A spectacular fireworks display lit up the night over the Boston harbor on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, while a crowd of well-dressed politicians, corporate executives and their friends watched from a private party at a waterfront restaurant named Tia's.
Rick Rendon, the man in charge of the party, chatted casually with his clients: the Time Warner executives, including chairman Richard Parsons, who paid him to stage the event in honor of a powerful Congresswoman from California: Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.
Eight hours later, there would be another test of Rendon's technology-enhanced information management abilities: a live video conference between 56 Democratic party convention delegations scattered all over town in 23 locations. "This is important because the Democratic Party wants to deliver a consistent message from all of its delegates, particularly when they are interviewed by the media," Rick Rendon, co-founder and senior partner with the Rendon Group told Information Week.
For the Rendon Group, whose motto is: "information as an element of power," the event was just another contract in the field of "perception management" that the consulting firm provides for clients that include Massachusetts government agencies, multinational corporate executives, the Democratic party, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offices in the Pentagon, and the Colombian military regime. Services range from creating "a favorable environment before privatization begins" to helping justify war.
The company, which has offices in Boston and Washington DC, is run by four senior staff: Rick Rendon, his brother John Rendon, his sister-in-law Sandra Libby and David Perkins, who formerly worked for the Pentagon.
Rick Rendon's career with the Democratic party dates back at least 24 years to the 1980 New York convention where his job was keeping track of delegates. His brother John was executive director and national political director of the Democratic National Committee. When Jimmy Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, the Rendons set up shop as political consultants.
Almost a quarter century after the New York convention, the two brothers are still closely linked business and political partners. Like the Rendon Group's presence on the web, which features two completely different websites, one domestic and one international, John and Rick appear to work in two distinct orbits, Boston and Washington. John circles the world selling war strategies while Rick stays at home selling peace, making corporate videos and staging events for clients. But the company is in fact one entity and a careful study suggests that perhaps their neat division is another case of perception management.
When Reagan won the election, kicking off 12 years of Republican presidents, the Rendons' consulting practice became more wide-ranging, John Rendon started doing contract work for the military. During the invasion of Panama in 1989, he helped direct the information war from a downtown Panama city high-rise. For the first Gulf war in 1991, his staff worked out of Taif, Saudi Arabia. For the Afghan war, he took part in a 9:30 a.m. conference call every morning with top-level Pentagon officials to determine the day's war message.
One of his most famous messages, planted with the assistance of the Hill & Knowlton PR firm, was staged during the run up to the 1991 Gulf War. On October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill. California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter introduced a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah. Weeping and shaking, the girl described a horrifying scene in Kuwait City. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," she testified. "While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."
Seven pro-war senators brought up the baby-incubator allegations to argue for an invasion of Iraq, leading to a narrow five-vote win. Later it was discovered that the Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, daughter of the ambassador to the United States and that the incubator incident was fabricated.
Another media triumph Rendon brags about was the manipulation of media during the actual conflict. "If any of you either participated in the liberation of Kuwait City ... or if you watched it on television, you would have seen hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. Did you ever stop to wonder how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American flags? And for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries? Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs," he told a National Security Conference in 1998.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks on Wall Street and Washington, the Pentagon gave Rendon a $100,000-a-month contract to track anti-U.S. foreign news reports, offer advice on media strategy and plant pro-U.S. stories in web, print and television. In 2002 when the Pentagon tried to create the Office of Strategic Influence to spread misleading stories in foreign countries, Rendon was the contractor they had in mind. President Bush ultimately disappeared the Office after a storm of protest from the media and the public at large, but in retrospect one wonders if the administration simply renamed the project.
Receiving the Message
A year ago John Rendon was invited to give a talk in London at King's College, London, to a conference of military officials on "how best to use military information operations capability, educating politicians and analysts and selling the case for action at home and abroad."
"I believe that Operation Iraqi Freedom provided for all of us a ringside seat for a clash of cultures of communication. If you watched US or Western media you saw the war portrayed one way. If you watched or listened to war news in the Arab media, you accepted delivery of a different set of news and information," he said, according to a copy of his talk, obtained by Corpwatch.
"Elsewhere, coverage provided citizens a combination of viewpoints. In Indonesia for example, home to the world's largest Muslim population, television viewers were able to choose between CNN International, BBC World, and by late March, Al-Jazeera ... Which network do you think was most watched? Al-Jazeera, of course."
"This brings me to the first critical lesson to be learned. We must do a better job of increasing our message population ... in an array of international languages ... and with the cultural context necessary to ensure the message is received and not just sent."
While his brother worked at the helm of "information operations" selling war, Rick Rendon was handling the PR for the post 9-11 United We Stand education campaign in Massachusetts which, according to the Rendon Group's web site, "helped to create a visible sign of hope a 'larger than life' American flag, measuring 65-by-120-feet and made up of approximately 40,000 individual pieces of six-by-six-inch fabric inscribed with students' messages of patriotism, peace, love and support for our country... created in over 675 classrooms by 50,000 students."
More recently, Rick has been touting a project titled "Empower Peace" that uses the Rendon Group video conferencing technology to sell peace to kids in the Middle East and in Massachusetts, albeit on a smaller scale than at the Democratic National Convention.
The first exchange went live on May 20, 2003. The plan was modest but exciting: El Centro del Cardenal High School in Boston, and students from Stoneham High School in Stoneham, and Muslim students from Khawla School in Bahrain, would be hooked up for an hour via the Polycom video technology to talk about peace. "For older generations, shaping or changing perceptions and mindsets will be difficult. For future generations, changing or shaping perceptions and mindsets is essential. We turn to the future generation of youth for hope,"said Rendon at the time.
Colleen Cull, a teacher El Centro del Cardenal High School, waxed enthusiastically: "Basically I think they'll take a lot of information that they learn from this program and share it with friends, family to start that whole peace process".
Perhaps projects like "Empower Peace" and the "United We Stand" project work well in television and print to counter Al Jazeera anti-American rhetoric? Is Rick Rendon helping his brother to communicate" in the language and with the cultural context necessary to ensure the message is received and not just sent" using students in Boston and Bahrain as a vehicle to show the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a sign of U.S. goodwill? If so, he wouldn't say. Asked if he would discuss the Iraq invasion contract, he snapped: "That's irrelevant. I'd be happy to discuss Empower Peace but nothing else."
Standing outside the party at Tia's in Boston, Rendon told CorpWatch that the project was entirely funded by his company. "We did it out of the goodness of our own hearts. It was based on what has became the world's largest school-based racial harmony Campaign, which brought together 15,000 youths here in Boston to talk about diversity and promoting mutual respect with students from Belfast in Northern Ireland (Catholic and Protestant) and students from South Africa (black and white); they all interacted on ways they overcame prejudice and misconceptions and learned to live, work and play together."
War is Peace
But as in most public relations efforts the surface message is not necessarily the ultimate purpose of a campaign. What makes the work of the two brothers most intriguing is that they often used the same staff to do the work: one of whom was discovered when he was unexpectedly killed in northern Iraq in the first three days of the March 2003 invasion.
Paul Moran, a freelance Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist from Adelaide, who was living in Bahrain at the time, was working for Rick Rendon on setting up Empower Peace. But beside being a freelancer who made corporate videos for cash, he also had a double life, working for John Rendon, according to the Adelaide Advertiser, who interviewed his family and friends at his funeral.
Moran used "his experience as a freelance cameraman to train Iraqi dissidents in the use of hidden cameras to covertly film military activities. During workshops in Tehran, in Iran, he would show Iraqis opposed to Saddam how to use everyday items, such as bags of dates, to hide cameras... worked closely with exiled Iraqi opposition parties in their campaign to mobilise a popular uprising against Saddam (and) ...was involved in the defection of an Iraqi scientist who provided vital evidence to the US Government about nuclear, chemical and biological weapon laboratories in Iraq."
In addition he "was contracted to help reactivate a Kuwaiti television station used to broadcast anti-Saddam messages into Iraq (and to... produce public service announcements for the Pentagon which were broadcast into Iraq in preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Many of these broadcasts were taped in Boston. A Village Voice article revealed that the Rendon group hired a Harvard graduate student to help them on the project, although some of the productions were ill conceived. "No one in-house spoke a word of Arabic. They thought I was mocking Saddam, but for all they knew I could have been lambasting the US government... Who in Iraq is going to think it's funny to poke fun at Saddam's mustache when the vast majority of Iraqi men themselves have mustaches?" said the student, who requested anonymity.
One may ask is the "perception management" or "information operations" work of the Rendon group, what might have once been called propaganda or disinformation? In light of the recent revelations that the evidence produced by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq was wrong, it is worth examining the role of Moran and the Rendon group in providing that information.
For example Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, an Iraqi civil engineer who claimed to have seen 20 secret buildings thought to be used for producing biological and chemical weapons, was smuggled to Thailand to be interviewed by Moran. Helping al-Haideri was Zaab Sethna, media spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and a long-time colleague of Moran's.
Not surprisingly, the INC (best known for its founder, Ahmed Chalabi, a now disgraced member of the Iraqi Governing Council) was created by the Rendon Group, according to a February 1998 report by Peter Jennings of ABC News which showed that the Rendon Group spent more than $23 million dollars under contract with the CIA. According to ABC, Rendon invented the name for the Iraqi National Congress. Indeed Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine says the Rendon Group was "paid close to a hundred million dollars by the CIA" for its work with the INC.
Chalabi and the INC were a major "source" for information about Iraq's mysterious "weapons of mass destruction" for major newspapers like the New York Times.
Was the Rendon group working with Moran and Chalanbi under some special government contract to justify the war by manipulating the media, such as the New York Times? There is no hard evidence of this but plenty of circumstantial ties that look very suspicious.
According to Australian reporter John Hosking, who interviewed Zaab Sethna on the Australian news program Dateline, the only other reporter who interviewed al-Haideri before he was whisked away into a witness protection program was the infamous Judith Miller of the New York Times.
Miller authored numerous stories promoting the weapons of mass destruction "threat" posed by Iraq and she cited al-Haideri as a source. Those stories and similar information were repeatedly cited by Bush administration as the pretext for the current Iraq war.
In May 2004, the New York Times, ran an editorial to apologize for five stories-- including several page one articles--written between 2001 and 2003 that had accounts of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq.
"In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged ...Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged - or failed to emerge," wrote the editors.
Rick Rendon refused to comment on the role of Moran or any of the Rendon Group's work in Iraq. As the party at Tia's restaurant drew to a close at midnight, Rendon walked away from this reporter, abruptly cutting off our interview.
Meanwhile his paymasters at Time Warner and their guests gathered around him to thank him for yet another great party and chance to talk to each other.
Jason Steinbaum, chief of staff for Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, was one of the last guests to leave. He stopped to chat with CorpWatch: "Those of us who attend these functions are very appreciative to the sponsoring organization, be they companies or trade associations or other types of--other types of groups. So we are very appreciative. I work with some of the folks in Time Warner on issues that are before the committee that my boss serves on and this gives us a chance to get to know each other behind the scenes," he said. "They are a company that has a presence in Washington and we welcome them in (our) offices."
If John Kerry wins the presidency, maybe he will call on the Rendon Group to help shape the public perception of the war in Iraq. After all the Rendon brothers are long-standing supporters of the Democratic party who have managed to present two entirely different faces to the world while working out of the same corporation: Spin doctoring for the Colombian military's counter insurgency; encouraging citizens of the Massachusetts to pay their taxes and recycle their beverage containers; doing public relations for Jean Bertrand Aristide when he was being re-installed by the Clinton administration and for the citizen groups advocating the overthrow of Noriega as the U.S. military invaded. But should Kerry be defeated by the Cheney-Bush administration, not to worry, the Rendon Group will still be ready and willing to serve.