The Pentagon's Information Warrior

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This article was first published as The Pentagon's Information Warrior: Rendon to the Rescue]"in PR Watch, Volume 8, No. 4, 4th Quarter 2001. The original article was written by Laura Miller and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

"I am not a National Security strategist or a military tactician," says John W. Rendon, Jr., whose DC-based PR firm was recently hired by the Pentagon to win over the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims worldwide.

"I am a politician," Rendon said in a 1998 speech to the National Security Conference (NSC), "and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior, and a perception manager. This is probably best described in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, when he wrote 'When things turn weird, the weird turn pro.'"

The Rendon Group's contract with the Pentagon was awarded on a no-bid basis, reflecting the government's determination to hire a firm already versed in running overseas propaganda operations. Rendon specializes in "assisting corporations, organizations, and governments achieve their policy objectives." Past clients include the CIA, USAID, the government of Kuwait, Monsanto Chemical Company, and the official trade agencies of countries including Bulgaria, Russia, and Uzbekistan.

"Through its network of international offices and strategic alliances," the Rendon Group website boasts, "the company has provided communications services to clients in more than 78 countries, and maintains contact with government officials, decision-makers, and news media around the globe."

The Pentagon stipulates that the Rendon Group will receive $400,000 for four months of work. Details are confidential, but according to the San Jose Mercury News, Rendon will be monitoring international news media, conducting focus groups, creating a web site about the US campaign against terrorism, and recommending "ways the US military can counter disinformation and improve its own public communications."

Rendon and Desert Storm

In dollar terms, Rendon's Pentagon contract resembles the $100,000 monthly retainer that it received in the early 1990s from the Kuwaiti government as part of a multi-million-dollar PR campaign denouncing Iraq's 1990 invasion and mobilizing public support for Operation Desert Storm.

The Rendon Group's website states that during the Gulf War, it "established a full-scale communications operation for the Government of Kuwait, including the establishment of a production studio in London producing programming material for the exiled Kuwaiti Television." Rendon also provided media support for exiled government leaders and helped Kuwaiti officials after the war by "providing press and site advance to incoming congressional delegations and other visiting US government officials." Several of Rendon's non-governmental clients also have headquarters in Kuwait: Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, Kuwait University, American Housing Consortium, American Business Council of Kuwait, and KPMG/Peat Marwick.

The Rendon Group's work in Kuwait continued after the war itself had ended. "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."

Rendon was also a major player in the CIA's effort to encourage the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In May 1991, then-President George Bush, Sr. signed a presidential finding directing the CIA to create the conditions for Hussein's removal. The hope was that members of the Iraqi military would turn on Hussein and stage a military coup. The CIA did not have the mechanisms in place to make that happen, so they hired the Rendon Group to run a covert anti-Saddam propaganda campaign. Rendon's postwar work involved producing videos and radio skits ridiculing Saddam Hussein, a traveling photo exhibit of Iraqi atrocities, and radio scripts calling on Iraqi army officers to defect.

A February 1998 report by Peter Jennings cited records obtained by ABC News which showed that the Rendon Group spent more than $23 million dollars in the first year of its contract with the CIA. It worked closely with the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition coalition of 19 Iraqi and Kurdish organizations whose main tasks were to "gather information, distribute propaganda and recruit dissidents." According to ABC, Rendon came up with the name for the Iraqi National Congress and channeled $12 million of covert CIA funding to it between 1992 and 1996., a website which monitors underground and anti-government radio stations in countries throughout the world, credits the Rendon Group with "designing and supervising" the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and Radio Hurriah, which began broadcasting Iraqi opposition propaganda in January 1992 from a US government transmitter in Kuwait. According to a September 1996 article in Time magazine, six CIA case officers supervised the IBC's 11 hours of daily programming and Iraqi National Congress activities in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Arbil. These activities came to an abrupt end on August 31, 1996, when the Iraqi army invaded Arbil and executed all but 12 out of 100 IBC staff workers along with about 100 members of the Iraqi National Congress.

Today's PR War

The work of the Rendon Group is only one element of the Bush Administration's PR campaign. The United States has established "instant response" communications offices in Washington, London and Islamabad, and senior administration officials are regularly talking to Arabic news media.

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 8 that the Army's "4th Psychological Operations (Psyops) group" designed leaflets and radio broadcasts inside Afghanistan "to persuade enemy fighters to quit, and to convince civilians that U.S. bombs raining down on their country will result in a better future for their families."

A separate advertising campaign is headed by Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who was recently named the State Department's Undersecretary of State for "public diplomacy" (the official government euphemism for "public relations"). The New York Times reported that Beers is "planning a television and advertising campaign to try to influence Islamic opinion; one segment could feature American celebrities, including sports stars, and a more emotional message."

In an October interview with Advertising Age, Beers said public diplomacy "is a vital new arm in what will combat terrorism over time. All of a sudden, we are in this position of redefining who America is, not only for ourselves under this kind of attack, but also for the outside world." The corporate-funded Advertising Council is reportedly working with Beers on developing the campaign. According to Advertising Age, the Ad Council "has boiled its message down to one strategic idea: freedom."

Hollywood executives have also joined the White House brain trust, conferring with administration officials on ways to help spread the U.S. message at home and abroad. "It's possible the entertainment industry could help the government formulate its message to the rest of the world about who Americans are, and what they believe," said Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Voice of America has dramatically increased its radio broadcasts in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, and Urdu, but has had difficult reaching crucial elements of the Arab population in the Middle East. "We have almost no youthful audience under the age of 25 in the Arab world and we are concerned that ... this important segment of the population has enormous distrust of the United States," said Marc Nathanson, a spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the entity that oversees international public broadcasting operations for the United States.

To Know Us is to Love Us

Many of the people charged with masterminding the propaganda war seem handicapped by a naive belief that the US is simply misunderstood abroad. "They hate us out of ignorance," is a common trope. Communications strategies are being developed on the assumption that if "they" just knew how good "we" are and how much we love "freedom," then they will support the war.

"How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" asked Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. President Bush has expressed similar bafflement. "I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us," he said. "We've got to do a better job of making our case."

Lee McKnight, director of the Edward R. Murrow Center at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says this inability to understand the thinking of the Arab world is the single biggest reason that the United States is winning the military battle but losing the propaganda war. "We can't convince anyone we're right if we don't understand their point of view," he said.

The spin doctors and politicians have failed to realize that propaganda cannot hope to change opinions when fundamental US policies remain the same. "No amount of media management will matter if the US is not also seen--and actually working on--ways to resolve some of the intractable conflicts which have served to feed fanaticism and anti-US sentiment throughout many Arabic and Islamic nations," McKnight said.

"The United States lost the public relations war in the Muslim world a long time ago," says Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News. "They could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help." "The calculus of human suffering is far less clear from the perspective of the Middle East," observes Princeton University history professor Nicholas Guyatt, "and the awful images of Sept. 11 fade quickly when supplanted by Israeli attacks on Bethlehem or even the 'collateral damage' of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan." The U.S. cannot hope to win the battle for hearts and minds until its leaders realize the importance of deeds in addition to words and begin to promote real democracy, peace and human rights in the Muslim world.