- 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.
- "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
- 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
- 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
- John Walter Rendon Jr. rises at 3 a.m. each morning
after six hours of sleep, turns on his Apple computer and begins ingesting
information -- overnight news reports, e-mail messages, foreign and domestic
newspapers, and an assortment of government documents, many of them available
only to those with the highest security clearance. According to Pentagon
documents obtained by Rolling Stone, the Rendon Group is authorized "to
research and analyze information classified up to Top Secret/SCI/SI/TK/G/HCS"
-- an extraordinarily high level of clearance granted to only a handful
of defense contractors. "SCI" stands for Sensitive Compartmented
Information, data classified higher than Top Secret. "SI" is
Special Intelligence, very secret communications intercepted by the National
Security Agency. "TK" refers to Talent/Keyhole, code names for
imagery from reconnaissance aircraft and spy satellites. "G"
stands for Gamma (communications intercepts from extremely sensitive sources)
and "HCS" means Humint Control System (information from a very
sensitive human source). Taken together, the acronyms indicate that Rendon
enjoys access to the most secret information from all three forms of intelligence
collection: eavesdropping, imaging satellites and human spies.
- Rendon lives in a multimillion-dollar home in Washington's
exclusive Kalorama neighborhood. A few doors down from Rendon is the home
of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara; just around the corner
lives current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At fifty-six, Rendon wears
owlish glasses and combs his thick mane of silver-gray hair to the side,
Kennedy-style. He heads to work each morning clad in a custom-made shirt
with his monogram on the right cuff and a sharply tailored blue blazer
that hangs loose around his bulky frame. By the time he pulls up to the
Rendon Group's headquarters near Dupont Circle, he has already racked up
a handsome fee for the morning's work: According to federal records, Rendon
charges the CIA and the Pentagon $311.26 an hour for his services.
- Rendon is one of the most influential of the private
contractors in Washington who are increasingly taking over jobs long reserved
for highly trained CIA employees. In recent years, spies-for-hire have
begun to replace regional desk officers, who control clandestine operations
around the world; watch officers at the agency's twenty-four-hour crisis
center; analysts, who sift through reams of intelligence data; and even
counterintelligence officers in the field, who oversee meetings between
agents and their recruited spies. According to one senior administration
official involved in intelligence-budget decisions, half of the CIA's work
is now performed by private contractors -- people completely unaccountable
to Congress. Another senior budget official acknowledges privately that
lawmakers have no idea how many rent-a-spies the CIA currently employs
-- or how much unchecked power they enjoy.
- Unlike many newcomers to the field, however, Rendon
is a battle-tested veteran who has been secretly involved in nearly every
American shooting conflict in the past two decades. In the first interview
he has granted in decades, Rendon offered a peek through the keyhole of
this seldom-seen world of corporate spooks -- a rarefied but growing profession.
Over a dinner of lamb chops and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at a private
Washington club, Rendon was guarded about the details of his clandestine
work -- but he boasted openly of the sweep and importance of his firm's
efforts as a for-profit spy. "We've worked in ninety-one countries,"
he said. "Going all the way back to Panama, we've been involved in
every war, with the exception of Somalia."
- It is an unusual career twist for someone who entered
politics as an opponent of the Vietnam War. The son of a stockbroker, Rendon
grew up in New Jersey and stumped for McGovern before graduating from Northeastern
University. "I was the youngest state coordinator," he recalls.
"I had Maine. They told me that I understood politics -- which was
a stretch, being so young." Rendon, who went on to serve as executive
director of the Democratic National Committee, quickly mastered the combination
of political skulduggery and media manipulation that would become his hallmark.
In 1980, as the manager of Jimmy Carter's troops at the national convention
in New York, he was sitting alone in the bleachers at Madison Square Garden
when a reporter for ABC News approached him. "They actually did a
little piece about the man behind the curtain," Rendon says. "A
Wizard of Oz thing." It was a role he would end up playing for the
rest of his life.
- After Carter lost the election and the hard-right Reagan
revolutionaries came to power in 1981, Rendon went into business with his
younger brother Rick. "Everybody started consulting," he recalls.
"We started consulting." They helped elect John Kerry to the
Senate in 1984 and worked for the AFL-CIO to mobilize the union vote for
Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. Among the items Rendon produced
was a training manual for union organizers to operate as political activists
on behalf of Mondale. To keep the operation quiet, Rendon stamped CONFIDENTIAL
on the cover of each of the blue plastic notebooks. It was a penchant for
secrecy that would soon pervade all of his consulting deals.
- To a large degree, the Rendon Group is a family affair.
Rendon's wife, Sandra Libby, handles the books as chief financial officer
and "senior communications strategist." Rendon's brother Rick
serves as senior partner and runs the company's Boston office, producing
public-service announcements for the Whale Conservation Institute and coordinating
Empower Peace, a campaign that brings young people in the Middle East in
contact with American kids through video-conferencing technology. But the
bulk of the company's business is decidedly less liberal and peace oriented.
Rendon's first experience in the intelligence world, in fact, came courtesy
of the Republicans. "Panama," he says, "brought us into
the national-security environment."
- In 1989, shortly after his election, President George
H.W. Bush signed a highly secret "finding" authorizing the CIA
to funnel $10 million to opposition forces in Panama to overthrow Gen.
Manuel Noriega. Reluctant to involve agency personnel directly, the CIA
turned to the Rendon Group. Rendon's job was to work behind the scenes,
using a variety of campaign and psychological techniques to put the CIA's
choice, Guillermo Endara, into the presidential palace. Cash from the agency,
laundered through various bank accounts and front organizations, would
end up in Endara's hands, who would then pay Rendon.
- A heavyset, fifty-three-year-old corporate attorney
with little political experience, Endara was running against Noriega's
handpicked choice, Carlos Duque. With Rendon's help, Endara beat Duque
decisively at the polls -- but Noriega simply named himself "Maximum
Leader" and declared the election null and void. The Bush administration
then decided to remove Noriega by force -- and Rendon's job shifted from
generating local support for a national election to building international
support for regime change. Within days he had found the ultimate propaganda
- At the end of a rally in support of Endara, a band of
Noriega's Dignity Battalion -- nicknamed "Dig Bats" and called
"Doberman thugs" by Bush -- attacked the crowd with wooden planks,
metal pipes and guns. Gang members grabbed the bodyguard of Guillermo Ford,
one of Endara's vice-presidential candidates, pushed him against a car,
shoved a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. With cameras snapping,
the Dig Bats turned on Ford, batting his head with a spike-tipped metal
rod and pounding him with heavy clubs, turning his white guayabera bright
red with blood -- his own, and that of his dead bodyguard.
- Within hours, Rendon made sure the photos reached every
newsroom in the world. The next week an image of the violence made the
cover of Time magazine with the caption POLITICS PANAMA STYLE: NORIEGA
BLUDGEONS HIS OPPOSITION, AND THE U.S. TURNS UP THE HEAT. To further boost
international support for Endara, Rendon escorted Ford on a tour of Europe
to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Italian prime minister
and even the pope. In December 1989, when Bush decided to invade Panama,
Rendon and several of his employees were on one of the first military jets
headed to Panama City.
- "I arrived fifteen minutes before it started,"
Rendon recalls. "My first impression is having the pilot in the plane
turn around and say, 'Excuse me, sir, but if you look off to the left you'll
see the attack aircraft circling before they land.' Then I remember this
major saying, 'Excuse me, sir, but do you know what the air-defense capability
of Panama is at the moment?' I leaned into the cockpit and said, 'Look,
major, I hope by now that's no longer an issue.'"
- Moments later, Rendon's plane landed at Howard Air Force
Base in Panama. "I needed to get to Fort Clayton, which was where
the president was," he says. "I was choppered over -- and we
took some rounds on the way." There, on a U.S. military base surrounded
by 24,000 U.S. troops, heavy tanks and Combat Talon AC-130 gunships, Rendon's
client, Endara, was at last sworn in as president of Panama.
- Rendon's involvement in the campaign to oust Saddam
Hussein began seven months later, in July 1990. Rendon had taken time out
for a vacation -- a long train ride across Scotland -- when he received
an urgent call. "Soldiers are massing at the border outside of Kuwait,"
he was told. At the airport, he watched the beginning of the Iraqi invasion
on television. Winging toward Washington in the first-class cabin of a
Pan Am 747, Rendon spent the entire flight scratching an outline of his
ideas in longhand on a yellow legal pad.
- "I wrote a memo about what the Kuwaitis were going
to face, and I based it on our experience in Panama and the experience
of the Free French operation in World War II," Rendon says. "This
was something that they needed to see and hear, and that was my whole intent.
Go over, tell the Kuwaitis, 'Here's what you've got -- here's some observations,
here's some recommendations, live long and prosper.'"
- Back in Washington, Rendon immediately called Hamilton
Jordan, the former chief of staff to President Carter and an old friend
from his Democratic Party days. "He put me in touch with the Saudis,
the Saudis put me in touch with the Kuwaitis and then I went over and had
a meeting with the Kuwaitis," Rendon recalls. "And by the time
I landed back in the United States, I got a phone call saying, 'Can you
come back? We want you to do what's in the memo.'"
- What the Kuwaitis wanted was help in selling a war of
liberation to the American government -- and the American public. Rendon
proposed a massive "perception management" campaign designed
to convince the world of the need to join forces to rescue Kuwait. Working
through an organization called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, the Kuwaiti
government in exile agreed to pay Rendon $100,000 a month for his assistance.
- To coordinate the operation, Rendon opened an office
in London. Once the Gulf War began, he remained extremely busy trying to
prevent the American press from reporting on the dark side of the Kuwaiti
government, an autocratic oil-tocracy ruled by a family of wealthy sheiks.
When newspapers began reporting that many Kuwaitis were actually living
it up in nightclubs in Cairo as Americans were dying in the Kuwaiti sand,
the Rendon Group quickly counterattacked. Almost instantly, a wave of articles
began appearing telling the story of grateful Kuwaitis mailing 20,000 personally
signed valentines to American troops on the front lines, all arranged by
- Rendon also set up an elaborate television and radio
network, and developed programming that was beamed into Kuwait from Taif,
Saudi Arabia. "It was important that the Kuwaitis in occupied Kuwait
understood that the rest of the world was doing something," he says.
Each night, Rendon's troops in London produced a script and sent it via
microwave to Taif, ensuring that the "news" beamed into Kuwait
reflected a sufficiently pro-American line.
- When it comes to staging a war, few things are left
to chance. After Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, it was Rendon's responsibility
to make the victory march look like the flag-waving liberation of France
after World War II. "Did you ever stop to wonder," he later remarked,
"how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven
long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American -- and, for
that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?" After a pause,
he added, "Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs
- Although his work is highly secret, Rendon insists he
deals only in "timely, truthful and accurate information." His
job, he says, is to counter false perceptions that the news media perpetuate
because they consider it "more important to be first than to be right."
In modern warfare, he believes, the outcome depends largely on the public's
perception of the war -- whether it is winnable, whether it is worth the
cost. "We are being haunted and stalked by the difference between
perception and reality," he says. "Because the lines are divergent,
this difference between perception and reality is one of the greatest strategic
communications challenges of war."
- By the time the Gulf War came to a close in 1991, the
Rendon Group was firmly established as Washington's leading salesman for
regime change. But Rendon's new assignment went beyond simply manipulating
the media. After the war ended, the Top Secret order signed by President
Bush to oust Hussein included a rare "lethal finding" -- meaning
deadly action could be taken if necessary. Under contract to the CIA, Rendon
was charged with helping to create a dissident force with the avowed purpose
of violently overthrowing the entire Iraqi government. It is an undertaking
that Rendon still considers too classified to discuss. "That's where
we're wandering into places I'm not going to talk about," he says.
"If you take an oath, it should mean something."
- Thomas Twetten, the CIA's former deputy of operations,
credits Rendon with virtually creating the INC. "The INC was clueless,"
he once observed. "They needed a lot of help and didn't know where
to start. That is why Rendon was brought in." Acting as the group's
senior adviser and aided by truckloads of CIA dollars, Rendon pulled together
a wide spectrum of Iraqi dissidents and sponsored a conference in Vienna
to organize them into an umbrella organization, which he dubbed the Iraqi
National Congress. Then, as in Panama, his assignment was to help oust
a brutal dictator and replace him with someone chosen by the CIA. "The
reason they got the contract was because of what they had done in Panama
-- so they were known," recalls Whitley Bruner, former chief of the
CIA's station in Baghdad. This time the target was Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein and the agency's successor of choice was Ahmad Chalabi, a crafty,
avuncular Iraqi exile beloved by Washington's neoconservatives.
- Chalabi was a curious choice to lead a rebellion. In
1992, he was convicted in Jordan of making false statements and embezzling
$230 million from his own bank, for which he was sentenced in absentia
to twenty-two years of hard labor. But the only credential that mattered
was his politics. "From day one," Rendon says, "Chalabi
was very clear that his biggest interest was to rid Iraq of Saddam."
Bruner, who dealt with Chalabi and Rendon in London in 1991, puts it even
more bluntly. "Chalabi's primary focus," he said later, "was
to drag us into a war."
- The key element of Rendon's INC operation was a worldwide
media blitz designed to turn Hussein, a once dangerous but now contained
regional leader, into the greatest threat to world peace. Each month, $326,000
was passed from the CIA to the Rendon Group and the INC via various front
organizations. Rendon profited handsomely, receiving a "management
fee" of ten percent above what it spent on the project. According
to some reports, the company made nearly $100 million on the contract during
the five years following the Gulf War.
- Rendon made considerable headway with the INC, but following
the group's failed coup attempt against Saddam in 1996, the CIA lost confidence
in Chalabi and cut off his monthly paycheck. But Chalabi and Rendon simply
switched sides, moving over to the Pentagon, and the money continued to
flow. "The Rendon Group is not in great odor in Langley these days,"
notes Bruner. "Their contracts are much more with the Defense Department."
- Rendon's influence rose considerably in Washington after
the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In a single stroke, Osama bin
Laden altered the world's perception of reality -- and in an age of nonstop
information, whoever controls perception wins. What Bush needed to fight
the War on Terror was a skilled information warrior -- and Rendon was widely
acknowledged as the best. "The events of 11 September 2001 changed
everything, not least of which was the administration's outlook concerning
strategic influence," notes one Army report. "Faced with direct
evidence that many people around the world actively hated the United States,
Bush began taking action to more effectively explain U.S. policy overseas.
Initially the White House and DoD turned to the Rendon Group."
- Three weeks after the September 11th attacks, according
to documents obtained from defense sources, the Pentagon awarded a large
contract to the Rendon Group. Around the same time, Pentagon officials
also set up a highly secret organization called the Office of Strategic
Influence. Part of the OSI's mission was to conduct covert disinformation
and deception operations -- planting false news items in the media and
hiding their origins. "It's sometimes valuable from a military standpoint
to be able to engage in deception with respect to future anticipated plans,"
Vice President Dick Cheney said in explaining the operation. Even the military's
top brass found the clandestine unit unnerving. "When I get their
briefings, it's scary," a senior official said at the time.
- In February 2002, The New York Times reported that the
Pentagon had hired Rendon "to help the new office," a charge
Rendon denies. "We had nothing to do with that," he says. "We
were not in their reporting chain. We were reporting directly to the J-3"
-- the head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Following the leak,
Rumsfeld was forced to shut down the organization. But much of the office's
operations were apparently shifted to another unit, deeper in the Pentagon's
bureaucracy, called the Information Operations Task Force, and Rendon was
closely connected to this group. "Greg Newbold was the J-3 at the
time, and we reported to him through the IOTF," Rendon says.
- According to the Pentagon documents, the Rendon Group
played a major role in the IOTF. The company was charged with creating
an "Information War Room" to monitor worldwide news reports at
lightning speed and respond almost instantly with counterpropaganda. 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 reports, as they are filed, before they are on the
Internet, before CNN can read them on the air and twenty-four hours before
they appear in the morning newspapers, and sorts them by keyword. 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, which the Pentagon considered "critical to
U.S. objectives in the War on Terrorism." According to the contract,
Rendon would provide a "detailed content analysis of the station's
daily broadcast . . . [and] identify the biases of specific journalists
and potentially obtain an understanding of their allegiances, including
the possibility of specific relationships and sponsorships."
- 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
the office should find ways to "punish" those who convey the
"wrong message." One senior officer told CNN that the plan would
"formalize government deception, dishonesty and misinformation."
- According to the Pentagon documents, Rendon would use
his media analysis to conduct a worldwide propaganda campaign, deploying
teams of information warriors to allied nations to assist them "in
developing and delivering specific messages to the local population, combatants,
front-line states, the media and the international community." Among
the places Rendon's info-war teams would be sent were Jakarta, Indonesia;
Islamabad, Pakistan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Cairo; Ankara, Turkey; and Tashkent,
Uzbekistan. The teams would produce and script television news segments
"built around themes and story lines supportive of U.S. policy objectives."
- Rendon was also charged with engaging in "military
deception" online -- an activity once assigned to the OSI. The company
was contracted to monitor Internet chat rooms in both English and Arabic
-- and "participate in these chat rooms when/if tasked." Rendon
would also create a Web site "with regular news summaries and feature
articles. Targeted at the global public, in English and at least four (4)
additional languages, this activity also will include an extensive e-mail
push operation." These techniques are commonly used to plant a variety
of propaganda, including false information.
- Still another newly formed propaganda operation in which
Rendon played a major part was the Office of Global Communications, which
operated out of the White House and was charged with spreading the administration's
message on the War in Iraq. Every morning at 9:30, Rendon took part in
the White House OGC conference call, where officials would discuss the
theme of the day and who would deliver it. The office also worked closely
with the White House Iraq Group, whose high-level members, including recently
indicted Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby, were responsible for selling
the war to the American public.
- Never before in history had such an extensive secret
network been established to shape the entire world's perception of a war.
"It was not just bad intelligence -- it was an orchestrated effort,"
says Sam Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and
military operations at the National War College. "It began before
the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict
- In the first weeks following the September 11th attacks,
Rendon operated at a frantic pitch. "In the early stages it was fielding
every ground ball that was coming, because nobody was sure if we were ever
going to be attacked again," he says. "It was 'What do you know
about this, what do you know about that, what else can you get, can you
talk to somebody over here?' We functioned twenty-four hours a day. We
maintained situational awareness, in military terms, on all things related
to terrorism. We were doing 195 newspapers and 43 countries in fourteen
or fifteen languages. If you do this correctly, I can tell you what's on
the evening news tonight in a country before it happens. I can give you,
as a policymaker, a six-hour break on how you can affect what's going to
be on the news. They'll take that in a heartbeat."
- The Bush administration took everything Rendon had to
offer. Between 2000 and 2004, Pentagon documents show, the Rendon Group
received at least thirty-five contracts with the Defense Department, worth
a total of $50 million to $100 million.
- The mourners genuflected, made the sign of the cross
and took their seats along the hard, shiny pews of Our Lady of Victories
Catholic Church. It was April 2nd, 2003 -- the start of fall in the small
Australian town of Glenelg, an aging beach resort of white Victorian homes
and soft, blond sand on Holdback Bay. Rendon had flown halfway around the
world to join nearly 600 friends and family who were gathered to say farewell
to a local son and amateur football champ, Paul Moran. Three days into
the invasion of Iraq, the freelance journalist and Rendon employee had
become the first member of the media to be killed in the war -- a war he
had covertly helped to start.
- Moran had lived a double life, filing reports for the
Australian Broadcasting Corp. and other news organizations, while at other
times operating as a clandestine agent for Rendon, enjoying what his family
calls his "James Bond lifestyle." Moran had trained Iraqi opposition
forces in photographic espionage, showing them how to covertly document
Iraqi military activities, and had produced pro-war announcements for the
Pentagon. "He worked for the Rendon Group in London," says his
mother, Kathleen. "They just send people all over the world -- where
there are wars."
- Moran was covering the Iraq invasion for ABC, filming
at a Kurdish-controlled checkpoint in the city of Sulaymaniyah, when a
car driven by a suicide bomber blew up next to him. "I saw the car
in a kind of slow-motion disintegrate," recalls Eric Campbell, a correspondent
who was filming with Moran. "A soldier handed me a passport, which
was charred. That's when I knew Paul was dead."
- As the Mass ended and Moran's Australian-flag-draped
coffin passed by the mourners, Rendon lifted his right arm and saluted.
He refused to discuss Moran's role in the company, saying only that "Paul
worked for us on a number of projects." But on the long flight back
to Washington, across more than a dozen time zones, Rendon outlined his
feelings in an e-mail: "The day did begin with dark and ominous clouds
much befitting the emotions we all felt -- sadness and anger at the senseless
violence that claimed our comrade Paul Moran ten short days ago and many
decades of emotion ago."
- The Rendon Group also organized a memorial service in
London, where Moran first went to work for the company in 1990. Held at
Home House, a private club in Portman Square where Moran often stayed while
visiting the city, the event was set among photographs of Moran in various
locations around the Middle East. Zaab Sethna, who organized the al-Haideri
media exclusive in Thailand for Moran and Judith Miller, gave a touching
tribute to his former colleague. "I think that on both a personal
and professional level Paul was deeply admired and loved by the people
at the Rendon Group," Sethna later said.
- Although Moran was gone, the falsified story about weapons
of mass destruction that he and Sethna had broadcast around the world lived
on. Seven months earlier, as President Bush was about to argue his case
for war before the U.N., the White House had given prominent billing to
al-Haideri's fabricated charges. In a report ironically titled "Iraq:
Denial and Deception," the administration referred to al-Haideri by
name and detailed his allegations -- even though the CIA had already determined
them to be lies. The report was placed on the White House Web site on September
12th, 2002, and remains there today. One version of the report even credits
Miller's article for the information.
- Miller also continued to promote al-Haideri's tale of
Saddam's villainy. In January 2003, more than a year after her first article
appeared, Miller again reported that Pentagon "intelligence officials"
were telling her that "some of the most valuable information has come
from Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri." His interviews with the Defense
Intelligence Agency, Miller added, "ultimately resulted in dozens
of highly credible reports on Iraqi weapons-related activity and purchases,
- Finally, in early 2004, more than two years after he
made the dramatic allegations to Miller and Moran about Saddam's weapons
of mass destruction, al-Haideri was taken back to Iraq by the CIA's Iraq
Survey Group. On a wide-ranging trip through Baghdad and other key locations,
al-Haideri was given the opportunity to point out exactly where Saddam's
stockpiles were hidden, confirming the charges that had helped to start
- In the end, he could not identify a single site where
illegal weapons were buried.
- As the war in Iraq has spiraled out of control, the
Bush administration's covert propaganda campaign has intensified. According
to a secret Pentagon report personally approved by Rumsfeld in October
2003 and obtained by Rolling Stone, the Strategic Command is authorized
to engage in "military deception" -- defined as "presenting
false information, images or statements." The seventy-four-page document,
titled "Information Operations Roadmap," also calls for psychological
operations to be launched over radio, television, cell phones and "emerging
technologies" such as the Internet. In addition to being classified
secret, the road map is also stamped noforn, meaning it cannot be shared
even with our allies.
- As the acknowledged general of such propaganda warfare,
Rendon insists that the work he does is for the good of all Americans.
"For us, it's a question of patriotism," he says. "It's
not a question of politics, and that's an important distinction. I feel
very strongly about that personally. If brave men and women are going to
be put in harm's way, they deserve support." But in Iraq, American
troops and Iraqi civilians were put in harm's way, in large part, by the
false information spread by Rendon and the men he trained in information
warfare. And given the rapid growth of what is known as the "security-intelligence
complex" in Washington, covert perception managers are likely to play
an increasingly influential role in the wars of the future.
- Indeed, Rendon is already thinking ahead. Last year,
he attended a conference on information operations in London, where he
offered an assessment on the Pentagon's efforts to manipulate the media.
According to those present, Rendon applauded the practice of embedding
journalists with American forces. "He said the embedded idea was great,"
says an Air Force colonel who attended the talk. "It worked as they
had found in the test. It was the war version of reality television, and
for the most part they did not lose control of the story." But Rendon
also cautioned that individual news organizations were often able to "take
control of the story," shaping the news before the Pentagon asserted
its spin on the day's events.
- "We lost control of the context," Rendon warned.
"That has to be fixed for the next war."
- James Bamford is the best-selling author of "A
Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies"
(2004) and "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National
Security Agency" (2001). This is his first article for Rolling Stone.