Secretive firm helps U.S. wage information war abroad

November 13, 2005|By STEPHEN J. HEDGES | STEPHEN J. HEDGES,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- To fight what it sees as an insidious propaganda war waged by militants, from incendiary Web sites to one-sided television images of the Iraq war, the Pentagon has been quietly waging its own information battle throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

One of its primary weapons is a secretive firm that has been criticized as ineffective and too expensive.

The Rendon Group, directed by former Democratic Party political operative John Rendon, has garnered more than $56 million in work from the Pentagon since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

These contracts list such activities as tracking foreign reporters; "pushing" news favorable to U.S. forces; planting television news segments that promote American positions; and creating a grass-roots voting effort in Puerto Rico on behalf of the U.S. Navy, according to Pentagon records.

The contracts, some of which were obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal that the Bush administration is engaged in a constant war of images and words with al-Qaida and other radical groups.

Seen as necessity

Civilian and military leaders say the contracts are necessary to fight the media wars waged by Islamic fundamentalists who control images on television, radio and the Internet in some Arab countries.

But proponents of open government question the role of firms such as the Rendon Group, suggesting that their work blurs the line between legitimate news and propaganda.

Also, Americans have long been nervous about the notion of the government's managing information.

To the extent that the Pentagon is attentively studying media publications, there's nothing wrong with that, said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

"Where it gets questionable is when they start engaging in media-based operations," Aftergood said, meaning actually distributing news items. "And that's something that needs to be carefully circumscribed and defined in policy, because there is no clear line between the foreign media and U.S. media."

The Rendon Group is perhaps best known for its part in the controversy that surrounded the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence nearly four years ago. A February 2002 New York Times article disclosed the office's existence and reported that the company was part of the effort, which possibly included attempts to plant false new stories abroad.

After public and congressional outcry, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shut down the office.

But John Rendon, who until now has declined to discuss the episode, said in an interview last week that the news stories were wrong and that his company never worked for the Office of Strategic Influence.

"That wasn't us," Rendon said. "The whole notion of putting false news stories abroad, that was never us."

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. S. Pete Worden, who directed the Office of Strategic Influence during its short life, confirmed by e-mail that the Rendon Group did not work for his office.

"[Rendon] is correct that he didn't work directly for my office," Worden wrote. "Most of the actual work we did was through SAIC," or Science Applications International Corp., a large defense contractor.

Shaping coverage

Rendon has, however, played a substantial role in the Pentagon's efforts to track and shape media coverage of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and the war on terror.

Rendon has at least five contracts with the Department of Defense, according to the newly obtained records. A full list of the contracts given to Judicial Watch by the Pentagon totals about $45 million.

The work began in 2000 and continues today, the contracts show. They include work, supervised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the Air Force, Army, Navy and Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.

Most recently, Rendon was awarded a $6.4 million contract in September to track media coverage in Iraq.

Rendon also won a $1.4 million contract in 2004 to advise the staff of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and a $3.9 million contract to work on a counter-narcotics campaign within the Afghan Interior Ministry.

The Rendon Group's costs were an issue among CIA staff members during the group's earlier work with the CIA and Pentagon. Rendon once received a CIA contract of $20 million to $40 million, according to former employees, to advise the then-London-based Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi.

The Pentagon offices that work with Rendon - the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict - declined to comment. So did Douglas Feith, who recently resigned as under secretary of defense for policy.

Rendon's previous experience positioned him well for the Pentagon's new war needs.

Rendon worked in the political world until 1989, when he took a job advising the Panamanian opposition on how to handle the media during the U.S. invasion to oust dictator Manuel Noriega.

He took up similar jobs after that, including advising the Kuwaiti government after Iraqi troops invaded in August 1990.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Rendon already had an active Pentagon contract.

"This is really probably the 10th or ninth time we've done this kind of work, going all the way back to Panama, with the exception of Somalia," Rendon said. "Nobody else has done this."

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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