The Man Who Sold the War – Meet John Rendon, Bush’s general in the propaganda war

April 28, 2007

the man who sold the war Photo

James Bamford’s November 17th, 2005 profile of John Rendon, “The Man Who Sold the War,” (RS988) won the 2006 National Magazine Award in the reporting category.
The road to war in Iraq led through many unlikely places. One of them was a chic hotel nestled among the strip bars and brothels that cater to foreigners in the town of Pattaya, on the Gulf of Thailand.

On December 17th, 2001, in a small room within the sound of the crashing tide, a CIA officer attached metal electrodes to the ring and index fingers of a man sitting pensively in a padded chair. The officer then stretched a black rubber tube, pleated like an accordion, around the man’s chest and another across his abdomen. Finally, he slipped a thick cuff over the man’s brachial artery, on the inside of his upper arm.

Strapped to the polygraph machine was Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a forty-three-year-old Iraqi who had fled his homeland in Kurdistan and was now determined to bring down Saddam Hussein. For hours, as thin mechanical styluses traced black lines on rolling graph paper, al-Haideri laid out an explosive tale. Answering yes and no to a series of questions, he insisted repeatedly that he was a civil engineer who had helped Saddam’s men to secretly bury tons of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The illegal arms, according to al-Haideri, were buried in subterranean wells, hidden in private villas, even stashed beneath the Saddam Hussein Hospital, the largest medical facility in Baghdad.

It was damning stuff — just the kind of evidence the Bush administration was looking for. If the charges were true, they would offer the White House a compelling reason to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. That’s why the Pentagon had flown a CIA polygraph expert to Pattaya: to question al-Haideri and confirm, once and for all, that Saddam was secretly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

There was only one problem: It was all a lie. After a review of the sharp peaks and deep valleys on the polygraph chart, the intelligence officer concluded that al-Haideri had made up the entire story, apparently in the hopes of securing a visa.

The fabrication might have ended there, the tale of another political refugee trying to scheme his way to a better life. But just because the story wasn’t true didn’t mean it couldn’t be put to good use. Al-Haideri, in fact, was the product of a clandestine operation — part espionage, part PR campaign — that had been set up and funded by the CIA and the Pentagon for the express purpose of selling the world a war. And the man who had long been in charge of the marketing was a secretive and mysterious creature of the Washington establishment named John Rendon.

Rendon is a man who fills a need that few people even know exists. Two months before al-Haideri took the lie-detector test, the Pentagon had secretly awarded him a $16 million contract to target Iraq and other adversaries with propaganda. One of the most powerful people in Washington, Rendon is a leader in the strategic field known as “perception management,” manipulating information — and, by extension, the news media — to achieve the desired result. His firm, the Rendon Group, has made millions off government contracts since 1991, when it was hired by the CIA to help “create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power.” Working under this extraordinary transfer of secret authority, Rendon assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, personally gave them their name — the Iraqi National Congress — and served as their media guru and “senior adviser” as they set out to engineer an uprising against Saddam. 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.”

Although Rendon denies any direct involvement with al-Haideri, the defector was the latest salvo in a secret media war set in motion by Rendon. In an operation directed by Ahmad Chalabi — the man Rendon helped install as leader of the INC — the defector had been brought to Thailand, where he huddled in a hotel room for days with the group’s spokesman, Zaab Sethna. The INC routinely coached defectors on their stories, prepping them for polygraph exams, and Sethna was certainly up to the task — he got his training in the art of propaganda on the payroll of the Rendon Group. According to Francis Brooke, the INC’s man in Washington and himself a former Rendon employee, the goal of the al-Haideri operation was simple: pressure the United States to attack Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

As the CIA official flew back to Washington with failed lie-detector charts in his briefcase, Chalabi and Sethna didn’t hesitate. They picked up the phone, called two journalists who had a long history of helping the INC promote its cause and offered them an exclusive on Saddam’s terrifying cache of WMDs.

For the worldwide broadcast rights, Sethna contacted Paul Moran, an Australian freelancer who frequently worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I think I’ve got something that you would be interested in,” he told Moran, who was living in Bahrain. Sethna knew he could count on the trim, thirty-eight-year-old journalist: A former INC employee in the Middle East, Moran had also been on Rendon’s payroll for years in “information operations,” working with Sethna at the company’s London office on Catherine Place, near Buckingham Palace.

“We were trying to help the Kurds and the Iraqis opposed to Saddam set up a television station,” Sethna recalled in a rare interview broadcast on Australian television. “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 choice for the worldwide print exclusive was equally easy: Chalabi contacted Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller, who was close to I. Lewis Libby and other neoconservatives in the Bush administration, had been a trusted outlet for the INC’s anti-Saddam propaganda for years. Not long after the CIA polygraph expert slipped the straps and electrodes off al-Haideri and declared him a liar, Miller flew to Bangkok to interview him under the watchful supervision of his INC handlers. Miller later made perfunctory calls to the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, but despite her vaunted intelligence sources, she claimed not to know about the results of al-Haideri’s lie-detector test. Instead, she reported that unnamed “government experts” called his information “reliable and significant” — thus adding a veneer of truth to the lies.

Her front-page story, which hit the stands on December 20th, 2001, was exactly the kind of exposure Rendon had been hired to provide. AN IRAQI DEFECTOR TELLS OF WORK ON AT LEAST 20 HIDDEN WEAPONS SITES, declared the headline. “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer,” Miller wrote, “said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” If verified, she noted, “his allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power partly because of his unwillingness to stop making weapons of mass destruction, despite his pledges to do so.”

For months, hawks inside and outside the administration had been pressing for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Now, thanks to Miller’s story, they could point to “proof” of Saddam’s “nuclear threat.” The story, reinforced by Moran’s on-camera interview with al-Haideri on the giant Australian Broadcasting Corp., was soon being trumpeted by the White House and repeated by newspapers and television networks around the world. It was the first in a long line of hyped and fraudulent stories that would eventually propel the U.S. into a war with Iraq — the first war based almost entirely on a covert propaganda campaign targeting the media.

By law, the Bush administration is expressly prohibited from disseminating government propaganda at home. But in an age of global communications, there is nothing to stop it from planting a phony pro-war story overseas — knowing with certainty that it will reach American citizens almost instantly. A recent congressional report suggests that the Pentagon may be relying on “covert psychological operations affecting audiences within friendly nations.” In a “secret amendment” to Pentagon policy, the report warns, “psyops funds might be used to publish stories favorable to American policies, or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of administration policies.” The report also concludes that military planners are shifting away from the Cold War view that power comes from superior weapons systems. Instead, the Pentagon now believes that “combat power can be enhanced by communications networks and technologies that control access to, and directly manipulate, information. As a result, information itself is now both a tool and a target of warfare.”

It is a belief John Rendon encapsulated in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996. “I am not a national-security strategist or a military tactician,” he declared. “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.” To explain his philosophy, Rendon paraphrased a journalist he knew from his days as a staffer on the presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter: “This is probably best described in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, when he wrote, ‘When things turn weird, the weird turn pro.'”
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/8798997/the_man_who_sold_the_war/

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