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[infowar.de] CT 12.05.02: U.S. pays PR guru to make its points
U.S. pays PR guru to make its points
Firm's Pentagon work is lucrative, and top secret
By Stephen J. Hedges
May 12, 2002
WASHINGTON -- When U.S. troops go into a war zone, John Rendon is rarely
He was in Panama in 1989 for the brief invasion that toppled strongman
Manuel Noriega. He was in Kuwait when allied forces took it back from
Saddam Hussein in 1991, making sure that citizens had little American flags
to wave for the conquering troops and television cameras. He has worked in
Haiti and in the Balkans, and is now fully engaged in the war against
But John Rendon is not a military officer, government adviser, diplomat,
spy or journalist. He is, to use his own words, "an information warrior and
a perception manager."
Rendon makes images, manipulates scenes and manages news. He advises
politicians and spreads propaganda.
Rendon and his public-relations firm, The Rendon Group, have many clients,
but none bigger--or more loyal--than the U.S. government.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon gave Rendon a
$100,000-a-month contract to track foreign news reports and offer advice on
media strategy. Rendon also worked for the Defense Department in the
Balkans, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
The State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and foreign governments
also have turned to Rendon in recent years for help in relaying and shaping
messages for the mainstream, according to government officials and federal
records. Rendon has beamed radio broadcasts into hostile countries, helped
design leaflets for distribution in war-torn areas, and designed Web sites
and run PR campaigns to give the U.S. spin on world events.
When the Pentagon earlier this year wanted to create an Office of Strategic
Influence to spread its own version of the news in foreign lands, it asked
Rendon for advice.
President Bush ultimately nixed the office after a storm of protest over
reports that it planned to spread false information through foreign news
outlets. But the controversy raised even more questions about the
government's need to pay someone to manage its image, and about the man
hired to do the job.
Over two decades of navigating Washington's inner circles, Rendon has built
a unique business. While maintaining his political and public-relations
credentials, he also has channeled his energies and staff into the murky
bog of intelligence and defense work.
In the course of that career, Rendon has garnered contracts worth millions
of dollars, a good bit of it, government sources say, from classified work.
"I have a feeling that The Agency helped make him, filled his coffers,"
said one former senior CIA official.
The Rendon Group's current Pentagon work is just one part of a multifront,
multimedia assault the Bush administration is waging against terrorism.
While propaganda, war and presidents have always gone together, the Bush
White House is especially attuned to the public-relations side of military
Last fall, the White House named advertising executive Charlotte Beers
undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and she is
developing a full-fledged campaign to sway minds abroad. And the
administration has been quick to send top officials to appear on Al
Jazeera, the Arabic television station.
"Our own government propagandizing its position--it's not like it didn't
happen before," said John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine and
author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War." "But
this is a sophisticated, mass-market approach to it."
Rendon's admirers say he's perfect for that job.
"He is very knowledgeable, a chess player in the sense that he understands
how the bad guys think," said Chuck de Caro, a National Defense University
Hard to judge effectiveness
Others in the public-relations business say the secretive work of The
Rendon Group, or TRG, makes it difficult to judge its effectiveness.
"They're very closemouthed about what they do," said Kevin McCauley, an
editor at O'Dwyer's PR Daily. "They do media monitoring, getting an image
of how the U.S. is perceived in the Muslim world. And they're big into
video news releases. It's all cloak-and-dagger stuff."
While Washington's public-relations firms usually relish attention, Rendon
keeps a low profile. He declined to be interviewed for this story and won't
discuss his government-paid work. The company's Web site did offer an
expansive list of clients and activities, but for unknown reasons it is no
longer available on the Internet.
Rendon's view of his business, however, can be gleaned from his numerous
talks to college groups and think tanks.
"I am an information warrior and a perception manager," he told a group at
the U.S. Air Force Academy in February 1996.
That wasn't always Rendon's calling. He came to Washington from
Massachusetts with President Jimmy Carter, and a colleague described him as
a logistics specialist who made the campaign run on time. He then became
political director of the Democratic National Committee.
With Carter out of office in 1981, Rendon and his brother, Rick, formed a
political consulting business. In 1985, the Rendons went international with
a new client, the Christian Democratic Party on the tiny Caribbean island
By 1989, TRG was wading into the civil strife in Panama, where Guillermo
Endara, a soft-spoken attorney, had emerged as the opposition candidate
challenging the sword-waving, tough-talking Noriega. Endara, who eventually
became Panama's president, said Rendon advised him on how to act with
crowds and on television.
"He tried to help me with the common things of campaigns," Endara said. "He
made emphasis on how I should give interviews, how I should speak when I go
out to the voter."
Endara was less certain about who paid for Rendon's work, though he said
payments were made through the Dadeland Bank in Miami. Carlos Rodriguez, a
party leader, was then a partner in the bank. Press reports at the time
noted that the U.S. government openly contributed $10 million to the
Panamanian opposition, but it's not clear whether any of that money made it
According to The Rendon Group's promotional materials, Rendon's company
would offer similar services five years later to Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
the embattled Haitian president who in 1994 returned to reclaim the post he
lost in a 1991 military coup. Ira Kurzban, Haiti's general counsel, said
Aristide's government paid Rendon directly from an account in Washington.
In May 1991, then-President George Bush signed a "finding" that gave the
CIA authority to conduct covert operations to undermine Iraqi leader Saddam
Hussein. But many in the administration were lukewarm about the order, and
the CIA faced the challenge of carrying out an edict that did not seem to
have real support inside the Bush White House, or in the administration of
his successor, Bill Clinton.
"The feeling was, `The White House isn't behind it, there's a lot of money,
what do I do with this money?'" a former CIA officer said. "There was a lot
of money to spend."
A good bit of that money went to The Rendon Group, which was hired by the
CIA in 1991, according to former CIA officials and Iraqi opposition groups.
One of Rendon's chief contacts at the CIA then was Linda Flohr, then a CIA
covert operations veteran and now a top anti-terrorism official at the
White House's National Security Council. At one point, Flohr actually left
the CIA and took a contract job with Rendon before returning to the government.
TRG quickly ramped up its covert effort to vilify Hussein. The company
found office space on a street called Catherine Place in London, near
Buckingham Palace. Its propaganda included a regular anti-Hussein radio
program beamed into Iraq, an exhibit of photos displayed throughout Europe
that depicted victims of Iraq's military regime, and video feeds for
newscasts that included burning oil wells. Several front organizations were
formed, including one called the Coalition for Justice in Iraq.
Spending draws concern
But CIA officials became concerned about Rendon's spending, knowledgeable
sources say. CIA auditors were assigned to investigate, arranging with
Rendon to enter his offices at night because most TRG employees were not
supposed to know they were working for the CIA.
While The Rendon Group's contract remains classified, a former employee
confirmed that the terms were generous. TRG was paid an annual management
fee and 10 percent of the entire contract price, which remains classified.
CIA officials involved in the work said it was between $20 million and $40
million. The government, the employee said, also covered all overhead costs.
"It was nothing but gravy," said the former Rendon employee. "And in this
particular case, we had a very expensive program going."
Former CIA officials familiar with Rendon's work would not discuss
specifics but said those terms were generally accurate. Frederick Hitz,
then CIA inspector general, confirmed Rendon's accounts came under review
but declined to disclose the investigation's results, which he said were
Rendon's government business, though, continued apace. TRG found new work
at the Pentagon and State Department, both embroiled in budding military
action in Kosovo. The Defense Department hired Rendon to run the Balkan
Information Exchange, a news-driven Web site. The U.S. Agency for
International Development awarded TRG a $400,000 contract to promote
privatization, according to USAID records.
The Rendon Group has since grown out of its simple brick townhouse into a
modern suite of offices near Washington's Dupont Circle. Two years ago,
Rendon and his wife, Sandra Libby--the firm's chief financial
officer--bought a $1 million house in Washington's elegant Kalorama
neighborhood, according to public records.
When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, the Pentagon's office of Command,
Control, Communications and Intelligence offered TRG a four-month, $400,000
contract that has since been extended indefinitely.
Lt. Col. Ken McClellan, a Pentagon spokesman, said TRG's work includes
monitoring news reports abroad and devising possible responses, such as
broadcasting messages to select populations in Afghanistan or composing
language on leaflets.
Until February, TRG had done the job with its customary low profile. Then
came word that it was advising a new Pentagon operation, the Office of
Strategic Influence. TRG's duties there, according to a Pentagon source
familiar with the new office, were going to be the same as its earlier
Defense Department work--collecting foreign news reports from 79 countries
and shaping responses.
Though Rendon's assignment at the Office of Strategic Influence was
short-lived, his work with the Pentagon, a Defense Department source said,
will continue for the foreseeable future.
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