How a Public Relations Firm Helped Start the War
I have been one of the few Huffington Post writers who has not written about the Iraq invasion. I figured I would stick to stuff I knew, such as healthcare and a few odd stories about lightly dressed women.
That was before I discovered that the Rendon Group had taken a keen interest in my blog, and before I discovered what the Rendon Group was. In the last 24 hours my jaw has literally dropped as I have assimilated this new knowledge and I figured I should share some of what I've learned.
First you should know something. I never believed the story about "weapons of mass destruction" hidden inside Iraq. My wife believed it was possible that Hussein's missiles were transported around on moving trains, and we had many heated discussions before the war on this topic. The reason I never believed the story about WMD was that the "evidence" was so fluffy every time it was presented and as a former executive I have some experience smelling a rat when the story isn't quite there. But my wife would tell you that I simply got lucky.
Anyway, what I didn't know anything about until yesterday was the Rendon Group's role in selling the world on war.
So here's what I've learned.
The Rendon Group is one of the most secretive and well connected public relations firms in Washington. Back in 2001, Pentagon awarded this group a $16 million contract to target Iraq and other adversaries with propaganda.
This Group had already made a fortune off government contracts since 1991, when the firm was hired by the CIA to help create the conditions to remove Hussein from power. At that time, the Rendon Group assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, and named them "the Iraqi National Congress," and then served as their media advisor in their job to engineer a coup against Saddam. Rolling Stone wrote, "It was as if President John F. Kennedy had outsourced the Bay of Pigs operation to the advertising and public-relations firm of J. Walter Thompson."
"They're very closemouthed about what they do," says Kevin McCauley, an editor of the industry trade publication O'Dwyer's PR Daily. "It's all cloak-and-dagger stuff."
The Rendon Group was built by John Walter Rendon Jr. According to Pentagon documents that were obtained by Rolling Stone, the Rendon Group is authorized "to research and analyze information classified up to Top Secret/SCI/SI/TK/G/HCS." This is an extraordinarily high level of clearance granted to only a handful of defense contractors. "SCI" stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information, data classified higher than Top Secret. "SI" is Special Intelligence, very secret communications intercepted by the National Security Agency. "TK" refers to Talent/Keyhole, code names for imagery from reconnaissance aircraft and spy satellites. "G" stands for Gamma (communications intercepts from extremely sensitive sources) and "HCS" means Humint Control System (information from a very sensitive human source).
In response to the Rolling Stone article, the Rendon Group issued a letter in which it objected to some statements in the article, but not to these ones, so I think we can take it as an admission that the Rendon Group really does enjoy access to the most secret information in our country.
But it is even more interesting to learn how this secretive propaganda group operates.
Back in December, 2001, CIA used a lie detector to find out if Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a forty-three-year-old Iraqi, was telling the truth. This was a guy from Kurdistan who really wanted to bring down Saddam Hussein.
He claimed that he was a civil engineer who had helped Saddam secretly bury tons of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. These illegal arms were supposedly hidden in subterranean wells, private villas, and even stashed beneath the Saddam Hussein Hospital, which is the largest medical facility in Baghdad.
Unfortunately, the polygraph indicated that it was all a complete lie. The CIA concluded that al-Haideri had made up his entire story, perhaps in the hopes of securing a visa.
But the tale didn't stop there. The Rolling Stone claims that in an operation directed by Ahmad Chalabi (the guy the Rendon Group helped install as leader of the INC), al-Haideri was brought to Thailand, and met with the group's spokesman, Zaab Sethna, who was well trained to coach defectors on their stories, and preparing them for polygraph exams. Sethna in turn got his training from the Rendon Group. And according to Francis Brooke, who represents INC in Washington, and is also a former Rendon employee, the goal of the al-Haideri operation was straightforward; to pressure the US into attacking Iraq and to kick out Saddam Hussein.
So instead of the story ending in Thailand with a failed lie detector test, the INC now contacted two journalists who had worked with the INC in the past and offered them an exclusive on this tale of Saddam planning Armageddon with his cache of weapons of mass destruction.
For the worldwide broadcast rights Sethna contacted Paul Moran, an Australian freelancer who frequently worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The Rolling Stone quote Sethna saying, "We were trying to help the Kurds and the Iraqis opposed to Saddam set up a television station. The Rendon Group came to us and said, 'We have a contract to kind of do anti-Saddam propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi opposition.' What we didn't know -- what the Rendon Group didn't tell us -- was in fact it was the CIA that had hired them to do this work."
The INC's selection of a journalist for the worldwide print exclusive was even more noteworthy. Chalabi supposedly contacted Judith Miller of The New York Times. We have all read how Miller cuddled with the Bush administration, and how she was "used" by them to spread their propaganda.
So Miller flew to Bangkok to interview the guy who hid Saddam's WMD and later reported that unnamed "government experts" called his information "reliable and significant." Her front-page story, on December 20, 2001, used the headline: AN IRAQI DEFECTOR TELLS OF WORK ON AT LEAST 20 HIDDEN WEAPONS SITES.
So suddenly, thanks to Miller's story, and the people the Rendon Group had organized, the Bush administration could do an end run around the CIA data which had discredited the defector, and they had "proof" of Saddam's ominous intentions.
The story was backed up by Moran's on-camera interview with al-Haideri and the White House made the most of this propaganda triumph with every newspaper and television station around the world repeating this mind blowing story.
Let's state right now, that as these stories unfold, we can only safely assume one thing: We are watching the tip of the iceberg and the most powerful men in the world are doing what they can to make sure we don't see the rest.
We don't know all the details about the Rendon Group's involvement in this affair, nor do we know the details about their involvement in overthrowing other governments. But we have some indications and some of what John Rendon has said himself, gives us a good idea of what he's been up to. In a speech to at the U.S. Air Force Academy he said, "I am not a national-security strategist or a military tactician. I am a politician, a person who uses communication to meet public-policy or corporate-policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager." He added, "When things turn weird, the weird turn pro." He also told the Rolling Stone about the importance of his firm's efforts in US covert operations: "We've worked in ninety-one countries," he said. "Going all the way back to Panama, we've been involved in every war, with the exception of Somalia."
Yesterday 80% of the respondents in my poll didn't think I was crazy when I worried about the Rendon Group's motivation for monitoring my blog. After reading this, perhaps the remaining 20% understand why I'm worried. But who knows, maybe those 20% were just votes sent in by the Rendon Group to confuse everyone . . .
You think that's crazy?
You think it is crazy that perhaps a group like the Rendon Group might be monitoring blogs on the Huffington Post, and perhaps actively participating in swaying the responses?
If you do think that is crazy talk, read this:
Thomas Twetten, the CIA's former deputy of operations, claims Rendon virtually created the INC. "The INC was clueless," he said. "They needed a lot of help and didn't know where to start. That is why Rendon was brought in."
"The reason they got the contract was because of what they had done in Panama -- so they were known," according to Whitley Bruner, former chief of the CIA's station in Baghdad.
What did the Rendon Group have to do? They had to use the media to turn Hussein into a supporter of terrorists and the greatest threat to world peace in modern time. Each month, $326,000 was sent from the CIA to the Rendon Group and the INC via a number of front groups. The Rendon Group received a management fee of ten percent above what it spent on the project. According to certain reports, the Group made close to $100 million on this contract.
The Rendon Group also received money from the Kuwaiti government, after they'd been pushed into exile by Iraq. They paid $100,000 a month. Here's what the Rendon Group did:
Problem was that Americans were dying in Kuwait and Iraq, while the wealthy family of sheiks were having a ball in nightclubs around the world. So, the Rendon Group responded by having "grateful Kuwaitis mailing 20,000 personally signed valentines to American troops" all of this duly reported by the press, but arranged by the Rendon Group.
And you don't think this group may try to influence polls and responses on the Huffington Post? Of course they could. In a heartbeat!
Question is would they bother?
In fact this is what John Rendon said himself: "Did you ever stop to wonder 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?" After a pause, he added, "Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs then."
And of course, the Rendon Group's influence exploded in Washington after 9/11.
"The events of 11 September 2001 changed everything, not least of which was the administration's outlook concerning strategic influence," according to one Army report. "Faced with direct evidence that many people around the world actively hated the United States, Bush began taking action to more effectively explain U.S. policy overseas. Initially the White House and DoD turned to the Rendon Group."
So already three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, according to documents the Rolling Stone obtained from defense sources, the Pentagon awarded a big contract to the Rendon Group. At about this time, Pentagon also created a secret organization called the "Office of Strategic Influence."
The objective of the Office of Strategic Influence was to coerce foreign journalists and plant false information overseas. Secret briefing papers also said the office should find ways to "punish" those who convey the "wrong message." One senior officer told CNN that the plan would "formalize government deception, dishonesty and misinformation."
"It's sometimes valuable from a military standpoint to be able to engage in deception with respect to future anticipated plans," Vice President Dick Cheney said when he explained this operation. But even senior military officers found the new unit unnerving. "When I get their briefings, it's scary," a senior official said at the time.
February 2002 came around and now the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had hired Rendon to help the new "Office of Strategic Influence." The Rendon Group denies this and claimed they were reporting directly to the J-3, which is the head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to Rolling Stone's Pentagon documents, the Rendon Group was charged with creating an "Information War Room" to monitor worldwide news reports at lightning speed and respond virtually instantly with counterpropaganda.
"Rendon would use his media analysis to conduct a worldwide propaganda campaign, deploying teams of information warriors to allied nations to assist them "in developing and delivering specific messages to the local population, combatants, front-line states, the media and the international community." Among the places Rendon's info-war teams would be sent were Jakarta, Indonesia; Islamabad, Pakistan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Cairo; Ankara, Turkey; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The teams would produce and script television news segments "built around themes and story lines supportive of U.S. policy objectives."
And here comes the really interesting part about the Rendon Group, for Huffington Post bloggers and readers:
The Rendon Group also took over the responsibility to conduct "military deception" online from the Office of Strategic Influence.
Read that sentence again.
The company has been contracted to monitor Internet chat rooms in and "participate in these chat rooms when/if tasked." They would also use web sites and e-mail to plant a variety of propaganda, including false information.
You still believe just "regular readers" are roaming the Huffington Post???
Holy sh-t! I had no idea what I got into when I started blogging for this site . . .
"It was not just bad intelligence, it was an orchestrated effort," said Sam Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel. "It began before the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict distortions."
And of course the Bush administration spent lavishly on the Rendon Group. Between 2000 and 2004, the Pentagon documents demonstrate, the Rendon Group received at least thirty-five contracts with the Defense Department, worth a total of $50 million to $100 million.
The irony of the story, on a more personal level, is that the journalist Moran, who had lived a double life, reporting for Australian Broadcasting and other news organizations, while operating as an agent for the Rendon Group and enjoying what his family called his "James Bond lifestyle," was one of the first journalists killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb, while he was covering the war for ABC.
The Rendon Group participated in his funeral and also organized a memorial service in London.
Meanwhile, in January 2003, Miller again reported in the New York Times that Pentagon "intelligence officials" were telling her that some of the most valuable information had come from al-Haideri. Miller claimed that his information, "ultimately resulted in dozens of highly credible reports on Iraqi weapons-related activity and purchases."
But in the end that whole story blew up in both the Bush administration's and Miller's face. In 2004 al-Haideri was taken back to Iraq by the CIA. He was asked to point out exactly where WMD were hidden, but could not identify a single site.
And now the Bush administration is running for cover and using the propaganda machinery they built with the help of private contractors like the Rendon Group to defend themselves.
According to a secret Pentagon report personally approved by Rumsfeld in October 2003 and obtained by Rolling Stone, the Strategic Command is authorized to engage in "military deception" which is defined as "presenting false information, images or statements." The seventy-four-page document, titled "Information Operations Roadmap," also calls for psychological operations to be launched over radio, television, cell phones and "emerging technologies" such as the Internet.
Yep, they could be right here, reading right now. Perhaps now I finally got the answer to another question I have had. Why does the U.S. Department of State also show such an interest in my blog and why are they an almost daily reader? I guess I finally hit the sweet spot.
For the full story on the Rendon Group, see the Rolling Stone article and the Rendon Group's Response. Please note that the Rendon Group objects to several narrowly defined assertions in the article, some of which I may have repeated, but doesn't contradict most of the story. After all, what could be better PR for the Rendon Group than such an article?