The Interview That Never Happened
With the White House seemingly on an unavoidable collision course with Saddam Hussein, hawkish policy planners now face a new challenge: how to sell the war to an increasingly unenthusiastic public. All across America from Long Island to Minneapolis, from Boston to Atlanta, from Sioux Falls to Sacramento to Seattle – antiwar demonstrations have been springing up, as even citizens normally disinterested in foreign affairs voice concern over the possible negative effects war would have on the economy. In addition, there is a growing unease that war with Iraq would negatively impact on America's image abroad, and perhaps incite further al Qaeda terrorism as a form of revenge although, ironically, bin Laden has no affection for Saddam. The president, of course, is desperately hoping he can find the two in cahoots, somehow.
Keeping in mind that Iraq never attacked the United States, neither in 1990 or now, the looming war is hard to justify. That is, unless public relations can again save the day.
A Paradigm Shift
The Gulf War was the first time America played the humanitarian card to justify attacking a much weaker country. What began with Bush's "babies in incubators" myth (handled by PR whiz Hill & Knowlton) was perfected by Clinton, who almost ten years later used the all-too-popular (and all-too-bogus) myth of "ethnic cleansing" to justify attacking Serbia. Almost four years on, anti-Serbian bias still pervades the British and American media and think-tanks. Anti-Iraq coverage goes without saying.
After September 11th, the paradigm has shifted from humanitarian intervention to terrorism pre-emption. Yet the White House's self-declared right to "shoot first and ask questions later" portrays the administration negatively, as both cowboy desperado and confused paranoic. It also begs the question of whether ulterior motives are at work here, as John Pilger argues in a scathing indictment of US energy goals in Iraq.
Although Americans are much more clever this time around, after witnessing a decade of PR propaganda in the Yugoslav wars, the White House apparently believes that the average citizen will still support war, if it is only spun the right way. The only question is who will do the spinning.
The last Gulf War was brought to you partially by a little company in Washington known as the Rendon Group. This PR giant has clients around the world, but none quite so grand as the United States government. Rendon was once enlisted to make the case subtly and deceptively for why America should support a war against Saddam. And in the end, it worked. But the worst thing? The PR blitz that captivated both media and ordinary citizens alike was paid for by the very people it was meant to seduce the American taxpayers, whose funds continue to grease the wheels for the government's war machine. However, the people ate it up sadly, re-affirming the adage that the voters get the leaders they deserve.
The Unsuccessful Request
I thought, therefore, that an interview with the Rendon Group about their past successes and future aspirations would allow them a chance to give their side of the story since most published reports have been overwhelmingly critical. However, my requests for an interview met only with silence. Were the nuanced masters of eloquent persuasion really at a loss for words?
Since they apparently are, I have been forced to conduct an interview with a respondent who is absent, drawing on Rendon's publicly-made statements and independent investigations. Coming from an aggressively outspoken PR firm, silence would seem incrimination enough. Yet as we will see, even their own statements give them away.
In the following, the questions I had prepared come at the headings of each section.
How Would You Describe Your Services and Objectives?
"The Rendon Group (TRG) is a Global Strategic Communications Consultancy providing products and services to both public and private sector clients. TRG's expertise includes strategic communications consultation, planning and evaluation; information strategy and operations; public and media relations planning and implementation; crisis management; news collection and analysis; information mapping; survey research; media production; and tactical communications team deployment. To date, TRG has worked in eighty (80) countries, frequently on location in a conflict environment, and has considerable experience in establishing field offices to support program objectives."
This description culled directly from the Rendon Group's website gives in "official" language a picture that can basically be boiled down to two words: information war. After first accumulating data, they manipulate it and in some cases, sanitize it to win either people's emotional support or their dollars. In this age of civilized excess, when we are constantly being bombarded with information, it requires a careful shaping effort to make that information meaningful. And, as we will see below, producing meaningful information is the first step towards producing war.
Who Are Your Clients?
PR companies are essentially soulless. Like mercenaries, they will work for anyone and everyone who can pay with the possible exception of racist or subversive organizations, as that would be bad for their own PR.
However, this general lack of values is, paradoxically, what accounts for their perceived legitimacy. Working as it has for innocuous clients like the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the National Education Association has given the Rendon Group a veneer of respectability.
Among the full list of global clients, however, one finds others whose goals are ambivalent, or somewhat suspicious, or even downright dangerous. In most cases, however, the connection keeps coming back to support of US government and big business interests.
The USTDA facilitates major international projects, funding feasibility studies and development for US-connected business interests. Wherever large infrastructure projects like oil pipelines are being contemplated, there is the TDA.
Oil is the link to the KPC, a company run by an assortment of sheiks most of them educated in the United States. The company was founded in 1934 by a British-American consortium that has since morphed into BP and Chevron two companies with large interests in the Middle East and Caspian areas. The government of Kuwait is a no-brainer, given Rendon's efforts against Saddam in the Gulf War. And as for Colombia, the US has for years been selling arms to expedite the Colombian government's war on Leftist rebels, and fuelling an unwinnable "War on Drugs" at the same time. It is clear that while the Rendon Group may have some "independent" clients (like the Association of Massage Therapists), the majority lie within a closed circle of governmental bodies that share overlapping policies sadly, often harmonizing in war.
Which Clients Inhabit the Unknown Zone?
Then there is the rather odd assortment of Caribbean clients: the governments of Haiti, Antigua & Barbuda, Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, and neighboring Panama. Finally there is the St. Lucia Labour Party. There is little information for what must be a very interesting relationship here, as Rendon is silent about the affairs of its clients. What is publicly known is that in the mid-1990's Rendon helped the embattled Aristide in Haiti (he paid through a bank account in Washington) and worked on a CIA contract to aid the opposition to Manuel Noriega in 1989. This was emulated soon thereafter in Iraq.
And Which Clients Should We Be Afraid Of?
Finally there are the decisively pro-War clients. There is the Air Intelligence Agency (AIA), which runs the Air Force's "information warfare" center from its base in Lackland, Texas. In addition to the Defense Department itself, Rendon has worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. This secretive body is currently involved with the Bush Administration's grandiose plans for an all-seeing national supercomputer. Although it is not mentioned on the company website, the CIA is one of the Rendon Group's longest-standing partners. The final client is the White House itself, which of course has the final say over all of these bodies.
Have You Worked In The Balkans?
The Rendon Group was not so involved as other companies, notably Ruder-Finn, in the Yugoslav wars. However, it did aid Bosnian privatization and helped set up an interesting little project paid for by the US Department of Defense the "Balkan Information Exchange." This sprung up during the Kosovo bombardment to bolster the government's position. And if its relation to previous government contracts was in any doubt, the fact that it eventually morphed into the "Balkan Times" settles the question.
What Were Your Biggest Successes?
Company president John Rendon, a self-described "information warrior," fondly recalled to a military audience one of his biggest successes of the Gulf War:
"If any of you either participated in the liberation of Kuwait City… or if you watched it on television, you would have seen hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags," John Rendon said in his speech to the NSC. "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 flags? And for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries? Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs."
The flag shenanigan was so important because it "proved" to Arabic and other Muslim television viewers that America was their friend. People waving American flags and cheering on the US of A is a potent tactic anywhere in the world where jaded viewers need reassurance. As in Kuwait, such displays are generally encouraged except, however, for times when they show American policy in contradiction, as in the mountain wilds of Macedonia.
Have There Been Any Failures?
Although they would be loath to admit it, there have been several instances of unprofessionalism from Rendon that only ended up wasting a lot of money. Most embarrassing of all was the anti-Saddam radio hour conceived and executed six years ago, by a bunch of college kids in Boston.
For $3,000 a month in which he worked about 8 days total a Harvard Arabic student was whisked by limo to a recording studio rented out by Rendon. His qualifications? "I was a good Arabic translator who did a great Saddam imitation," the student disclosed anonymously. The student's job was to mimic Saddam in bogus speeches and mock the Iraqi leader in radio broadcasts that would (or so they thought) strike a chord with the Iraqi people. However, the conscientious student quickly found that the organization and execution of the project left something to be desired:
"The point was to discredit Saddam, but the stuff was complete slapstick," the student says. "We did skits where Saddam would get mixed up in his own lies, or where [Saddam's son] Qusay would stumble over his own delusions of grandeur… no one in-house spoke a word of Arabic," he says. "They thought I was mocking Saddam, but for all they knew I could have been lambasting the US government."
The scripts, he adds, were often ill conceived. "Who in Iraq is going to think it's funny to poke fun at Saddam's mustache," the student notes, "when the vast majority of Iraqi men themselves have mustaches?"
Rendon also employed Jordanians and Egyptians whose accents were barely intelligible to the average Iraqi. The result? "The radio broadcasts were a complete mumble," says the student who has since left Rendon out of frustration at their ineptitude. While working there, however, he was kept in the dark about who was behind it all:
"I never got a straight answer on whether the Iraqi resistance, the CIA or policy makers on the Hill were actually the ones calling the shots," says the student, "but ultimately I realized that the guys doing spin were very well and completely cut loose."
This is corroborated a CIA agent who disparaged the project, charging that "the scripts were put together by 23-year-olds with connections to the Democratic National Committee."
Should This Be Upsetting To American Taxpayers?
The short answer is yes. The clumsy student radio program was only part of Rendon's work for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a pseudo-diplomatic proxy used as a puppet by Rendon and the CIA. The enormous INC fiasco shows better than anything else how the hard-earned money of the American taxpayer has gone directly down the drain, to fuel a propaganda war whose prime victims were those who had unwittingly paid for it.
What Was Rendon's Role in Propping Up the Iraqi Opposition?
ABC's Peter Jennings disclosed in 1998 that Rendon burned $23 million dollars in the first year of its contract with the CIA. It set up and christened the Iraqi National Congress (INC), as well as the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and Radio Hurriah, a vehicle for Iraqi opposition propaganda.
The INC, a disparate group of Kurds and Iraqis opposed to Hussein, was set up in both northern Iraq and big Kurdish diaspora areas, notably London. In 1992 the CIA set up Ahmed Chalabi, an MIT-educated mathematician and dissident, to front the organization. Years later, the "help" Chalabi received from Rendon would come back to haunt him. An inside picture of the PR giant presents it as not only a puppet of war-mongers, but also as woefully corrupt and unaccountable a double deceiver of the American people.
Rendon's INC Free-For-All
A former CIA agent who worked with the INC called Rendon's involvement details the prolonged scam that cost American taxpayers up to $150 million:
"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 wasn't 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.
…At the end of the year we the CIA's Iraq Group had money left over, so we got instructions from the DO [the CIA's 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 COS's [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 inevitable CIA audit came years later, however, Ahmad Chalabi was blamed for the waste; "but according to the CIA man, "Chalabi got nothing [illegal] from it."
What Has Rendon Been Working On Since 9/11?
Shortly after al Qaeda struck in New York and Washington, the Rendon Group was enlisted to help pave the way for an attack on Afghanistan at that time, something that was not a given. The urgency of the task was indicated by the fact that Rendon was awarded a contract on a no-bid basis. Apparently, the military had no time to lose in selling a war before cooler heads could prevail and the window of opportunity slam shut. The PR effort was not only meant to win domestic support but also "to win over the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims worldwide." While the former won general acceptance, the latter did not succeed, and probably never will.
On 25 October 2001, Pentagon media officer Lt. Col. Kenneth McClellan explained why Rendon was chosen:
"We needed a firm that could provide strategic counsel immediately… we were interested in someone that we knew could come in quickly and help us orient to the challenge of communicating to a wide range of groups around the world."
At first, the company was awarded $400,000 over four months to monitor media, conduct focus groups and opinion surveys, and cook up other ways to counter what the Pentagon saw as "disinformation" (i.e., any antiwar dissent). The contract was renewed for 2002.
Earlier this year, the Rendon Group was asked for some further details about this (and other) propaganda campaigns. But just like now, they were silent:
"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."
Will Rendon Help Spin Gulf War II?
Other investigators have found that the Rendon Group is "tight-lipped" about its involvement with the upcoming installment of Gulf War II. A current Rendon Arabic translator commented, "All I can say is that nothing has changed the work is still an expensive waste of time, mostly with taxpayer funds." While it would not be surprising if Rendon is hired to spin the next war, it will be interesting to see whether the American people will once again take the bait.
The verdict therefore seems to be that, while America clumsily bullies its way militarily across the Middle East, it will unleash an equally unprofessional but lucrative public relations campaign, and probably with the help of the now-tarnished Rendon Group. But that is no reason to be upset or surprised: after all, we get what we pay for.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia. He just returned from a long stay in Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
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