Propaganda, the Pentagon, and the Rendon Group
A few years ago, Washington media consultant John Rendon was regaling an audience of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy with one of his favorite war stories.
When victorious U.S. troops rolled into Kuwait City, he noted, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving American flags. The scene, flashed around the world again and again on CNN, left little doubt that the U.S. Marines were welcome in Kuwait.
"Did you ever stop to wonder," he asked, "how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?"
A ripple of knowing chuckles passed across Rendons military audience.
"Well you now know the answer," he said, "That was one of my jobs then."
And what a job it was. It was a global propaganda coup, especially in corners of the Arab world where even Saddam Hussein usually wins a popularity contest with Uncle Sam. From Cairo to Karachi, millions of people saw the American liberators welcomed to Kuwait -- again and again.
And thats just one of the reasons that John Rendon, a beefy media wizard who started out in national politics scheduling campaign stops for Jimmy Carter, shuns the label of public relations flack in favor what he billed himself at the Air Force Academy: "an information warrior and a perception manager."
Rendon has had a lot of plum assignments since Desert Storm, including a $23 million propaganda campaign in 1991 aimed at undermining Saddam Hussein with smuggled leaflets and radio broadcasts beamed into Iraq. And now Rendon has another plum -- it was reported recently that hed been hired for $100,000 a month to help the Pentagon plant propaganda in the foreign media as part of the Bush administrations War on Terrorism.
According to The New York Times, which broke the story February 19, "The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries."
The leak clearly ambushed the Pentagon, which quickly retreated in a fog of contradictory statements that culminated in an announcement just a week later by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the whole idea had probably been scrapped.
"I met with Undersecretary Doug Feith this morning and he indicated to me that he's decided to close down the Office of Strategic Influence," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
That didnt mean, of course, that the idea was dead, or couldnt be moved to another agency with more experience in "disinformation," such as the Central Intelligence Agency.
No one at the Pentagon, the White House, or The Rendon Group would respond to a reporters call asking whether the idea could be resuscitated elsewhere, or whether The Rendon Groups contract had been canceled or transferred.
Rendon was already working for the Pentagon. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Pentagon quickly awarded The Rendon Group a $392,000 contract to counter negative portrayals of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan abroad, according to news accounts last fall.
A spokeswoman for the company said she could not reveal what the company did for the Pentagon on that project, but a well-informed source who has worked with Rendon said it went beyond wooing foreign journalists to setting up disguised-source, pro-U.S Web sites in several foreign languages and blast-faxing foreign media and search engines with pro-U.S. information.
If the Rendon Groups track record is any guide, however, the companys real expertise is in spending taxpayer dollars.
Rendon has had clients in 78 countries, according to its own Web site, ranging from the Kuwaiti Royal Family to the embattled Colombian Army to the Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In 1989, it was hired by the CIA to assist the campaign of Guillermo Endara against Manuel Noriega in Panama, according to ABC News. It also has corporate and non-profit clients, such as the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which it helped promote the ban of landmines.
In 1992, according to several later accounts, including a book by the journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn (Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein) the CIA hired The Rendon Group to assist London-based Iraqi exiles in toppling the Baghdad regime. It started out by giving the exiles, an unwieldy coalition of Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds, its name: the Iraqi National Congress (INC). A forward headquarters was set up in the "no-fly zone" of northern Iraq.
According to Rendon company documents cited by ABC News, the firm "spent $23,651,463 in the first year of the anti-Saddam campaign." The firm produced a traveling photo exhibit of Iraqi atrocities, videos and radio spots that ridiculed Saddam, and anti-Saddam comic books. Frances Brooke, who now runs the INCs Washington office, was paid $19,000 a month to work with the organization in London.
Former CIA man Warren Marik told Congress later that he "helped divert millions of dollars" from The Rendon Group to the INC. The covert campaign was eventually investigated by the CIAs own Inspector General.
Over several hours of interviews, a former CIA operations agent who worked closely with the INC provided me with an inside account of the clandestine program that captured its no-strings accounting chaos.
He called it "a $150 million rip-off."
"The money went to consultants in Washington -- millions, and millions, and millions of dollars," he said on strict condition of anonymity.
"Millions" went to American consultants in London, as well as to other consultants posted around the Middle East, he alleged, who made small fortunes that were used later to buy big houses in poshest Washington neighborhoods.
"There was one woman who was getting $500,000 a year in salary" to work on the Iraq campaign in London, he said. "She was getting per diem when she was hired, about $400 a day in London." Then she was put on the payroll, "but they never stopped the per diem," he said. "So she was getting a salary of a hundred [thousand] and something, and then she moved into an apartment, so she wasnt paying for a hotel. And this went on for three years.
"And then she said, I need some office space, and so she went out and rented this office space. And then she subleased it. So right there I can account for a million dollars, siphoned off."
According to the ex-CIA man -- now well known in intelligence circles as a critic of his former employer -- "there were 20 other cases like that."
"I said its illegal to have Americans working for us who dont know it. And I was told, 'You dont understand the politics of this.'"
Some people were hired by cover organizations set up by the agency and didnt even know they were working for the CIA, he said.
"Congress said, 'We want you to get rid of Saddam,' and we said, 'Okay, were gonna hire the best,' one element of which was The Rendon Group.
"At the end of the year we -- the CIAs Iraq Group -- had money left over, so we got instructions from the DO [the CIAs Directorate of Operations]: 'Well, go and spend it.' So we went out and bought brand new Jeep Cherokees.... All the cars we had in the Middle East for the Iraqi program were going to the wives of the COSs [the chiefs of station].... It was a $150 million rip-off. Go up to northwest [Washington, D.C.] and look at those big houses, and you'll know how they got paid for."
When the CIA audited the project years later, however, blame was heaped on Ahmad Chalabi, the portly, MIT-educated banker and CIA-backed leader of the Iraqi National Congress. But according to the CIA man, "Chalabi got nothing [illegal] from it."
Even where the money could be accounted for, The Rendon Groups effort was clumsy, even amateurish, according to several sources. One such effort was the project to beam anti-Hussein news broadcasts into Iraq.
"Rendon hired this Potemkin village to write scripts for the radio, in Kuwait. But it was all [managed] by these kids, that had all been in Latin America," the ex-CIA official said.
"And then he submitted all these fake translation bills from English into Arabic. It was always done somewhere else, like in Egypt, you know? So instead of paying $60,000 a month, like he was claiming, he was paying $100 a month. See? So were talking six people writing scripts, six translators -- were getting into some big bucks."
The scripts were sent to Boston, where they were recorded for broadcast and eventually "sent out about five days late," the source said. "You always listen to news thats five days late, dont you?"
"And what was the program like? It sucked. The Iraqis never listened to it. It was like broadcasting Rush Limbaugh into Iraq, in English. Nobody knew what the fuck it was. The only people that we found out listened to it was the Israelis."
The Israelis were listening closely in 1996, he said, when somebody produced "a horribly anti-Zionist program, just as a joke, and broadcast it. It was this horrible thing, you know, about the Jews being Nazis, and they should all be tried for war crimes. Mossad (Israeli intelligence) came down on our shit like you wouldnt believe. But apparently they were the only people who listened to this stuff."
Somewhere between two and three million dollars budgeted for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) went down the drain that way, he said. A spokeswoman for The Rendon Group said John Rendon "wont talk about clients," with whom "confidentiality agreements go on forever." As to allegations of financial irregularities in the INC account, she could say only that, "if anything not proper had occured, the company would not have been able to contract with the government again.... I mean, that seems obvious, doesnt it?"
Two close allies of Rendon and the INC now sit close to the Oval Office. Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, a former Special Forces commander who advised the INC in recent years, runs the White Houses new domestic counter-terrorism office. Former CIA operations officer and Rendon Group consultant, Linda Flohr, is now Director of Security for the Office of Homeland Security and the NSC's Director of Counter-Terrorism. Frances Brooke, now Ahmad Chalabis chief assistant in Washington, worked on the anti-Iraq campaign in London for the Rendon Group (at a salary of $19,000 a month).
If the Office of Strategic Influence goes forward, Rendon should find selling America a lot easier than some of his other clients -- the Kuwaiti royal family, Indonesia, Panama, and Uzbekistan, now run by former communist thugs.
But hes always an optimist.
Quoting onetime gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, he told the Air Force cadets, "When things turn weird, the weird turn pro."
Jeff Stein is co-author, with Khidhir Hamza, of Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon.