Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Selling War, Selling Out Truth

If there are still any doubts about the CIA and the Pentagon manufacturing cases for war, coaching shabby dissidents into “witnesses,” buying reporters and planting information in the world’s press, James Bamford’s piece in the December 1 Rolling Stone puts them to rest. “The Man Who Sold the War” is disheartening not for its facts, which in a normally democratic society would have triggered congressional inquiries and calls for a few scalps, but for the degree to which this sort of state-sponsored propaganda is now an accepted and expensive part of U.S. government operations, encouraged by the president, unquestioned by Congress, and hardly ever touched on by the press, mainstream or otherwise. Sure we’re all focused these last few days on the Pentagon’s planting of a few pro-American stories and buying up a few reporters in Iraq. But that story is itself being spinned by the Pentagon to its advantage: Let the world focus on a few isolated instances, let the Pentagon take a minor spanking, and let everyone remain blind and deaf to the much larger war of disinformation, deception, manipulation and outright lies that go on as a matter of U.S. policy (as exemplified, for instance, by the Pentagon’s 74-page “Information Operations Roadmap”). The policy is not only abetted by the media’s silence. It is sometimes encouraged by the media’s participation. Cue Judith Miller et. al. (She’s the most visible of the bunch, but by no means the only one to have run amok.)

Bamford’s piece focuses on John Rendon of The Rendon Group, a “strategic communications” consulting form hired by the CIA in 1990 then by the Pentagon after 1996 to invent a narrative that would justify pro-American regime change where necessary, and apparently by any means necessary. Remember those cheering crowds of Kuwaitis waving American flags immediately after their “liberation” in 1991? Staged. Rendon Productions. “Did you ever wonder,” Rendon is quoted in the article as saying, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American -- and, for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” That was Rendon’s job. It was also his job to put a positive spin on a world “liberating” Kuwait while Kuwaiti’s ruling elite was “living it up in nightclubs in Cairo as Americans were dying in Kuwaiti sand.” His firm made off with about $100 million in CIA contracts in the five years following the first Gulf war, Bamford reports. The money has kept rolling in since, through the Pentagon--$50 million to $100 million between 2000 and 2004.

Remember the Iraqi National Congress headed by that convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi and held up by the Bush administration as the legitimate heir to Saddam’s regime? A Rendon invention, created and coached by the group, along with Chalabi, to seem like a politically viable “congress” when it is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of actors and scripts fed the media and the public. Judith Miller’s path intersects often enough with that of the Rewndon Group, making it entirely possible that she was one of the journalists on its payroll—like Paul Moran, the Australian “journalist” who helped spread Rendon’s message through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Rendon insists he only deals in “timely, truthful and accurate information,” but how do you define truthful when he also describes himself as “an information warrior and a perception manager,” when he says that “[f]or us it’s a question of patriotism. It’s not a question of politics, and that’s an important distinction… If brave men are going to be put in harm’s way, they deserve support.” But what if the fake stories you’re peddling helped put them in harm’s way? And how can information be truthful if it has an agenda, if information is premised on massaging perceptions rather than putting forth the most credible truths?

Speaking of lying with an agenda: The CIA in 2001 administered a polygraph test to an Iraqi dissident called Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a 43-year-old who claimed to know everything about Saddam’s WMD program and was determined to bring him down. He failed the test. Fabrications, the CIA concluded, very much like the stories told by another Iraqi dissident known as Curveball, that one in the custody of the German intelligence service. “But just because the story wasn’t true didn’t mean it couldn’t be put to good use,” Bamford reports. Al-Hadeiri became part of the Rendon Group’s PR offensive as it did its mercenary job, on the Pentagon’s behalf, of “selling the world a war.” It worked to excess. “Never before in history,” Bamford writes, “had such an extensive secret network been established to shape the entire world’s perception of a war. ‘It was not just bad intelligence—it was an orchestrated effort,’ says Sam Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College. ‘It began before the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict distortions.’”

At the end of his piece Bamford quotes Rendon speaking glowingly of the policy of embedding reporters with the military. It helps control the story, although not entirely enough. Too many news organizations got ahead of the Pentagon’s spin machine. “We lost control of the context,” Rendon warned. “That has to be fixed for the next war.”