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."