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2005-11-21

The Man Who Sold the Iraq War: John Rendon, Bush’s General in the Propaganda War

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Investigative journalist James Bamford examines how the Bush administration and Iraqi National Congress used the PR firm Rendon Group to feed journalists–including Judith Miller — fabricated stories in an effort to sell the war. The firm has received millions in government contracts since 1991 when it was by the CIA to help "create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power." Iraq wasn’t the first regime change case for Rendon. In 1989 the CIA turned to Rendon to use a variety of campaign and psychological techniques in Panama to put the CIA’s choice, Guillermo Endara, into the presidential palace to replace Gen. Manuel Noriega. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this month, Democrats forced the Senate into an unusual closed session to question pre-war intelligence and claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The move came one week after the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby for his involvement in the CIA leak case in which the identity of an undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed after her husband Joseph Wilson criticized the Bush administration’s use of a debunked piece of evidence for WMDs in Iraq.

So how did the Bush administration sell the war to the American public? Well a new article in Rolling Stone magazine examines just that. In it, investigative journalist James Bamford looks at the role of one of the most powerful public relations firms in Washington D.C in setting the stage for the Iraq war.

The firm is the Rendon Group and it’s founder and CEO is John Rendon–the former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee.

Bamford writes that the Pentagon secretly awarded Rendon 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 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."

  • James Bamford, investigative reporter and author of the new article "The Man Who Sold The War" published in the December 1st issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. Bamford is also the author of several books including "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford joins us in our Firehouse studio here in New York, the author of several books including the first one ever written about the National Security Agency called The Puzzle Palace: Inside America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization. His latest book is A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JAMES BAMFORD: Thanks, Amy. I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, this piece in Rolling Stone is quite a read. Why don’t you start off by talking about a man in the Gulf of Thailand who was taking a lie detector test?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, this took place in December of 2001. This was really the sort of opening shot of the propaganda war to get the United States into war. And the person being polygraphed was an Iraqi defector by the name of al-Haideri, and the Iraqi National Congress, the I.N.C., had brought him out of Iraq and brought him to Thailand primarily to expose him to the media and to try to get his story told. And what his story was was that Saddam Hussein had not only chemical and biological weapons but even nuclear weapons and precursors to nuclear weapons hidden in Iraq in various places. Some of the biological weapons were supposedly hidden under the main hospital in Baghdad, for example. So it was an amazing story.

And this was the — up until this time there was a lot of speculation in the press and in Congress and other places about what Saddam may have, what might have been left over from the Gulf War and so forth. But this was going to be the very first time that somebody could actually point to information as proof, having seen where these things were buried and so forth. So, the I.N.C., the Iraqi National Congress, which was led by Ahmed Chalabi, decided to call in two journalists to broadcast this information to the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. First, the lie detector proved what?

JAMES BAMFORD: Exactly. Before he actually called these people in to broadcast this information, obviously the C.I.A. had a big interest in this and the Pentagon had a big interest in this, so the C.I.A. flew a polygraph operator with his machine all the way over to Thailand, Pattaya, Thailand, which is south of Bangkok, and they went into a hotel room, they strapped up al-Haideri, and they asked him all these questions. And they went over and over for hours his allegations regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and they came away with charts that indicated he was deceptive, that he was lying, that this was not true. And they flew back to Washington and, presumably, assuming this was going to be the end of it. But that was information that was never made public. They didn’t broadcast that information. So what happened was the I.N.C. and Chalabi decided to take that bogus information that al-Haideri was giving and broadcast it around the world. So, they called in two journalists. One of the journalists was Judy Miller, who was given the worldwide print exclusive rights to the story.

AMY GOODMAN: And who called her in?

JAMES BAMFORD: Chalabi called her in. Chalabi asked her if she wanted to do the story, and she flew from Washington all the way over to Bangkok to interview al-Haideri.

AMY GOODMAN: Chalabi on the payroll of the C.I.A.?

JAMES BAMFORD: At this time, Chalabi was — he had been getting money from the C.I.A. up until the mid-1990s, and then he started getting money from the Pentagon after the C.I.A. failed to trust him any more. So, the other journalist that they called in was Paul Moran, who was a journalist working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And what makes this very interesting was how this came about. The people setting this up were members of the I.N.C. whose main goal all along from the very beginning was overthrowing Saddam Hussein anyway possible. And ironically, one of the people they called in, Paul Moran, had formerly worked for the I.N.C., and he had also worked for another company called the Rendon Group.

AMY GOODMAN: Hold it there. We have to break. When we come back, we’ll take a look at the Rendon Group. We are talking to investigative reporter James Bamford, author of A Pretext for War, has just written a piece in Rolling Stone called "The Man Who Sold the War."

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is James Bamford. He’s written the piece in Rolling Stone magazine, "The Man Who Sold the War: Meet John Rendon, Bush’s General in the Propaganda War." So, the Rendon Group and John Rendon.

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s right. The Rendon Group plays an important part in this, because it was the Rendon Group, who few people have heard about, that actually set up the I.N.C., the Iraqi National Congress, in the first place. In a very unusual move, the Bush administration, the first Bush administration, outsourced the propaganda for the war in Iraq basically to a private company.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

JAMES BAMFORD: The reason they did it was because they specialize in this. The Rendon Group for years have been able to take information that the C.I.A. was trying to get across to the public and broadcast it. For example, they went back to Panama. Just before the U.S. action in Iraq in 1990, the Bush administration invaded Panama and ousted Manuel Noriega. Well, all along, the C.I.A. had a person they wanted to put in there to take Noriega’s place, a person by the name of Endara. And the C.I.A. outsourced to the Rendon Group the propaganda campaign to put Endara in there. So they took this person who was basically a lawyer, a businessman, and Rendon built him up into a presidential candidate, took him around Europe, introduced him to the Pope, and when his group was attacked, one of his vice presidents was attacked, a very bloody attack, it made the front page of newspapers all over the world, including Time magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: With the Rendon Group’s help getting that image out?

JAMES BAMFORD: Exactly, the Rendon Group is the public relations group that pushed all of that information out there.

AMY GOODMAN: John Rendon flying in a few minutes before the actual invasion took place, of Panama.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, as the invasion took place, before the planes actually started attacking, John Rendon was in a plane about to land in Panama. So he was there right at the beginning, and he was there, too, right about the same time that his candidate, Endara, was sworn in as president. So he did such a good job in Panama in terms of regime change, getting the C.I.A.’s man into office, the Bush administration decided — the first Bush administration decided to use him to help do regime change in Iraq. And after the first Gulf War, the whole idea was to oust Saddam Hussein and put in Ahmed Chalabi as the leader. So, John Rendon, his company the Rendon Group, created an umbrella group known as the Iraqi National Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: He came up with the name?

JAMES BAMFORD: John Rendon came up with the name. He formed an organizational meeting in Vienna. He helped install Chalabi as the head of the group, and then the money was originally funneled from the C.I.A. through the Rendon Group, about $350,000 a month, to Chalabi.

AMY GOODMAN: Was this also for deniability, so it wouldn’t be the C.I.A. directly giving the money?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, definitely. That’s one of the key reasons that they wanted to use a private company like the Rendon Group as a cutout. And they did that in Panama also. So it was a very convenient organization to turn to in order to help regime change. The C.I.A. could help in terms of the combat, overthrowing a foreign leader like Saddam Hussein, but in terms of building up the world propaganda, number one, hating Saddam Hussein, number two, loving Ahmed Chalabi, that was something that they had to outsource, and the Rendon Group had become specialists in that type of propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking with investigative reporter, Jim Bamford, author of A Pretext for War. That’s his book. "The Man Who Sold the War" is the name of his article in Mother Jones. So let’s go back —

JAMES BAMFORD: In Rolling Stone.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in Rolling Stone magazine. Let’s go back to Judith Miller and Paul Moran. One is a radio reporter who worked for the Rendon Group, and you could talk about that; and the other, Judith Miller, worked for The New York Times.

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s right. And how this comes full circle is that the Rendon Group created the I.N.C., put in Chalabi in there, and then now we have December of 2001, right after the September 11 attacks, and while the administration is gearing up to sort of get the public behind the administration in going into war in Iraq. So up until this time it had been all speculation about what had been going on in terms of Saddam’s use of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and now the I.N.C., the Iraqi National Congress, comes up with this defector who is telling this huge lie about where all of these weapons are being hidden.

AMY GOODMAN: And they know it’s a lie?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I don’t know when they knew it, but they certainly should have known it at some point, that the C.I.A. person who walked out of the room wasn’t smiling about all of the happy news he was hearing —

AMY GOODMAN: And the guy who did the lie detector test said, "He is not telling the truth."

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s right, exactly, and it didn’t seem to make much difference, because they called in the press, and the two people that they called in, ironically one of them was Paul Moran who had formerly worked, not only for the I.N.C., but also for the Rendon Group. So you have a journalist who has the worldwide broadcast exclusive for this interview with this defector who is telling a lot of lies, who actually had formerly worked for the group putting this show on the road, and then they called in Judy Miller, who was going to be granted the worldwide print exclusives. And Judy Miller, in her own words in a memo she wrote to her bureau chief in Baghdad at one point, mentioned that for a decade Chalabi had been one of her key sources and that he was responsible for many of the front page stories on W.M.D. in The New York Times.

So, they called in these two very sympathetic journalists to broadcast this story, and it made huge news. It came out, I think it was December 20, 2001, and again it made a great impact, because this was the first time that an actual eyewitness was able to say that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. So, this was a major milestone in the road to the war. And from then on, the I.N.C. began coming up with other defectors, and The New York Times and other organizations started promoting the war. But a lot of it had its origins with this first defector, al-Haideri.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, Paul Moran died in Iraq.

JAMES BAMFORD: One of the biggest and most tragic ironies of the entire war was the fact that this journalist, Paul Moran, who had formerly worked for both the I.N.C. and the Rendon Group and then broadcast — had the worldwide broadcast rights for this story about al-Haideri, which helped push the U.S. into war with Iraq — into invading Iraq; Paul Moran actually became the very first journalist killed in the war. He was in northern Iraq, and a car bomb exploded very close to him, and he was killed instantly. I think it was within two or three days of the beginning of the war. So, it was a very tragic irony that Paul Moran, who helped generate some of the early publicity for the war ended up being one of the first people killed in the war.

AMY GOODMAN: John Rendon went to his funeral in Australia?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, the Rendon Group really went to a lot of trouble and expense to really create a lot of memorials for Paul Moran. John Rendon flew to the funeral in Australia. They had a memorial service for him in Washington. They had another larger memorial service for him in London, where Rendon and Paul Moran first began working around 1990. So, it was a very big tragedy, and it was a tragedy for the Rendon Group, who had relied on Paul Moran for many, many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the I.O.T.F., what it stands for and the Information War Room?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the Information Operation Task Force was set up by the Pentagon, because, if you read some of the Pentagon documents that are coming out in the last few years, they wanted to turn information into a major weapon to use during a war. They realized with the internet and with the explosion of information technology around the world that getting a message out is extremely important. It’s especially important in a case like this where we weren’t attacked by Iraq. This wasn’t a case of the United States defending itself against an attack. So, we had to —- the United States had to go on a propaganda war in order to convince the world that this preemptive invasion had legitimacy. So, in order to do that the Pentagon created a number of organizations to help promote this information around the world, and the Information Operation Task Force was one of those, and the Rendon Group played an extremely important role in that. And one of the key objectives of the Rendon Group in this aspect was to analyze media all over the world. John Rendon, in my interview with him, and it was the first interview I think he’s ever granted, or at least within probably twenty years -—

AMY GOODMAN: And why did he grant it to you?

JAMES BAMFORD: You’re going to have to ask him. I don’t ask questions. I just am very happy when somebody does agree to be interviewed. So he — and one of the ironic aspects of John Rendon is you have somebody here who started out as basically an anti-war activist. He went to work for the George McGovern campaign, actually ran the Maine operation, the operation up in Maine, for George McGovern. So you have a person who started out as an anti-war activist and a lifelong Democrat, head of the Democratic National Committee, Executive Director of the D.N.C., and here he is the chief of propaganda for the Bush administration in their war with Iraq. So it was a very interesting progression, and when I interviewed him, he said he’s still never voted for a Republican, he still votes Democratic, and he donated money to the Democratic Party not long ago.

So now what his role is, is as chief of propaganda and as that, the Pentagon has been using him a great deal to analyze information around the world. Rendon told me that they analyze something like 143 newspapers and a lot of broadcast media around the world and that he prides himself on being able to get to policy makers information on what news organizations all over the world are going to do six hours before they actually do it. And that way, the Pentagon can prepare a response or some kind of rebuttal to whatever may be coming on a news organization hours in advance.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, James Bamford, "A key weapon, according to the documents, was Rendon’s proprietary state-of-the-art news-wire collection system called 'Livewire,' which takes real-time news-wire services as they’re filed, before they’re on the internet, before CNN can read them on the air, and 24 hours before they appear in the morning papers, and sorts them by key word. The system provides the most current real time access to news and information available to private or public organizations. The top target that the Pentagon assigned to Rendon was the Al-Jazeera television network. The contract called for the Rendon Group to undertake a massive media mapping campaign against the news organization." Why, what did they do?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s a very interesting area, this media mapping. And basically, what it is, is they were directed to take a close look at the actual reporters who were reporting the news and analyze them. What is their slant? What is their bias? What is the background for these people? What makes that very worrisome is that there was another group that was set up by the Pentagon, Office of Strategic Influence, and that was eventually closed down, but one of the things —

AMY GOODMAN: Forced to because it became public?

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s right, when it became knowledge, and one of the aspects was that they were going to plant phony stories in news organizations around the world, and when you plant a phony story in a news organization anywhere in the world today, I mean, it’s immediately accessible to people in the United States. So, it would have had a very bad blowback effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I remember when Rumsfeld closed it. He said, 'Yeah, we may change the name, but it doesn't mean we have to stop doing what we are doing.’

JAMES BAMFORD: Exactly. And a lot of people believed that it sort of disappeared and then emerged secretly again someplace else in the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that was Douglas Feith’s organization?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, Feith, Douglas Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy set up that organization.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s now being investigated.

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, that’s right, and again, as soon as the — I think it was The New York Times came out with the story on it. And as soon as that happened, it was within weeks that Donald Rumsfeld closed it down, at least said he closed it down, or at least took that name away from it. But one of the aspects of that was to actually look very secretly at these journalists around the world, and that’s what’s worrisome, when you do media mapping. How far do you go? And what are you going to do with the journalists? And at the time, the Pentagon was claiming that Al-Jazeera was aiding the enemy, aiding the Iraqi government — actually, I’m sorry, aiding the insurgency and so forth. So, it’s a very dangerous situation when you have part of the U.S. government acting secretly to do something about foreign media that may end up deceiving U.S. media back in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you write, "The secret targeting of foreign journalists may have had a sinister purpose. Among the missions proposed for the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence was one to coerce foreign journalists and plant false information overseas, secret briefing papers also said that the office should find ways to punish those who convey the wrong message. One senior officer told CNN the plan would formalize government deception, dishonesty and misinformation." Punish, coerce, how?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I don’t know. That’s as far as the information we have been able to obtain has come out. But when you talk about 'punish' and 'coerce', I mean, they’ve got very, I think, ominous definitions to them. How do you punish and coerce a foreign journalist? So, the Office of Strategic Influence was closed down. Whether that aspect of it was also done away with, nobody knows at this point. John Rendon, during the interview, said his office, or his company, was not involved with the Office of Strategic Influence.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to James Bamford about the Rendon Group, about John Rendon, who heads up the group and what it has been doing, what is it doing today, what is he doing? This is a family organization?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, it’s very much a family organization, and again another irony here is that the company has its main headquarters here in Washington, and again the company is involved enormously with the C.I.A. and the Pentagon and has been over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: How much money have they gotten?

JAMES BAMFORD: It’s hard to say. I would say between $50 million and $100 million worth of contracts. They had 35 contracts in the last, I think, three or four years just with the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: His brother working out of Boston?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes. So down here in Washington they deal with the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, and Rendon actually said that they have been involved in every shooting conflict involving the United States since Panama. I think that he mentioned nine of them, all of them except for the —- there was one that he mentioned in the Horn of Africa, Somalia, that he was not involved in. He was involved in all of the others. But the irony here is that they are involved in all of this very secret activity in Washington. On the other hand the Rendon Group in Boston operates a very liberal-sounding organization where they do public service announcements for the Museum of Fine Arts and work for Whale Conservancy and a number of other groups like that, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: And you say, "coordinating Empower Peace, a campaign that brings young people in the Middle East in contact with American kids through video conferences."

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s right, so it’s sort of the reverse image of what they are doing down here. I mean, just to give you an idea of the secrecy that’s involved with this organization in Washington, one of the contracts I found for the Rendon Group from the Pentagon said that they are cleared to research and analyze information classified top-secret, S.C.I., S.I., T.K., G., H.C.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

JAMES BAMFORD: That’s enormous — in the world of secrecy that’s a very big — a lot of secrecy. Each one of these, you start with top-secret and all of these afterwards are sort of what are known as code words, which indicate special access to information, so each of these are different. S.C.I. has to do with sensitive compartmented information. It usually deals with N.S.A. information. S.I. is specifically N.S.A. intercept information. T.K. stands for talent keyhole which is the code word for imagery information — top secret imagery information. G. is very, very secret N.S.A. intercept information. It stands for Gamma, which is a code word, and HCS is human control system which is very, very secret information from C.I.A. human sources. So, for a public relations firm to have all of these clearances and accesses is rather extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we wrap up with — in the place where we began with Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri who eventually the U.S. government brought back to Iraq, the man who in Thailand was given a lie detector test he’d failed. And then Miller and Moran for ABC, Australian Broadcasting, and New York Times did not reveal this to their — in their articles but said that this man, who was in the know, said that there were weapons of mass destruction. So, he goes back to Iraq.

JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, he goes back to Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and he’s asked, well, "Okay, now is your opportunity. You can point out where all of these facilities are located," and he couldn’t find a single one. At one point, he said, "Well, they have moved them all." But what he’d claimed originally was a lot of these were hidden in wells and other things. I mean you don’t move a well. So again, it sort of confirmed the polygraph operator’s determination that this was all one big lie.

Now, you know, you would think that even after that, that the U.S. government would disown al-Haideri after failing the polygraph and then failing to find the weapons of mass destruction, but before George Bush went to the U.N. to argue for war he actually created a document, and they quoted from al-Haideri in that document. This was at least nine months after the polygraph showed that he was lying, and even today if you go on the White House web page they still have that document quoting from al-Haideri. Not only after he flunked the polygraph but after he failed to show where these weapons were in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: So al-Haideri fails a lie detector test, and the Bush administration quotes him. Ambassador Joe Wilson comes back and says that the nuclear weapons did not prove to be the case in Niger, and the Bush administration says the opposite?

JAMES BAMFORD: Exactly. Even in — he didn’t use his name, but even in George Bush’s State of the Union address he referred to the al-Haideri revelations, and again this is information that his own agency said was wrong, was a lie. So, it’s very hard to justify.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, James Bamford, I want to thank you very much for being with us. James Bamford is the author of A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. And he wrote a piece in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine called "The Man Who Sold the War," talking about John Rendon and the Rendon Group.

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