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How the spooks took over the news

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  • World View
    In his controversial new book, Nick Davies argues that shadowy intelligence agencies are pumping out black propaganda to manipulate public opinion – and that
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 7, 2008
      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
      Saddam Hussein.

      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


      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


      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
      their own.

      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.


      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.


      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.


      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.


      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.


      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.

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