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Flacks Americana

John Rendon's shallow P.R. war on terrorism.

It's five miles from Northern Virginia, where the Pentagon sets military targets, and a mile and a half from Foggy Bottom, where the State Department cobbles together coalitions. To look at it, you'd never guess that the ten-story glass-and-steel building at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and T Street, nestled amid the town houses and cafes of Dupont Circle, serves as one of the headquarters for the U.S. propaganda war against terrorism. If it doesn't look like a government office building, that's because it's not. Rather, it houses a public relations firm called The Rendon Group. It was The Rendon Group that last winter shot down Taliban fictions about captured Chinook choppers and American atrocities in Mazar-e-Sharif. It dispatched operatives to arrange images of Defense Department officials basking in the thanks of the Afghan people. And its mission goes far beyond Central Asia. It monitors Muslim opinion with polls and focus groups, and then it generates plans for influencing it. "Rendon has devised much of the strategy," says one military official about the P.R. war against terrorism.

The firm's head is a rumpled, dough-faced man named John W. Rendon. Since the first Bush administration, he's been on the scene at almost every American military action. During the Panama invasion, he bunkered in a high-rise on Punta Paitilla with the leaders of the anti-Noriega coalition. In the Gulf war, he set up shop in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to spin on behalf of the exiled Kuwaiti emir. Once the war ended, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hired him to trash Saddam Hussein and to promote the dictator's opponents. Along the way, he's helped make America's case in Haiti, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, and Colombia.

So it's hardly surprising that when September 11 hit, The Rendon Group was already on the Pentagon payroll. And since then its portfolio has expanded dramatically. Last fall and winter Rendon joined a 9:30 call every morning with top-level officials like Karen Hughes and Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke to set the day's war message. He was the only non-government employee in on the discussions. According to one military official who worked with Rendon, "He's pushed for a faster response. His approach demands that we win every news cycle and let no attack go unanswered." A State Department official adds, "Defense has a lot of money to spend. They're keen to use his services and will go along with any idea of his that appears reasonable." Last October, Rendon helped create something called the Coalition Information Center (CIC), whose offices in Washington, London, and Islamabad are manned by professional spinmeisters who immediately respond to enemy propaganda. (Rendon invited CNN's "Crossfire" host Paul Begala to run the Islamabad office; but Begala declined, saying he couldn't leave his family for a long stretch of time.) And in fighting America's propaganda war, Rendon has earned a small fortune. According to two Pentagon sources, The Rendon Group has billed the government at least $7.5 million for its post-9/11 services.

Rendon isn't the only outsider imported to manage America's image: Last spring the State Department hired Charlotte Beers, the advertising brain behind the ad campaigns for Head & Shoulders and Uncle Ben's. But while her hiring garnered far more publicity than Rendon's, she hasn't had nearly as much money to throw around. Thanks to skimpy budgets at State (which hasn't shared the Pentagon's recent bounty), Beers has done little more than produce a few public service announcements, a website (telling people in the Muslim world that the war on terror is not a war against them), and leaflets celebrating "Mosques of America." She's also been hamstrung by Foggy Bottom's cautiousness. Last fall, when Senator Joe Biden proposed a new U.S.-funded Arabic-language satellite channel--an idea Beers liked--her bosses rejected the plan as too grandiose. "Too far, too fast," as one official describes his department's response.

There's a reason the government has turned to media professionals like Rendon and Beers to run its propaganda war: It no longer has anyone in-house to do the job. During the cold war, the CIA did propaganda better than anyone. Spooks at Langley secretly funded Radio Free Europe and the Congress for Cultural Freedom--until The New York Times exposed the Agency's operations in 1966 and 1967. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, covert alliances with European trade unions helped stymie communist takeovers of Italy and France. Despite the growth of fellow-traveling intelligentsia, the CIA emboldened Europe's best and brightest--figures like Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, and Ignazio Silone--to bash their communist colleagues and expose the horrors of the Soviet system. Left-wing intellectuals published poetry and prose in Agency-funded magazines like Encounter, Der Monat, and Les Preuves. "The cultural cold war stands among the Agency's finest accomplishments," says Pulitzer Prize-winning CIA historian Thomas Powers. "It's not an exaggeration to say that it helped change the course of history."

But the fall of the Soviet Union also brought about the fall of America's propaganda infrastructure. The State Department's public-diplomacy department took about a 40 percent hit in funding between 1991 and 2001. And the CIA's once-vaunted operation withered. A Pentagon official estimates that the CIA's propaganda operation has dwindled from 225 people to 25 over the last decade. And in the 1990s, as the propaganda war's front line gradually shifted from anti-communism to anti-extremist Islam, the Agency found itself ill prepared. "In the mid-nineties, the guy doing propaganda [for the Middle East] was seventy plus," an ex-agent told me. "He didn't speak Arabic. With him, he had an alcoholic who got fired from the CIA. You're talking about the walking wounded." Fred Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA, puts it bluntly: "The Agency just doesn't understand the new task."

A few months ago the Pentagon thought it had an answer to this problem: It wanted to create a new propaganda machine to combat radical Islam, carefully modeled on the CIA's cold war successes. But that project, the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), died last February in a paroxysm of intra-agency squabbling and front-page "revelations" that the Pentagon would conduct "disinformation." And while Rendon had nothing to do with OSI's demise, he was the main beneficiary. The collapse of the Pentagon's in-house propaganda office cleared the field for Rendon and his very different strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

The Rendon model of propaganda (he prefers phrases such as "information warfare" and "perception management") is in many ways the opposite of the CIA's longterm, ideas-oriented effort. Rendon, who cut his teeth as a political consultant, specializes in exploiting the technology of American campaigns--focus groups, voter databases, rapid-response teams. Through focus groups, for instance, he's learned that among Pakistanis "[t]here exists an ambivalent attitude toward the September eleventh incident" and that his participants "reiterated the theme of Jewish conspiracy." The CIC plots the appearances of American officials on Al-Jazeera to make sure they appear at strategic, highly watched moments. And it churns out regular press releases and statements that try to hone the day's coverage, responding to charges of torture in Guantanamo Bay or civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Of course, there's value in shaping news coverage. But Rendon makes a fetish of it, focusing on winning the daily sound-bite battle rather than the war of ideas. He tends to overrate the power of media outlets (in particular Al-Jazeera, which is about the tenth-largest Arabic broadcaster, behind the London-based Middle Eastern Broadcasting Corporation) and underestimate the deeper sources of anti-Americanism in the Middle East that express themselves in educational curricula and Arab intellectual life. There's a reason, after all, that absurd stories--e.g., that Mossad perpetrated September 11, that Purim pastry is made from the blood of Muslim children--thrive in the Muslim world: They jibe with strongly held, deeply ingrained worldviews. And changing a worldview requires more than a series of press releases or televised interviews with American officials. It requires the gradual cultivation and propagation of an alternative worldview--exactly what the CIA did during the cold war. Rendon's approach, by contrast, can be summed up by his comments in a 1996 speech at the Air Force Academy: "In news, speed is more important than substance.... Getting it first is more important than getting it right, and herein lies a threat." Rendon is half-right; he just has the nature of the threat backward: Our propaganda apparatus has become so obsessed with getting it first that it has ceased to get it right.

Given Rendon's success at winning contracts from Republican administrations, it's ironic that he got his start in politics as a yellow-dog Democrat. During the 1970s, as a twentysomething McGovernite in Washington, he developed a reputation as a gregarious and skilled logistician. He masterminded Michael Dukakis's gubernatorial campaign in 1974; worked as executive director of the Democratic National Committee in the Jimmy Carter era; managed the 1980 Democratic convention in New York; and subsequently worked as chief scheduler for Carter's reelection campaign. He was well on his way toward a lucrative career in the budding business of political consulting. But even as Rendon acquired top-drawer clients like Senator John Kerry and the AFL-CIO, wanderlust set in. An epicurean fond of wearing berets and military fatigues, Rendon began to crave a life that would liberate him from the biannual repetition of American campaigns. "There's not much to it. In part, he fell into it. In part, he got bored. In about the mid-eighties, he started working races in the Caribbean," says his friend and Democratic strategist Elaine Kamarck.

Rendon's early campaigns abroad resembled Saul Bellow's Henderson, with direct mail, polling, and the rest of the foreigner's technology dazzling the natives. He used lasers to beam the slogan of the Aruba People's Party into the night sky. But Rendon's career took an unlikely turn in Panama, where his work with political opponents of Manuel Noriega kept him in the country straight through the 1989 American invasion. As U.S. forces quickly invaded and quickly pulled out, he helped broker the transition of power. "Both sides"--the American military and the new Panamanian government--"trusted him," says Jeff Eller, a consultant who worked for Rendon on the ground.

In Panama, Rendon befriended a CIA agent named Linda Flohr. The Agency--whose propaganda offices were still populated by Eastern European emigres focused on the fight against communism--was growing desperate for help managing post-cold-war public relations. Flohr suggested that Rendon make the case against Iraq. In the summer of 1990 the Kuwaiti government hired him to help drum up support for the Gulf war; a few months later the CIA gave Rendon an official contract.

Representing Kuwait wasn't as easy a task as it might sound. Despite Saddam's atrocities, Kuwait's government didn't naturally inspire sympathy. Its playboy elite partied away their exile in fancy hotels and casinos across Europe and the Arab world. To counteract these images, Rendon arranged for Kuwaitis to send 20,000 valentines to American soldiers on the front lines. He also organized a tear-jerking vigil with Kuwaiti exiles in Cairo, intended to gin up sentimental images for the American nightly news broadcasts. In Taif he set up a TV network that beamed morale-boosting programming to the people of occupied Kuwait. His office sent faxes mocking Saddam's son Uday to numbers across Baghdad to buck up the spirits of Hussein's internal critics. And when the Iraqi army finally departed Kuwait City, Rendon handed out American flags for Kuwaitis to wave at the incoming liberators--and the trailing camera crews. Throughout the operation, Rendon enjoyed a virtual free hand. As a representative of the Kuwaiti ministry of information told a reporter, "Money is no problem." And it certainly wasn't a problem for Rendon. Over the course of his service to the Kuwaitis--about seven months--he cleared at least $770,000 in profits.

A few months after the United States rolled the Iraqi army back to Baghdad, George H.W. Bush signed a document called a "finding" that ordered covert operations "to create the conditions for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power." According to journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, when Frank Anderson, the chief of the CIA's Near East division, read it, he scrawled in the margin, "I don't like this." His trepidation was understandable: Only months earlier, the administration had made a conscious decision not to advance on Baghdad. Now, at least on paper, it was trying to topple Saddam. "The Agency wanted to clean their hands of the whole mess," says one ex-intelligence official, "so they gave it to Rendon."

From his office in Washington, Rendon became the de facto leader of the Iraqi opposition. He ran radio networks that broadcast into Iraq, creating an entire playlist of anti-Saddam programming. He produced leaflets, comic books, and other material skewering the dictator. And he didn't just produce material for Iraqi consumption. An "atrocity exhibition" of photojournalism traveled across Europe, rebutting sanctions critics like Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. From Rendon's offices in central London, reporters could instantly receive stock footage of petroleum-covered birds, burning fields, and other Iraqi atrocities against Kuwait.

But the CIA had also assigned Rendon a far more delicate task: to help organize, advise, and stage-manage the Iraqi opposition. After the Gulf war, there weren't many available anti-Saddam vehicles. Under pressure from Congress, the CIA seized on well-connected, smooth-talking London businessman Ahmad Chalabi and tried to help him unite Shia and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs, exiles and dissidents, into a popular front called the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Rendon wasn't exactly the brains of the operation--Chalabi ran the group--but he was the man whispering in Chalabi's ear. "The INC was clueless. They needed a lot of help and didn't know where to start. That is why Rendon was brought in," says Thomas Twetten, the CIA's former deputy director of operations. Rendon helped Chalabi choose the group's English name, and he organized an INC conference in Vienna. When INC representatives came to Washington in July 1992 to meet with Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, Rendon advised them on what to say and how to say it. He even assigned them one of the field operatives from Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential bid. "The whole mindset is that you're involved in a campaign," says an ex-Rendon employee. "You've got all the trappings and a similar apparatus."

Rendon's trappings and apparatus cost money. Indeed, throughout his career, he's been dogged by complaints of profligate spending--even charged with being the P.R. equivalent of the Pentagon's $400 toilet seat. In 1995 CIA accountants demanded an audit of his work. As ABC reported in 1998, Rendon's own records show he spent more than $23 million in the first year of his contract to work with the INC. Several of his operatives in London earned more than the director of Central Intelligence--about $19,000 per month. Rendon shot across the Atlantic on the Concorde, while his subordinates flew on open business-class tickets. According to one of those subordinates, "There was no incentive for Rendon to hold down costs." While the Agency's inspector general found no fraud, he was outraged at what he deemed Rendon's exploitation of his open-ended contract. Take the videotapes that Rendon sent to media around the world: Because Rendon didn't have production capability in his office, he farmed out the work. And under his contract, he collected a 10 percent management fee for each subcontractor he hired. In the course of making the video he also received 10 percent of the cost of buying the tapes, hiring a camera crew, and renting an editing suite. On top of that pure profit, he billed for his own operatives who put the tape together. Finally, he sold the finished tape to the government at a rate of $5,000 per minute.

And the complaints had as much to do with the quality of Rendon's work as the cost. According to CIA agents who worked with Rendon on the INC, his Langley bosses simply didn't monitor his work. "They were broadcasting into Iraq," says one, "but there was no due diligence. Only the Israelis were listening." If the Americans had paid attention, they would have discovered a distinctly mediocre product. "The scripts were put together by twenty-three-year-olds with connections to the Democratic National Committee," says the ex-Rendon employee. "They didn't have any experience, let alone in Iraq. And they had every incentive to churn these things out. They were getting paid somewhere between twenty-five and fifty dollars per script. They were rewritten Reuters feeds." Or as the CIA official put it, "Very poor quality. They talked about gassing of the Kurds--but most Iraqis supported that. There were all these ineffectual insults. It was like, `Saddam has a funny mustache.'" Moreover, according to the ex-Rendon employee, when the scripts were recorded in Arabic in a Boston studio, Rendon's announcers spoke with Egyptian and Jordanian accents that weren't entirely comprehensible to an Iraqi audience.

And Rendon, who doesn't speak Arabic, displayed his cultural naivete in other ways as well. A CIA operative describes Rendon's work with a "radical Shia group--suicide-bomber types--who wanted to have a conference. The guys are in robes and beards. [Rendon] sent a thirty-one-year-old woman with a dress up to her ass who said `I'm here to plan.'" A comedy of cross-cultural misunderstandings ensued. "They felt insulted by her sheer ignorance," says the agent. While The Rendon Group planned the conference for a Sheraton hotel in Germany, they hadn't considered the difficulties the radicals would have obtaining visas. In the end, the conference never came off.

Gradually, the complaints took their toll. After the first year of Rendon's contract, the CIA depended on him less and less. By 1995 a new team in charge of the CIA's Iraqi Operations Group had severed the Agency's relationship with Rendon altogether. But Rendon simply refocused on the Pentagon--winning contracts in the mid-'90s to help spin the Balkan wars. He is, after all, nothing if not superbly networked. When Flohr left the CIA, for example, she took a job with The Rendon Group. Now she's back in the National Security Council (NSC), where she's deputy to the head of counter-terrorism, Wayne Downing. Rendon has also grown close to Karl Rove, even briefing the NSC and White House communications office at his behest. "He's developed a niche," says his friend and international political consultant Joel McCleary. "Nobody else does what he does. Nobody else has mastered the complexities of government contracting or knows the people with power. He's all alone."

Rendon won't talk about his work. In an e-mail, he told me, "In order to honor our commitments to our clients, I am not able, at this time, to discuss in any detail the work performed for them by [The Rendon Group]. Suffice it to say, we are a support function to the decision-makers in the Bush Administration and the implementors/warriors at the Department of Defense." He can admit this much because it is public record. The New York Times made Rendon's current Pentagon contract public on February 19. But the article's real scoop was the discovery of what was, briefly, the chief alternative to Rendon's propaganda operation: the Pentagon's Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). According to the Times, OSI was to be the center of a disinformation campaign. A senior official told the paper, "When I get their briefings, it's scary." In the days following the story, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly denied that any disinformation operation actually existed. But he couldn't persuade a skeptical press corps. Within a week of the Times article, the bad publicity had became too much for the Defense Department to bear. On February 26 Rumsfeld announced that the "office has clearly been so damaged that it is pretty clear to me that it could not function effectively. So it is being closed down."

The irony is that the OSI really wasn't planning any disinformation campaign. Even before the Times story broke, the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes, had begun a standard review of the office's work. And as the controversy intensified, he scoured hard drives and about 11,000 pages of documents, searching for evidence of a "disinformation" strategy. According to a confidential letter that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith sent to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, last month, the lawyers found nothing damning: "None of these proposals mentions the word `disinformation'"--except in the context of countering enemy disinformation. While OSI brainstorming sessions had proposed new methods for misleading the enemy prior to an attack--like Allied head-fakes before the invasion of Normandy--"none of these references to deception involved provision of false information to the public or news media."

The OSI's real purpose--as conceived of by Feith in the weeks after September 11--was to adapt the CIA's old cold war approach to the Middle East. Although the office lived for only about four months, its mission had already begun to emerge; OSI would address the root ideological cause of terrorism: In many parts of the Muslim world, no religious or political movement posed a serious challenge to the hegemony of radical and Wahhabist strains of Islam. To foster an alternative, the OSI wanted to help amplify the arguments of moderate Muslims, the same way the CIA had bolstered the left-wing anti-communists. Just as the American government had originally published and disseminated The God that Failed, a collection of critiques of communism from such luminaries as Andre Gide and Richard Wright, OSI would fund the translation of American works into Arabic. It discussed printing textbooks for learning English that depicted the West in a more favorable light--as opposed to the old Soviet-era primers now used in Central Asia. To hash out ideas, the office's head, Peter Worden, scheduled meetings with academics, including a November brainstorming session at The Army and Navy Club with Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis and other Islamic specialists. "They focused on the long term," says Carnes Lord, a professor at the Naval War College with ties to the Pentagon. "They realized that radical Islam won't quickly collapse."

OSI's first project was particularly bold: to shatter the prestige of the approximately 20,000 Pakistani madrassas. As part of a package presented to President Pervez Musharraf during his February visit to Washington, Worden arranged for the shipment of millions of dollars' worth of computers, as well as funds, to develop an alternative curriculum for the madrassas. To supplement and even supplant the religious schools, the Internet would be used for direct-learning classes, including English and instruction in Islam that lacked a radical, anti-American slant. It would all be arranged by the Pakistani education ministry, with the OSI looking over their shoulder. Musharraf was enthusiastic about the project and arranged for his deputies to discuss it further with Worden. Unfortunately, the program's fate remains undecided. Two weeks after Bush presented the program to Musharraf, OSI was dead.

The cause of that death is an open secret, even if it's only been publicly reported in the conservative magazine Insight. "Clarke killed it," one Pentagon beat reporter told me. That would be Torie Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman and deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. Like other government spokespeople before her, Clarke resented anyone outside the public affairs office trying to shape public opinion. "In meetings," says one Pentagon official, "she'd complain that we were misleading the press. She felt like Peter Worden had stepped all over her. She wanted that turf." And she fought for it. When Worden proposed the Pakistani project, Clarke was the only senior Pentagon official to object. In a February 7 memo to Worden, she wrote, "I do not concur with the current plan's tools and tactics since they would play into the hands of our adversaries by providing evidence of a controlling, biased education system." She warned of "blowback" and argued that OSI would undermine "the trust, credibility and transparency of our access to media." (The Pentagon denied that Clarke was behind OSI's demise.) But her objections didn't carry the day--until they found their way into the Times. Amid the ensuing fury, Clarke did almost nothing to defend the office. She told the Times, "Clearly, the U.S. needs to be as effective as possible in all our communications. What we're trying to do now is make clear the distinction and appropriateness of who does what." According to a source close to OSI, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Feith had ordered up a letter to the editor of the Times insisting, "The Department of Defense and its supporting entities are not and will not conduct disinformation activities." When they asked Clarke to sign the letter, she refused.

While Clarke may have merely been fighting for her turf, in demolishing OSI she has eliminated the best-funded alternative to The Rendon Group and its media-centric approach to "information warfare." (As the ultimate evidence of the triumph of Rendonism, Karen Hughes--who also had a hand in creating the CIC--will soon open an information-coordination operation inside the White House called the Office of Global Communications.) It's an approach Rendon spelled out in some detail in his 1996 speech to the Air Force Academy. "Television," he enthused, "can drive the policy process.... Television is everywhere.... My guess [is] that border patrols will be replaced by beaming patrols.... Today you can win without fighting." The problem is that in the Muslim world, he's fighting a form of asymmetrical warfare--with the United States distinctly disadvantaged. Where radical Islam fights for converts on the ground--with preachers, schools, and texts all reinforcing a totalizing ideology--Rendon wants to gain adherents with press releases and commercials. The world may have changed--"The Global Information Environment," as Rendon calls it--but not that much. The lesson of places like Egypt and Pakistan is that Hollywood and CNN--the American image--can draw crowds and still not win hearts and minds. In other words, you can win the news cycle but lose the war.