How the spooks took over the news
- In his controversial new book, Nick Davies argues that shadowy
intelligence agencies are pumping out black propaganda to manipulate
public opinion and that the media simply swallow it wholesale
How the spooks took over the news
Monday, 11 February 2008
On the morning of 9 February 2004, The New York Times carried an
exclusive and alarming story. The paper's Baghdad correspondent,
Dexter Filkins, reported that US officials had obtained a 17-page
letter, believed to have been written by the notorious terrorist Abu
Musab al Zarqawi to the "inner circle" of al-Qa'ida's leadership,
urging them to accept that the best way to beat US forces in Iraq was
effectively to start a civil war.
The letter argued that al-Qa'ida, which is a Sunni network, should
attack the Shia population of Iraq: "It is the only way to prolong
the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. If we succeed
in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy
Later that day, at a regular US press briefing in Baghdad, US General
Mark Kimmitt dealt with a string of questions about The New York
Times report: "We believe the report and the document is credible,
and we take the report seriously... It is clearly a plan on the part
of outsiders to come in to this country and spark civil war, create
sectarian violence, try to expose fissures in this society." The
story went on to news agency wires and, within 24 hours, it was
running around the world.
There is very good reason to believe that that letter was a fake
and a significant one because there is equally good reason to believe
that it was one product among many from a new machinery of propaganda
which has been created by the United States and its allies since the
terrorist attacks of September 2001.
For the first time in human history, there is a concerted strategy to
manipulate global perception. And the mass media are operating as its
compliant assistants, failing both to resist it and to expose it.
The sheer ease with which this machinery has been able to do its work
reflects a creeping structural weakness which now afflicts the
production of our news. I've spent the last two years researching a
book about falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.
The "Zarqawi letter" which made it on to the front page of The New
York Times in February 2004 was one of a sequence of highly suspect
documents which were said to have been written either by or to
Zarqawi and which were fed into news media.
This material is being generated, in part, by intelligence agencies
who continue to work without effective oversight; and also by a new
and essentially benign structure of "strategic communications" which
was originally designed by doves in the Pentagon and Nato who wanted
to use subtle and non-violent tactics to deal with Islamist terrorism
but whose efforts are poorly regulated and badly supervised with the
result that some of its practitioners are breaking loose and engaging
in the black arts of propaganda.
Like the new propaganda machine as a whole, the Zarqawi story was
born in the high tension after the attacks of September 2001. At that
time, he was a painful thorn in the side of the Jordanian
authorities, an Islamist radical who was determined to overthrow the
royal family. But he was nothing to do with al-Q'aida. Indeed, he had
specifically rejected attempts by Bin Laden to recruit him, because
he was not interested in targeting the West.
Nevertheless, when US intelligence battered on the doors of allied
governments in search of information about al-Q'aida, the Jordanian
authorities anxious to please the Americans and perhaps keen to
make life more difficult for their native enemy threw up his name
along with other suspects. Soon he started to show up as a minor
figure in US news stories stories which were factually weak, often
contradictory and already using the Jordanians as a tool of political
Then, on 7 October 2002, for the first time, somebody referred to him
on the record. In a nationally televised speech in Cincinnati,
President George Bush spoke of "high-level contacts" between al-
Q'aida and Iraq and said: "Some al-Q'aida leaders who fled
Afghanistan, went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Q'aida
leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who
has been associated with planning for chemical and biological
This coincided with a crucial vote in Congress in which the president
was seeking authority to use military force against Iraq. Bush never
named the man he was referring to but, as the Los Angeles Times among
many others soon reported: "In a speech [on] Monday, Bush referred to
a senior member of al-Q'aida who received medical treatment in Iraq.
US officials said yesterday that was Abu al Musab Zarqawi, a
Jordanian, who lost a leg during the US war in Afghanistan."
Even now, Zarqawi was a footnote, not a headline, but the flow of
stories about him finally broke through and flooded the global media
on 5 February 2003, when the Secretary of State, Colin Powell,
addressed the UN Security Council, arguing that Iraq must be invaded:
first, to stop its development of weapons of mass destruction; and
second, to break its ties with al-Q'aida.
Powell claimed that "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network
headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi"; that Zarqawi's base in Iraq was a
camp for "poison and explosive training"; that he was "an associate
and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Q'aida lieutenants";
that he "fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago";
that "Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against
countries, including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and
Courtesy of post-war Senate intelligence inquiries; evidence
disclosed in several European trials; and the courageous work of a
handful of journalists who broke away from the pack, we now know that
every single one of those statements was entirely false. But that
didn't matter: it was a big story. News organisations sucked it in
and regurgitated it for their trusting consumers.
So, who exactly is producing fiction for the media? Who wrote the
Zarqawi letters? Who created the fantasy story about Osama bin Laden
using a network of subterranean bases in Afghanistan, complete with
offices, dormitories, arms depots, electricity and ventilation
systems? Who fed the media with tales of the Taliban leader, Mullah
Omar, suffering brain seizures and sitting in stationery cars turning
the wheel and making a noise like an engine? Who came up with the
idea that Iranian ayatollahs have been encouraging sex with animals
and girls of only nine?
Some of this comes from freelance political agitators. It was an
Iranian opposition group, for example, which was behind the story
that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was jailing people for texting
each other jokes about him. And notoriously it was Iraqi exiles who
supplied the global media with a dirty stream of disinformation about
But clearly a great deal of this carries the fingerprints of
officialdom. The Pentagon has now designated "information operations"
as its fifth "core competency" alongside land, sea, air and special
forces. Since October 2006, every brigade, division and corps in the
US military has had its own "psyop" element producing output for
local media. This military activity is linked to the State
Department's campaign of "public diplomacy" which includes funding
radio stations and news websites. In Britain, the Directorate of
Targeting and Information Operations in the Ministry of Defence works
with specialists from 15 UK psyops, based at the Defence Intelligence
and Security School at Chicksands in Bedfordshire.
In the case of British intelligence, you can see this combination of
reckless propaganda and failure of oversight at work in the case of
Operation Mass Appeal. This was exposed by the former UN arms
inspector Scott Ritter, who describes in his book, Iraq Confidential,
how, in London in June 1998, he was introduced to two "black
propaganda specialists" from MI6 who wanted him to give them material
which they could spread through "editors and writers who work with us
from time to time".
In interviews for Flat Earth News, Ritter described how, between
December 1997 and June 1998, he had three meetings with MI6 officers
who wanted him to give them raw intelligence reports on Iraqi arms
procurement. The significance of these reports was that they were all
unconfirmed and so none was being used in assessing Iraqi activity.
Yet MI6 was happy to use them to plant stories in the media. Beyond
that, there is worrying evidence that, when Lord Butler asked MI6
about this during his inquiry into intelligence around the invasion
of Iraq, MI6 lied to him.
Ultimately, the US has run into trouble with its propaganda in Iraq,
particularly with its use of the Zarqawi story. In May 2006, when yet
another of his alleged letters was handed out to reporters in the
Combined Press Information Centre in Baghdad, finally it was widely
regarded as suspect and ignored by just about every single media
Arguably, even worse than this loss of credibility, according to
British defence sources, the US campaign on Zarqawi eventually
succeeded in creating its own reality. By elevating him from his
position as one fighter among a mass of conflicting groups, the US
campaign to "villainise Zarqawi" glamorised him with its enemy
audience, making it easier for him to raise funds, to
attract "unsponsored" foreign fighters, to make alliances with Sunni
Iraqis and to score huge impact with his own media manoeuvres.
Finally, in December 2004, Osama bin Laden gave in to this
constructed reality, buried his differences with the Jordanian and
declared him the leader of al-Q'aida's resistance to the American
JONATHAN GRUN, EDITOR,PRESS ASSOCIATION
The Press Association's wire service has a long-standing reputation
for its integrity and fast, fair and accurate reporting. Much of his
criticism is anonymously sourced which is something we strive to
ANDREW MARR, BROADCASTER AND JOURNALIST
Thanks to the internet there's a constant source of news stories
pumping into newsrooms. Stories are simply rewritten. It produces an
airless cycle of information. Papers too rarely have news stories of
IAN MONK, PR
The media has ceded a lot of the power of setting the agenda; the
definition of news has broadened to include celebrities and new
products (the iPhone is a big story). But I don't join in the hand-
wringing or say it's desperate that people outside newspapers have
got a say.
JOHN KAMPFNER, EDITOR, NEW STATESMAN
Davies is right to point to the lack of investigative rigour: the
primary purpose of journalism is to rattle cages. I was always struck
at the extent to which political journalists yearned to be spoon fed.
Having said that, I think he uses too broad a brush.
DOMINIC LAWSON, FORMER EDITOR SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
I'm not saying this is a golden age, but there's a strong
investigative drive in the British press. A lot of papers put a
strong value on such stories. I suspect we're about the most
invigilated establishment in Europe.
CHRIS BLACKHURST, CITY EDITOR, EVENING STANDARD
I'm disappointed that a book which has as its premise the dictation
of the news agenda by PRs should contain in it an anonymous quote
from a PR criticising theStandard's coverage of the Natwest Three.
HEATHER BROOKE, JOURNALIST
It's not entirely true what Davies is saying. In the past, we just
got scrutiny from newspapers and now think tanks publish results of
investigations. But there's an assumption that the public aren't
interested in government, just Amy Winehouse.
FRANCIS WHEEN, JOURNALIST/ AUTHOR
Davies is spot on. It's reasonable that newspapers carry PA accounts
of court hearings, but he's right that there's more "churn" now.
Reporters don't get out of the office the way they did once partly
a reflection of reduced budgets.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
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