|This war brought to you by Rendon
By Ian Urbina
WASHINGTON - "Word got around the department
that I was a good Arabic translator who did a great
Saddam imitation," recalls the Harvard grad student.
"Eventually, someone phoned me, asking if I wanted to
help change the course of Iraq policy."
a week, for US$3,000 a month, the Iraqi student says,
under condition of anonymity, that he took a taxi from
his campus apartment to a Boston-area recording studio
rented by the Rendon Group, a DC-based public relations
firm with close ties to the US government. His job:
translate and dub spoofed Saddam Hussein speeches and
tongue-in-cheek newscasts for broadcast throughout
"I never got a straight answer on whether
the Iraqi resistance, the CIA or policy makers on the
Hill were actually the ones calling the shots," says the
student, "but ultimately I realized that the guys doing
spin were very well and completely cut loose." And
that's how Baghdad's best-known opposition radio
personality was born six years ago - during the Clinton
administration. It was one of many disinformation
schemes cooked up by the Rendon Group, which has worked
for both Democratic and Republican administrations
fighting the psy-op war in the Middle East.
point was to discredit Saddam, but the stuff was
complete slapstick," the student says. "We did skits
where Saddam would get mixed up in his own lies, or
where [Saddam's son] Qusay would stumble over his own
delusions of grandeur." Transmissions were once a week
from stations in northern Iraq and Kuwait. "The only
thing that was even remotely funny," says the student,
"were the mockeries of the royal guard and the
government's clumsy attempts to deceive arms
The Saddam impersonator says he
left Rendon not long ago out of frustration with what he
calls the lack of expertise and oversight in the
project. It was doubly frustrating, he says, because he
despises Saddam, although he adds that he never has been
involved with any political party or opposition group.
"No one in-house spoke a word of Arabic," he says. "They
thought I was mocking Saddam, but for all they knew I
could have been lambasting the US government." The
scripts, he adds, were often ill conceived. "Who in Iraq
is going to think it's funny to poke fun at Saddam's
mustache," the student notes, "when the vast majority of
Iraqi men themselves have mustaches?"
other basic problems, too. Some of the announcers hired
for the radio broadcasts, he says, were Egyptians and
Jordanians, whose Arabic accents couldn't be understood
by Iraqis. "Friends in Baghdad said that the radio
broadcasts were a complete mumble," the student says.
One CIA agent familiar with the project calls the
project's problem a lack of "due diligence", and adds
that "the scripts were put together by 23-year-olds with
connections to the Democratic National Committee."
Despite the fumbling naivete of some of its
operations, the Rendon Group is no novice in the field.
For decades, when US bombs have dropped or foreign
leaders have been felled, the public relations shop has
been on the scene, just far enough to stay out of harm's
way, but just close enough to keep the spin cycle going.
As Franklin Foer reported in the New Republic,
during the campaign against Panama's Manuel Noriega in
1989, Rendon's command post sat downtown in a high-rise.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, Rendon operatives hunkered
down in Taif, Saudi Arabia, clocking billable hours on a
Kuwaiti emir's dole. In Afghanistan, group founder John
Rendon joined a 9:30am conference call every morning
with top-level Pentagon officials to set the day's war
message. Rendon operatives haven't missed a trip yet -
Haiti, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Colombia.
The firm is
tight-lipped, however, about its current projects. A
spokesperson refuses to say whether Rendon is doing any
work in preparation for the potential upcoming invasion
of Iraq. But a current Rendon Arabic translator
commented, "All I can say is that nothing has changed -
the work is still an expensive waste of time, mostly
with taxpayer funds." However, Rendon may just prove to
be one step ahead of the game. If Saddam is toppled, a
Rendon creation is standing by to try to take his place.
The Iraqi National Congress (INC), a disparate coalition
of Iraqi dissidents touted by the US government as the
best hope for an anti-Saddam coup, has gotten the
go-ahead from US officials to arm and train a military
force for invasion. The INC is one of the few names
you'll hear if reporters bother to press government
officials on what would come after Saddam.
the helm of the INC is Ahmed Chalabi, a US-trained
mathematician who fled from Jordan in 1989 in the trunk
of a car after the collapse of a bank he owned. He was
subsequently charged and sentenced in absentia to 22
years in prison for embezzlement. Back home in Iraq,
he's referred to by some as the so-called limousine
insurgent and is said to hold little actual standing
with the Iraqi public. Shuttling between London and DC,
Chalabi hasn't been in Iraq for over years, and draws
"more support on the Potomac than the Euphrates," says
Iraq specialist Andrew Parasiliti of the Middle East
Institute in Washington DC.
"Were it not for
Rendon," a State Department official remarked, "the
Chalabi group wouldn't even be on the map."
funding first from the CIA throughout the 1990s and more
recently the Pentagon, Rendon managed the INC's every
move, an INC spokesperson acknowledges, even choosing
its name, coordinating its annual strategy conferences,
and orchestrating its meetings with diplomatic heavy
hitters, such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. Not
that the Rendon Group was the first purveyor of psy-op
tactics for promoting US foreign policy in the region.
In fact, some of the most impressive spin maneuvers and
disinformation campaigns occurred during the Gulf War in
1991, the lessons of which are particularly pertinent as
the US again gears up.
Most notorious was the
work of PR giant Hill & Knowlton (H&K) (for
which current Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke worked
after she was an aide to John McCain and Bush's dad).
Subsidized by the Kuwaiti royal family, H&K
dedicated 119 executives in 12 offices across the
country to the job of drumming up support within the
United States for the 1991 war. It was an all-out
grassroots blitz: distributing tens of thousands of
"Free Kuwait" T-shirts and bumper stickers at colleges
across the US and setting up observances such as
National Kuwait Day and National Student Information
Day. H&K also mailed 200,000 copies of a book titled
The Rape of Kuwait to American troops stationed
in the Middle East. The firm also massaged reporters,
arranging interviews with handpicked Kuwaiti emissaries
and dispatching reams of footage of burning wells and
oil-slicked birds washed ashore.
quite compared to H&K's now infamous "baby
atrocities" campaign. After convening a number of focus
groups to try to figure out which buttons to press to
make the public respond, H&K determined that
presentations involving the mistreatment of infants, a
tactic drawn straight from W R Hearst's playbook of the
Spanish-American War, received the best reaction.
So on October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human
Rights Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill at which
H&K, in coordination with California Democrat Tom
Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter, introduced a
15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah. (Purportedly to
safeguard against Iraqi reprisals, Nayirah's full name
was not disclosed.) Weeping and shaking, the girl
described a horrifying scene in Kuwait City. "I
volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," she testified.
"While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into
the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies
were in incubators. They took the babies out of the
incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on
the cold floor to die." Allegedly, 312 infants were
The tale got wide circulation, even
winding up on the floor of the United Nations Security
Council. Before Congress gave the green light to go to
war, seven of the main pro-war senators brought up the
baby-incubator allegations as a major component of their
argument for passing the resolution to unleash the
bombers. Ultimately, the motion for war passed by a
narrow five-vote margin.
Only later was it
discovered that the testimony was untrue. H&K had
failed to reveal that Nayirah was not only a member of
the Kuwaiti royal family, but also that her father, Saud
Nasir al-Sabah, was Kuwait's ambassador to the US.
H&K had prepped Nayirah in her presentation,
according to Harper's publisher John R MacArthur, in his
book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the
Gulf War. Of the seven other witnesses who stepped
to the podium that day, five had been prepped by H&K
and had used false names. When human rights
organizations investigated later, they could not find
that Nayirah had any connection to the hospital. Amnesty
International, among those originally duped, eventually
issued an embarrassing retraction.
When asked if
it acknowledges the incubator story as a deception,
H&K's media liaison, Suzanne Laurita, only
responded: "The company has nothing to say on this
matter." Pushed further on whether such deception was
considered part of the public relations industry, she
reiterated, "Please know again that this falls into the
realm that the agency has no wish to confirm, deny or
comment on." Years later, Scowcroft, the national
security adviser at the time, concluded that the tale
was surely "useful in mobilizing public opinion".
H&K's baby-atrocity routine really won over
the hearts, but for the minds of realpolitik skeptics
the Pentagon had other methods. To sway them, the
Pentagon flooded the major media outlets with reports of
a top-secret satellite image that allegedly showed
250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks amassed at the
Once again, this was
misinformation. When the US military refused to hand the
satellite image over to the press, several investigative
journalists opted to purchase commercially available,
but equally detailed, satellite images on the open
market. Shots of the exact same region, during the same
time frame, revealed no Iraqi soldiers anywhere near the
border. The journalists hired a coterie of experts,
including a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst
who specialized in desert warfare imagery, and the
verdict was the same: no Iraqis, just desert and a lot
of US jet fighters sitting wing-tip to wing-tip at
nearby Saudi bases.
But by the time those
questions began circulating about the Pentagon's
supposed satellite image and the web of decisions being
spun around it, the US military was already set on
course. Once again, a similar mobilization is in high
gear, with skeptical questions lagging behind.
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