described as follows: “More than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban regime, there is a remarkable consensus among aid workers, NGOs and UN officials that the situation is deteriorating. There is a further point of consensus: that the deterioration is a direct consequence of ‘coalition’ policy.”[18] Instead, as the Foreign Office blushingly tells us: “The journalists subsequently published many articles giving positive coverage of Britain’s work in Afghanistan.”[19]

The attack on Afghanistan in 2001 also occasioned the creation of a unit within the Foreign Office tasked specifically with dealing with the Islamic media such as Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. It was made permanent in 2002. As the attack on Iraq loomed, the rare UK media mentions of the unit painted it as a traditional example of plucky yet genteel British propaganda. The head of the unit, Gerard Russell, is described as “Britain’s lone crusader” or as “almost single-handedly responsible” for putting the British case in the Arab world.[20] This picture fails to take account of the fact that the Islamic Media Unit, which Russell heads, has eight staff [21] and is tapped into the rest of the extensive apparatus of public diplomacy, including work with the London Correspondents Unit which arranges visits to Britain for journalists from the Arab world, and British Satellite News which beams slanted news coverage into the Middle East with both English and Arabic scripts. Russell says “a lot of my job is demolishing myths” and countering the “emotive enunciations of extreme views on Arab television”.[22] Among the myths are the notion that US and UK imperialism are alive and well today. According to Russell: “I have to be very careful when I talk about democracy that they understand this means power of the people, and not imposing western ways of life or undermining Arab identity.”[23]

The strategy of the FCO is to fundamentally misrepresent the British role as consisting of benevolence and a respect for human rights. UK “public diplomacy” campaigns are not propaganda but the truth. The public diplomacy strategy of the government is available on the web, but has caused no major headlines in the media. The “core narrative” of the strategy includes maintaining that the UK is

principled and professional as shown in our: …
– reliability, straight dealing and trustworthiness in business and international affairs.
– Commitment to justice, human rights, the rule of law and international security.[24]

This statement was written and posted on the internet in May 2003 just after the attack on Iraq – in breach of international law and after the systematic deception about the threat from Iraq had started to unravel in the media. A clear illustration of the parallel universe inhabited by the UK government’s propagandists.


Without attracting front page attention the Blair government has quietly presided over a revolution in internal propaganda systems for dealing with national emergencies. The overhaul was set in train in July 2001 as a result of the foot and mouth crisis and drawing on the experience of the floods of winter 2000 and the fuel protests. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CSS) is based in the Cabinet Office and was overseen initially by the most senior propaganda official in the civil service, the head of the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS), Mike Granatt. It works closely with another new body, the Health Protection Agency which encompasses parts of the Department of Health disease surveillance operation and the MoD’s chemical and biological labs at Porton Down. Under the rather chilling website branding of “UK Resilience”, this network of organisations also works closely with the Special Branch and MI5. They tap straight into the CIC, formerly chaired by Alastair Campbell. The aim of the CCS is said to be to improve the UK’s “resilience” to “disruptive challenge”.[25] It has already seen action in the firefighters dispute – an indication of the orientation of the CCS towards state rather than public service agendas. It was centrally involved in circulating information on the alleged “threat” from Islamic “terrorism”.

The CCS houses a 24-hour monitoring spin operation called the News Co-ordination Centre (NCC) which stands ready for use in the event of the next emergency. It has also (in the wake of 11 September) established a wide-ranging review of information handling in an emergency situation undertaken by a working party involving government press officers and senior media executives together with police and local authority crisis planners. The Media Emergency Forum has produced a long report which the CCS claims “reflects a more productive relationship” with the media.[26] The approach taken by the CCS is more sophisticated than previous emergency planning responses which allow the government simply to take over the broadcast media. That system is still in place. According to Mike Granatt, then Director General of the GICS, “we’ve got a system that was put in place for nuclear war. We could press the button and pre-empt every transmitter in this country.” But this would be counter-productive. “Voluntary” agreements with the media are seen as more effective. Granatt says “we need a credible, active, sceptical – rather than cynical – system of news reporting … Anything we do to subvert the process of giving trust in that is wrong … If the BBC or ITN … said we think you should do this because the government says so, we would be lost.”[27] So productive has this been that it has occasioned little attention in the media.

It was the new propaganda apparatus that oversaw the release of the information on the alleged discovery of ricin in January 2003 and which ordered the tanks to Heathrow in late 2002, following an intelligence tip-off, reported as a surface-to-air missile attack on the airport. In the case of Heathrow Granatt has noted:

I will now confess to you. I sat at all the meetings that decided to do that, and I have seen agony cross their face before … Ministers actually considering putting tanks at our biggest economic asset … after what I sat and heard, doing it was absolutely necessary and I can’t tell you more – I’m very sorry about it but that’s the fact. But I can tell you first hand there was no lack of sincerity and nobody does that because it’s going to make some propaganda point for a war that at that point, wasn’t entirely certain anyway.[28]

What Granatt and others sat and heard was the intelligence assessment of the threat. Whether or not the threat was genuine, or just more dodgy “intelligence”, no one was arrested and no surfaceto-air missiles were found. Militarily it is not clear what the effectiveness of light armoured vehicles at Heathrow with a top speed of 30-odd miles an hour would be against a missile attack, launched at some distance from the airport. But according to senior sources involved in the decision: “You don’t catch rockets in an armoured vehicle. That is not the point. Part of the point of these things may be deterrence. So visibility is another part of the game.” Visibility – otherwise known as propaganda.

In the ricin case, the information was released, after deliberation in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, under the name of the then deputy chief medical officer Dr Pat Troop.[29] She conducted a joint briefing at Scotland Yard with the police. Troop has maintained that the information that ricin had been found was released because “what we didn’t know when we started was whether or not we were then going to find lots more ricin somewhere else and therefore it was felt the public had the legitimate right to know”.[30] According to a senior source involved, “the broadcasters’ response was very positive. They told us afterwards it enabled them to go straight to air … because they were talking to people they believed were trustworthy and experts in their fields.”[31] The CCS released the information in the knowledge that it would potentially prejudice the trial of the people arrested in connection with the find. As Mike Granatt noted, prejudicing a trial comes way down the list of priorities after “public safety”.[32]

The claim that the information was released for public health reasons ushers in a new era or threat warning and assessment where the threat of terrorist attack is whipped up on shaky evidence for our own good – a very New Labour propaganda solution. The “threat” from ricin in the “environment” was clearly very small. The poison has to be ingested, inhaled or injected. Even if we suppose that the warning was genuinely given by civil servants operating in good faith, the information on which the warnings are based depends on the “intelligence” services. Their collective lack of understanding of Islamic activists together with their own overhauled spin apparatus makes it difficult to discern whether the information was based on “genuine” if misinterpreted intelligence or deliberate fabrication, as in the case of the MI5 leak that a planned gas attack on the London Tube had been foiled.[33]

Either way the UK Resilience apparatus appears credible to journalists and ensures effective wall to wall coverage for stories based on dubious sources which played very nicely into the propaganda campaign to take the UK to war and legitimates government assaults on civil liberties.


In the 1991 Gulf War, the pool system has been the main means of control of journalists. In 2003 the Pentagon got more sophisticated and more determined to eliminate the possibility of independent reporting. They pressured journalists to leave Baghdad and by 18 March about half of the 300 there had left, including many of the key UK and US journalists.[34] They also threatened independent journalists and killed an unprecedented number (as discussed elsewhere in this book). The threats are all part of the PR strategy along with which goes the Forward Press Information Centre in Kuwait, the million dollar press room in Doha, Qatar, and the system of “embedding” journalists with military units.

The Doha Centre (Centcom) operated much like in previous wars and there were many complaints about the lack of information which flowed from it and from the Forward Press Information Centre. The grumbling came to a head when Michael Wolff asked the obvious question: “I mean no disrespect, but what is the value proposition of these briefings. Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million dollar press centre?” As Wolff notes: “It was the question to sour the dinner party. It was also, because I used the words value proposition, a condescending and annoying question – a provocation.”[35]

In response to the question, and the spontaneous round of applause from the assembled reporters,

General Brooks said that I was here of my own volition and, if it wasn’t satisfactory to me, I should go home, this was far from a statement of policy. The last thing the Pentagon wanted was for the media to go home. Indeed, Centcom refused to confirm or deny what everyone could see for themselves: that chairs were being removed from the briefing every day (in one day alone, six chairs were removed) so that, as numbers dwindled, empty seats would not be shown to the world. This was a serious problem. What if you gave a war and the media didn’t come?

The problem for Centcom apart from the instinctive secrecy of the military, was that it lacked the ability to issue information without approval and it was bypassed by the footage supplied by embedded journalists. As one reporter in Doha noted,

At General Tommy Franks’s headquarters, it is easy to work out whether the day’s news is good or bad. When there are positive developments, press officers prowl the corridors of the press centre dispensing upbeat reports from pre-prepared scripts, declaring Iraqi towns have been liberated and that humanitarian aid is about to be delivered. Yet if American and British troops have suffered any sort of battlefield reverse, the spin doctors retreat into their offices at press centre and await instructions from London and Washington.[36]

When the instructions came the important thing was to ensure consistency. When the questions arose about the inability of the US to find Saddam Hussein, US spokespersons “from the White House to the Pentagon to the Central command in Qatar – simultaneously insisted that the war was ‘not about one man’”.[37]

Centcom was certainly not the resounding success that the system of embedding proved. The success of embedding was its co-option of journalists which ensured that the military could trust them – in the words of the BBC’s first director general John Reith – “not to be really impartial”.


Embedded journalists were the greatest PR coup of the war. Dreamt up by the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld the “embeds”, as they were now routinely described, were almost completely controlled by the military. Embeds agreed to give up most of their autonomy in exchange for access to the fighting on military terms. Most importantly, embeds were afforded protection from physical harm by the military.

Each embedded reporter had to sign a contract with the military – a significant departure from previous conflicts. They were also governed by a 50-point plan issued by the Pentagon detailing what they could and could not report. The list of what they could report is significantly shorter than the list of what they could not.[38] The rules were presented as voluntary and appeared to some to offer “unprecedented freedom to report the facts”. But on closer inspection, a number of clauses buried in the text indicate the iron fist in the velvet glove. While the rules state that there is “no general review process” of reports, a later section notes that “if media are inadvertently exposed to sensitive information they should be briefed after exposure on what information they should avoid covering”. A security review also becomes compulsory if any sensitive information is released deliberately by the military. In a classic passage attempting to present strict censorship rules as voluntary, the Pentagon notes that “agreement to security review in exchange for this type of access must be strictly voluntary and if the reporter does not agree, the access may not be granted”.[39] In all the debate in seminars after the fall of Baghdad, on both sides of the Atlantic, the contract and the guidelines have barely even been mentioned by the embeds or their editors. In a rare exception to this, ITN reporter Juliet Bremner has disclosed that the British military “wanted the right to vet every piece that we put out before it went on air. If we didn’t sign up to this we couldn’t go. So of course we did [sign up].”[40]

The PR genius of the embed system was that it allowed unprecedented access to the fighting and, also, unprecedented identification by the reporters with the military. British minister of Defence Geoff Hoon has claimed: “I think the coverage … is more graphic, more real, than any other coverage we have ever seen of a conflict in our history. For the first time it is possible with technology for journalists to report in real time on events in the battlefield.”[41] It is certainly true to say that it is new to see footage of war so up-close, but, it is a key part of the propaganda war to claim that this makes it “real”. In fact, the aim of the embedding system is to control what is reported by encouraging journalists to identify with their units. To eat and drink together, to risk danger and to share the same values.

The embed system was hailed as a great success by all sides. From the Falklands via Grenada, Panama and the Gulf in 1991, there has never been such a collective love-in about the reporting of war.[42] Some journalists couldn’t get enough of cheerleading while others worried about being used. The kind of criticism faced in previous conflicts and evident in relation to Centcom was much more muted and marginal. Why? Those most comfortable with the system tended to argue that they had “total freedom” to cover “virtually everything we wanted to cover” in the words of NBC’s Chip Reid.[43] Or in the words of Gavin Hewitt of the BBC: “there was an incredible amount of freedom”. Hewitt was one journalist who evidently came to identify closely with the troops. He describes the evolution of the relationship with the military:

Initially they were cautious and I could tell the captain was having briefings and we were excluded … By the time we got to Baghdad that relationship had changed. We had been in battle with them. I felt my safety was dependent on them, which it was. They felt we had been through a lot together, so the relationship had become much closer.[44]

So close in fact, that Hewitt ended up picking out targets for the military. At a public meeting in London Hewitt recounted how he had spotted a truck through his binoculars. “I had an absolute instinct that not only the unit would come under attack, because I was travelling with it, that I would come under attack,” he said. So:

I shouted across to the Captain “that truck over there – I think these guys are going to attack us.” I thought the Captain would have sent one of the tanks to try and investigate. Within seconds a Bradley fighting vehicle was opening up – tracers were flying across the field… eventually the truck went up – boom – like this. And I was absolutely horrified. I thought for a moment that these could have been innocent civilians. I could have made a mistake and at that moment I thought “are we getting too close to this?” … Then there was a secondary and tertiary explosion and this truck was full of grenades. And of course all the unit were delighted. From then on the bonding grew tighter.[45]

What is so noteworthy is that Hewitt felt able to volunteer the information (at an event on World Press Freedom day no less) and that his only qualm appeared to be that he might have made a “mistake” by identifying civilians. When journalists so identify with their military unit that they pick out targets, they have moved from being reporters, straight through propagandists to become active combatants in war. There have been no calls for Hewitt to be sacked by the BBC. Presumably acting as an accessory to murder (which is what the killing of combatants in an illegal war amounts to) is seen as a less serious offence than Andrew Gilligan’s alleged crime of misreporting a source.

There are two or three examples of critical coverage of the coalition forces resulting from embed reporting. So why were the military so happy with the system? The key to this from the official point of view is precisely that the debate on embedding has been so muted. According to Peter Kovach, a US propagandist in the Office of Public Diplomacy, the beauty of the system was that it prevented journalists complaining about lack of access while securing overwhelmingly positive coverage for the coalition:

I remember that the opaqueness of the US government and its spokespersons became the story [in 1991] … embedding from our point of view was a risk. It carried risks that bad behaviour on our [US military] part might be caught on camera … But I have to say as a consumer of news I think there has been a very high reward … I think the benefits of that have been very great.[46]

The success of the embedding system in other words is that it co-opts journalists so that they become advocates for the system of control.


Psyops or psychological operations are an important yet hidden element of the information apparatus. On the rare occasions where their work does surface in the mainstream media, the propaganda line that they engage only in “white” operations involving radio broadcasts and leaflet drops which are targeted only at enemy opinion (i.e., Iraqi forces) in order to save lives is scrupulously maintained. As Major Harry Taylor, the head of 42 Commando Royal Marines psyops unit puts it: “The main thing is that we are trying to save these peoples lives.”[47]

In the UK psyops has been renamed “Information Support” a decidedly Orwellian name change. Thousands of British soldiers have passed through the psyops course run by the military at Chicksands, the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre in Bedfordshire. The US psyops teams in Iraq were the largest of any conflict, including eleven companies and almost 1,000 personnel in Iraq or in support roles in the US, according to Lt Col. Glenn Ayers, commander of the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion.[48]

After the war, commanders at the US psyops HQ at Fort Bragg, were so proud of their achievements that they invited the media into their new $8.1 million centre and showed them round the facilities said to be capable of producing 1 million leaflets an hour. More than 150 million leaflets have been produced at Fort Bragg and distributed throughout Afghanistan and Iraq since September 2001. According to the commander of the 4th Psychological Operations Group, Col. James Treadwell, the staff at the complex support the work of nearly 900 psyops troops in 13 countries. Of course no attention was drawn to the hidden part of their work which has remained largely unreported.[49]

It almost goes without saying that the content of the psyops material is mendacious. According to Major Taylor one of the messages in Iraq is that the UK and US will not “plunder the country”. Both the US and UK have run “white” radio operations inside Iraq including “Information Radio” broadcast by the US and Radio Nahran (Two Rivers Radio) run by the British in Basra during the war.[50] According to some reports “grey” operations are continuing in Iraq with one Baghdad weekly printing articles supplied by Fort Bragg, “most of which don’t appear to come from a US or military source”. In exchange the US buys and distributes 70,000 copies.[51] The day after the fall of Baghdad UK and US psyops operatives launched their first television channel. Broadcast on the frequency formerly occupied by Iraqi TV, Towards Freedom featured messages from Bush and Blair. The channel was the idea of a UK government information working group and was commissioned by the FCO, paid for by the British Ministry of Defence and transmitted via the US 4thPsychological Operations Group (airborne) at Fort Bragg for eventual broadcast to Iraq from Kuwait, from the US psyops plane known as Commando Solo and from SOMS-B (Special Operations Media System-B) inside Iraq. The programmes are outsourced to World Television News, the private company which already runs the UK grey propaganda operation known as British Satellite News.[52]

Still, it is clear that psyops does continue to include “black” propaganda operations, including radio stations which disguise their sponsors and media disinformation. But their covert work does leave some traces. For example, one “elaborate disinformation operation” was conducted even before the bombs began to fall on 19 March 2003.[53] The UK Foreign Office confirmed that it was “investigating rumours” that the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq had defected.[54] This prompted Tariq Aziz into making a live media appearance to deny the story. According to reports, Aziz was then “tracked … to a bunker at a presidential palace where they expected him to report to Saddam”, leading to the “decapitation strike” on 20 March.[55] As with much of the “intelligence” surrounding Iraq this turned out to be a botched job and neither Aziz nor Hussein were killed.

Another “black” operation was Radio Tikrit which launched in early February 2003. “It appeared to be just another regime-run station. It mocked the US and … praised ‘Saddam Hussein’s Iraq’.” By late February the tone had changed and according to BBC monitoring it started to call on the Republican Guard to desert their posts “before it is too late”.[56]

This is the kind of approach which psyops and government present as an attempt to save the lives of combatants and it is similar to the messages aimed at the civilian population to keep away from military installations. This version of their work is itself spin since what they are aiming to do is terrorise the population by threatening their lives. As Christopher Simpson, author of an authoritative study of psyops in the US, argues psyops “are premised on violence and they’re premised on terror. That’s why they work, to the extent that they work at all.”[57] As if to underline this statement Major Taylor of the Royal Marines gives this account of the work of British army psyops:

We use tactical and strategic methods. Tactically, on the first stage, we target the military by dropping leaflets stating the inevitability of their defeat, telling them they will not be destroyed if they play our game and exactly how they can surrender. On the second wave we show them pictures of Iraqi officers who complied. On the third wave we show them pictures of those people who did not.[58]

In other words – co-operate or we will try to kill you. This effort is a co-ordinated part of the overall propaganda push. All psyops material is “signed off right at the very top, by General Tommy Franks”, according to Taylor. And the co-ordination is also evident in the wider role which psyops has, but tries to keep under wraps. This is the fact that it also contributes to the battle for hearts and minds internationally and at home as well as targeting “enemy” opinion. As Lt Col. Jerry Broeckert a US Marine Corps public affairs officer acknowledged, the use of the media “blurs the line between public relations and psychological operations”.[59] As the attack on Iraq became bogged down at the end of the first week, a Russian website with links to Russian intelligence reported an intercepted report from the US Psychological Operations Tactical Group for the Special Ground Forces Command. The report was concerned about the development of a “resistance ideology” in Iraq. Its solution: “A more active use of the Iraqi opposition was suggested for propaganda work ... The same opposition members will be used to create video footage of the ‘repented’ Iraqi POWs and footage of the local [Iraqi] population ‘opposing Saddam’.”[60] As the US tanks rolled into Baghdad eleven days later, footage of Iraqis celebrating as the statue of the dictator was toppled outside the Palestine Hotel, where the international media were based, was indeed transmitted around the world. Other sources have suggested that among the celebrants were members of the Iraqi opposition Iraqi National Congress. The toppling of the statue was a propaganda triumph for the US and UK governments. The involvement of psyops in the photo opportunity indicates both the co-ordinated nature of “coalition” propaganda and that psyops operatives spend at least some of their time managing media operations which impact on domestic opinion.


Since 11 September 2001 both the UK and US have systematically overhauled their propaganda operations. This has put in place a very significant operation with global reach which seems to have no precedent (possibly even including the 1939–45 war).

The propaganda operation is entirely outside of democratic control and appears not to be constrained by adhering to any significant standards of truthfulness. It seems instead to operate on the basis that anything goes so long as it is calculated that it can be got away with. The centralisation of propaganda control in the White House, the Pentagon and Downing Street and the unprecedented coordination indicates the determination of the clique around Bush and Blair to pursue their project. Overall the operation shows a great deal of contempt for the process of democracy, since the lies are constructed to misinform and persuade – in part – the electorate of the US and UK as well as world opinion. Some will argue that the apparatus is not successful in its attempts to mould media coverage and popular opinion.

It is certainly true that there is some scope for dissent in the mainstream media although this is without doubt limited. It is also true that in the UK a large majority of the public opinion saw through many of the lies and opposed the war. In the US the picture is less clear and public opinion has – under a media onslaught – been more favourable to war.

But the most important questions to ask here are not whether the public believed the lies. The cabal which runs the US and UK care little for public opinion and belief and they will only take note when their interests and strategies are thwarted. This happens in two ways: first, when the public takes action in demonstrations and other political activity and, second, when parts of the elite political system start to feel the pressure which popular opposition generates. A key reason why the propaganda continues and why the media are seen as important is not because public opinion is important but because elite differences can hamper war making. When the House of Commons and the US Congress ratified war, this was the last obstacle to be surmounted and it was a key target of the propaganda. In the end propaganda succeeds if it allows political elites to carry out their plans. In the case of Iraq it was not an unqualified success – as the fallout over the WMD fabrications shows to some extent – but it was a success nevertheless.

Notes available on request.

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