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Tuesday, September 1, 2009 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Japanese Voters Oust Conservative Party, PM-Elect...
2009-09-01

As Pentagon Cancels Rendon Group Contract, US-NATO Spokesman in Afghanistan Defends Using Company to Profile Journalists

Guests

Col. Wayne Shanks, public affairs officer for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Nir Rosen, independent journalist who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. He is a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. In July, he was embedded with the US military in Afghanistan.

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The Pentagon is canceling its contract with the private public relations firm The Rendon Group to produce background profiles of journalists seeking to cover the war. One journalist profiled was Nir Rosen, who got a hold of his profile. The Rendon Group reported to the Pentagon that Rosen’s reporting in Afghanistan was “highly unfavorable to international efforts." The Rendon Group profile also mentioned Rosen’s appearance on Democracy Now!, when he stated his belief that the war is unwinnable and that the US should withdraw. We speak with Col. Wayne Shanks, the public affairs officer for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking about Afghanistan, and we want to turn to media coverage of the war. This really frames the debate and helps effect US policy.

Well, last week on the program, we spoke with the reporter for Stars and Stripes. That’s the Army newspaper that broke the story of how the US military in Afghanistan had hired the private PR firm the Rendon Group to produce background profiles of journalists seeking to cover the war. Journalists were evaluated with pie charts breaking down their coverage into percentages of “positive,” “neutral” or “negative.” The Pentagon has now announced it’s canceling its contract with the Rendon Group, effective today.

For more, we’re joined on the telephone from Kabul by Army Colonel Wayne Shanks. He’s the public affairs officer for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Colonel Shanks.

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Could you first explain why has the Army discontinued this contract with the Rendon Group?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Well, first of all, I’d like to say, I mean, it was apparent that it was becoming distracting to our current mission here. With programs like we’re discussing here, on our performance — or, as you suppose, lack of performance — in these particular issues, it was taking away from where we were really concerned about, of using support for our troops and our forces here in Afghanistan and really doing the counterinsurgency fight and support, which we’re here to do, rather than talk about ourselves.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And why is this a distraction, this story? Why has the Rendon Group become a distraction?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Well, I believe it’s because the media made it a distraction. I mean, we’re a customer service organization. We answer questions from the media. When the media questions were becoming more and more about what we had done or what we had not done, it became obvious to us that we needed to change something, and that was exactly what we changed.

I want to kind of correct something in your premise here, though. The Rendon contract was not a PR firm for the military. We use them for media monitoring. They monitor all variety of media outlets across the world, to include Pashto and Dari outlets, and tell us what is being reported about the conflict in Afghanistan and other areas that we’re interested with. We use those reports to make an assessment on where we needed to focus more energy on. Basically, it’s a report card on us.

I know I’ve heard reports of, you know, pie charts — neutral, negative, positive. Those might have been done in the past, but I can assure you that since I’ve been here — relatively short time, but since July — but we have not been using any of those reports to grade journalists’ work.

With a journalist who’s going to come in to interview my boss, General McChrystal, I will go on the internet and pull off a bio. I’ll pull off a couple of his recent stories and maybe the topics that they want to talk about, provide them to my boss, so he can be prepared to answer those questions. It’s not an effort to agree or disagree or approve or disapprove any type of access or embeds. In fact, your previous guest on there, I probably disagree with a lot of what he had to say, but that’s what makes us stronger. So we hear what dissent is from our opinion, and we’re able to learn from what we’re doing here, and maybe we can make ourselves better.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Colonel Shanks, the Rendon Group, in particular, that you contracted with, that the US military contracted with, was investigated by the Pentagon after some members of Congress said it was hired to create an information campaign to sway the public to support the Iraq war. The company helped form the Iraqi National Congress, which was well known, the Iraqi exile group, the group that provided much of what turned out to be false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. It was also involved in an effort to get Iraqi publications to print articles written by military personnel. That’s the Rendon Group.

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: You may say that. I don’t know. I can tell you what I used them for here is, when I would come in in the morning, I would have a news summary of the media reports from across the world on what the operations were being reported about in Afghanistan. And I would use that to inform my leadership on what the media were reporting about our operations.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You said earlier that you do not use these reports to deny any embeds, but this contradicts what a spokesperson in the military told the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. It was a public affairs officer, Major Patrick Seiber. He said that when his unit was in Afghanistan and in charge of the Rendon contract, he used the conclusions contained in Rendon profiles, in part, to reject at least two journalists’ applications for embeds. He said — and I’m reading from the Stars and Stripes Army newspaper report on this: “He rejected embed requests based partly on what he read in the profiles — once because a reporter had allegedly done [quote] ‘poor reporting.’”

What’s your response? Journalists have been denied embeds based on these reports.

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Well, I mean, he may have done that. That was, you know, months before we got here. There’s been a new organization, if you would, in Afghanistan. There was the creation of US Forces-Afghanistan, stood up to have an umbrella organization provide organized training, equip US forces here in Afghanistan. That’s the headquarters that I’m a part of. The other gentleman you’re referring to was a part of one of our regional commands, at the time was the lead US command in Afghanistan. I work directly for the NATO command and then also have a hat as the US command.

I can tell you that since we’ve been here, we have not denied access for any reporter who wants to come to talk to us based on their previous reporting. I know many reporters where I probably would disagree with what they said, but when you have a professional discussion about it, and we probably end up still disagreeing with each other, but it still doesn’t mean that I won’t, you know, try to schedule them wherever they want to go to see what they want to see, because, I mean, as I said before, we’re a customer service organization. We need the media in order to do our job, because if I talk to —- you know, I don’t have my own newspaper, I don’t have my own TV station. I have to invite media in, show them what they want to see, and let them make their own conclusions from that. That’s what makes the media much more credible or powerful than I could ever be, because you’re a third party, hopefully objective, and report the facts as you see them. Everybody has -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the reporter that you —-

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Everybody has an opinion. If you ask five people, you’ll get five different opinions.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The reporter you heard earlier on the program, Nir Rosen, is still with us. He was applying for an embed this summer, which he eventually got. He managed to get the Rendon Group’s profile of him. And in it, they cite an article in Rolling Stone in late 2008, where he was what they call “embedded with the Taliban,” and he had written a lengthy piece about it. We interviewed him on Democracy Now!

This is part of the Rendon Group’s report. I just wanted to read from you this he obtained. It says, “Rosen’s report was highly unfavorable to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan...Rosen referred to Taliban commanders and leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan as [quote] 'officials,' apparently putting them on equal footing with the Afghan government. The report contained quotations from unnamed Western and UN officials and academics that supported his conclusion that Afghanistan is largely a lost cause.”

They go on to say, “No U.S. officials were quoted to provide commentary on the issues examined in his reporting.” And then -— and this is quoting our program — it says, “In one video, produced by Democracy Now!, Rosen stated his belief that the war is unwinnable and that the U.S. should withdraw.”

Let’s go to a clip. We had Nir Rosen on in late 2008 right after this came out. Let’s go to a clip of what he had to say.

    NIR ROSEN: They control the countryside. They’ve managed to create a power vacuum. The government no longer exists in much of the country. People no longer trust the government. People fear the police at least as much as they fear the Taliban. It just seems irreversible, this trend of the Taliban takeover. [...]

    And an increase in troops in Afghanistan will only be more counterproductive. You’re going to kill more civilians. You’re going to have more engagements with the so-called enemy. You’re going to call in more air support. More civilians will be killed as a result of that.

    And it’s unfortunate that — Obama, of course, one of his major platforms is to withdraw from Iraq. That’s the bad war; he needs the good war. So Afghanistan now is the good war. He needs to prove, as a Democrat, that he too can kill brown people. I think that’s what it comes down to, that we’re not weak; we can kill foreigners, too. All you’ll do, if you increase the troops in Afghanistan, is alienate more of the population. [...]

    International troops should withdraw, or certainly change their approach in terms of pursuing the Taliban. I think negotiations with the Taliban are the only hope of any kind of peaceful solution.

AMY GOODMAN: That was independent journalist Nir Rosen on Democracy Now! last October. It was that conversation that was cited in the Rendon US military report.

Colonel Shanks, is the US military monitoring Democracy Now!?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: We look at all sources that are on the internet and try to pull in whatever is applicable to us. We’ll probably miss a whole bunch, but we try to get as many as we can. Obviously, we’ll look at, you know, some or more of the larger outlets, because more people obviously look or view those, but we will try to get as many as we can, so we can kind of get a gauge on how we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. When we talked to Charlie Reed at Stars and Stripes, the reporter who broke this story, she said that one of Stars and Stripes’ own reporters were profiled and rejected.

Nir Rosen, you actually were accepted, despite the “negative” rating by the Rendon-US military of your coverage of Afghanistan. What is your feeling, your attitude, toward this profiling?

NIR ROSEN: I think, for journalists, perhaps my position would be surprising. I think it’s normal for the military to do this. I think it’s just the job of public affairs officer. What struck me as odd was that they would hire this expensive public relations firm to do it. But surely, any — I mean, I’m sort of sympathetic to the military’s position, in the sense that any large organization that is inviting so much scrutiny from the media, of course, is going to want to know who it’s dealing with. And the US military is not a media organization, it’s not a public affairs organization. They have a mission to accomplish. And that mission often — the US government, in general —- truth isn’t necessarily what they’re after, what they’re trying to promote, and journalists can get in the way of that. And there’s a tension between my job and their job, and I think that’s normal and natural in a free country. So I’m not surprised that -—

And it’s been a sort of a well-known fact in Iraq that public affairs officer would just Google you, and they see what you did. And I think, within Kabul, we’ve all known that — about these Rendon reports. We just never really talked about it. It didn’t seem like such a big deal.

And as I think — as you said, the US military did indeed allow me to embed, despite many of my controversial articles and despite some of the concern that they had here and there. I haven’t really had very many bad experiences with them. They do seem quite open, as long as the military perceives that you’re going to be sort of fair to the soldiers and you’re not, in a way, anti-soldier. If you’re critical of the mission itself or the way it’s being implemented, to be fair to them, they do still allow you to embed. My positions on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are fairly well known, and yet I have been invited more than once.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And a public affairs officer told you that it was the most alarming report he had read of a journalist?

NIR ROSEN: Their concern, among others, was that I was going to disembed and then wander off and hang out with the Taliban, which is not an easy thing to do. You can’t just go knock on their door and ask if you can hang out with them. But there was that concern, and it was in the report that I would pursue — I forget exactly how it was worded. So they did ask me to please stay with the American troops and not go join the Taliban.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And, Colonel Shanks, so the Rendon Group is no longer working with the US military in Afghanistan, effective today; is that correct?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: We have requested that their contract be terminated. I can’t tell you exactly the date, because it’s in contracting channels. I’m not the contracting officer. I’ve just requested that it be terminated.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And who will be doing their work? Will the US military now do its own profiles of journalists in Afghanistan?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: Well, I mean, I have media monitors that monitor what news reporting is out there, and they send me reports on a daily basis. That work still continues, just doesn’t happen to be with the Rendon Group.

AMY GOODMAN: So all contracts are now ended with the Rendon Group?

COL. WAYNE SHANKS: I can only speak to US Forces-Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Colonel Wayne Shanks, we want to thank you very much for being with us, public affairs officer for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan; and Nir Rosen, as well, independent journalist, fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. He just came back from Afghanistan, where he was embedded. I want to thank you both for being with us.

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