Selling the Afghan War
With the air and ground war in Afghanistan apparently bogged down, the Pentagon is trying to alter the balance of forces on the propaganda front. In late October the Defense Department announced that it had hired a Washington-based PR shop, The Rendon Group (TRG), to help win hearts and minds in the Arab world. For a fee of about $100,000 per month, TRG is charged with convincing overseas audiences that the campaign in Afghanistan is targeting terrorism, not Islam.
This is not the first time that TRG has been deployed in support of US military actions. During the past decade the firm has also done duty in Panama, Haiti, Kuwait and Iraq. "Just look at the international press," Pentagon spokesman Lieut. Col. Kenneth McClellan says in explaining TRG's current assignment. "We're getting killed."
TRG is headed by John Rendon, who got his start in politics in the early 1970s when he coordinated George McGovern's presidential campaign in Maine. Rendon later worked for Michael Dukakis when he ran for governor of Massachusetts and supported Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1980. Following Carter's victory, Rendon went to work for the Democratic National Committee, eventually becoming its executive director.
Founded in 1981, TRG has offices in Boston and Washington, DC. It has a staff of about two dozen people, including a number of former White House operatives and Congressional staffers. Jeanne Sklarz, a TRG consultant who in the past has helped promote Internet companies, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a nonsurgical means of breast enlargement, says the company will not discuss its work because the Pentagon "expects confidentiality."
TRG's website offers some information about the firm, however. It says TRG provides "strategic communications counsel" to governments, companies and private organizations. "We are committed to helping people win in the global marketplace by providing distinctive approaches to communications challenges," reads a mission statement.
In addition to the US military, TRG's clients have included Monsanto, for which it offered "community and media relations counsel in its effort to clean up several contaminated sites." Most of the firm's domestic clients, however, are liberal groups: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the AFL-CIO, the Children's Defense Fund and Handgun Control Inc.
TRG has also worked abroad, running campaigns in a total of seventy-eight countries. In Saudi Arabia the company designed a traffic safety game show for Toyota, which according to the TRG website, was "watched by the royal family and had some of the highest ratings ever for a television show" in the kingdom. In Indonesia the firm helped buff the image of P.T. Catur Yasa, an energy company owned by a business group that grew rich during the Suharto years. In Sri Lanka TRG worked under contract to the US Agency for International Development in devising a campaign to attract foreign investment.
TRG's biggest operations have been in support of the Pentagon and the CIA. In describing his work in a speech to the US Air Force Academy in 1996, Rendon said that he should not be seen as a military tactician or national security strategist. "I am a person who uses communications to meet public policy or corporate objectives," he stated. "I am an Information Warrior and a perception manager."
Based on other speeches he has made over the years, Rendon seems to view the media as a chief target and semi-hostile force. He has said that media presence in combat zones has at times created security risks, and that for journalists, "getting it first is more important than getting it right." He recommends that PR practitioners court and spin "people who are likely to appear as 'network analysts.' Your messages will receive instant confirmation."
TRG's first national security assignment came in 1989, when company staffers fanned out in collaboration with Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama. After Manuel Noriega was overthrown, TRG offered "crisis management and operational support" to the new US-backed government and "courted the international press and overseas radio stations to make the cause real to other governments and to give hope to Panamanians."
TRG's next assignment came the following year, when it supported the Kuwaiti government in exile after the Iraqi invasion. Rendon and his staffers set up a TV production house in London that specialized in publicizing atrocities carried out by Saddam Hussein's troops. After the Iraqi Army was driven from Kuwait, TRG distributed the miniature American flags that the population of Kuwait City waved to greet American troops (and TV network news crews).
In Haiti TRG worked for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide beginning a few weeks before the 1994 invasion by US troops that returned him to power. "A team of local and Washington-based communications specialists offered round-the-clock services, including media monitoring and outreach," says TRG's website.
TRG's biggest operation may have been its CIA-funded $23 million covert PR campaign against Saddam Hussein, which got under way following the Gulf War. Rendon's staff produced news and skits for two CIA-run radio stations, as well as videos and comic books. The goal was to embarrass Saddam and encourage the defection of Iraqi army officers.
TRG later helped run PR campaigns for the Iraqi National Congress, the US-backed group that is seeking to oust Saddam. One of its projects was a touring "atrocity exhibition" of photographs and documents that highlighted the horrible nature of Saddam's regime. TRG also sought to build international support for continued economic sanctions against Iraq, even as reports of civilian suffering and mass starvation were beginning to attract widespread attention, concern and consternation.
Colonel McClellan says TRG will supplement the Pentagon's own outreach efforts and the work of the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group, which is based at Fort Bragg and is now conducting operations in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. "[TRG] has a track record that shows it has the right capabilities," he says. "We need to find the right terms to communicate our message, but so far we haven't been able to do so."
Others speak less favorably of TRG's track record. Warren Marik, a former CIA agent who helped run anti-Saddam operations, once told the Washington Post that Rendon's operations were completely ineffective. In their book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, Andrew and Patrick Cockburn cite one disgruntled Rendon staffer, Francis Brooke, who told of the firm paying college-age kids to write radio propaganda broadcasts for $100 a day out of a Washington office. Brooke described TRG's London operations as a room full of employees "who had difficulty in culturally adapting to London, let alone the Middle East." Others have said that Rendon used the CIA's money to travel by Concorde and to pay for other frills that did little to advance the cause for which they were hired.
Hence, Rendon and his crew of Information Warriors will apparently be well fed and cared for as they hunker down to plot strategy in the months ahead. Winning hearts and minds in the Arab world and the sympathies of the overseas press may take longer.