BOB GARFIELD:: On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the U.S. military had hired a subcontractor called the Lincoln Group to pay Iraqi newspapers and Iraqi journalists to publish puff pieces written by American troops. The revelations have reignited the debate over the role of psychological operations, or "psy-ops," during wartime, and the Pentagon's increasing outsourcing of its propaganda work. But the most questionable doings by the Lincoln Group pale in comparison to the activities of another government subcontractor called the Rendon Group. According to James Bamford, in an article in the current issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, the Rendon Group is largely responsible for creating and spreading misinformation used by the White House to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Bamford writes that in 1991, the CIA paid John Rendon to establish the Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqis intent on overthrowing Saddam. After September 11th, the Bush White House relied heavily on the Iraqi National Congress to help supply a compelling case for war. Bamford says Rendon came with a great track record in perception management, having cut his teeth on regime change in Panama.
JAMES BAMFORD:: The way the Rendon Group became the corporation of choice for the CIA and the Pentagon war planners was it had done a very good job in doing a similar activity in Panama, around 1990, when the first Bush Administration went in to oust Noriega and replace him with a leader by the name of Endara. They had Rendon come down and basically be his advisor, and he took him all over Europe, introduced him to the Pope. And then he went to Kuwait, where the Kuwaiti government hired him to basically help convince the American public and, to a large degree, the U.S. government, to support the Kuwaiti government in its war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi government.
BOB GARFIELD:: Your piece in Rolling Stone begins with a CIA polygraph examination in 2002 of a supposed Iraqi defector claiming first-hand knowledge of hidden WMDs. Now, the man, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, flunked the test, he flunked it big-time. But his testimony was nonetheless embraced by the Iraqi National Congress and used ultimately as the pretext for war. Now, this is an astonishing story in many ways, but please tell me how the Rendon Group figures into it.
JAMES BAMFORD:: The INC was an entire creation of the Rendon Group. The Rendon Group brought the people together, created the organization, gave it its name, acted as paymaster for the group, helped install the leader of it, Ahmad Chalabi, and then acted as the senior advisor to the INC throughout much of the 1990s, and was their media advisor during much of this time.
BOB GARFIELD:: Tell me about the journalists who subsequently interviewed al-Haideri and got his message out to the world.
JAMES BAMFORD:: Well despite the fact that al-Haideri had failed the lie detector test, the INC and Chalabi decided to broadcast these phony charges about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and they picked two friendly journalists who they knew would tell the story the way they wanted it told. First they turned to Judy Miller for worldwide print exclusive rights, and they turned to this journalist from Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Paul Moran, for the worldwide television rights. And what makes Paul Moran very interesting is, without disclosing it, he had formerly worked for the INC and for the Rendon Group off and on for a decade or more. When the story was broadcast, it got a huge amount of attention around the world. Judy Miller's article appeared on the front page of the New York Times, and it was the very first story that took the allegations against Saddam from the level of suspicion to the level of actual evidence.
BOB GARFIELD:: In his response to your piece in Rolling Stone, John Rendon asserted that he traffics only in, quote, "timely, truthful and accurate information." Is that true or is that false?
JAMES BAMFORD:: Well, that's what he says. What the facts show is that Rendon created the INC, put Chalabi in there, advised him during most of the 1990s, and it was the INC who created this pretext for war, basically. You know, whatever the INC did during the 1990s and into the new century, John Rendon has to accept some of that responsibility.
BOB GARFIELD:: If the U.S. government, essentially through the Rendon Group, created the Iraqi National Congress, and if the Iraqi National Congress disseminated stories about weapons of mass destruction - that it knew to be untrue - through the New York Times, maybe I'm missing something here, but isn't that an explicit violation of the Smith Act about propaganda to a domestic audience?
JAMES BAMFORD:: Well, I think it's even worse. It's lying to the American public in order to get a war that you want that isn't necessarily based on true information. Despite the CIA's report, when the President went before the United Nations in September of 2002, arguing that they should go to war with Iraq, the U.S. government used that information from al-Haideri as part of its argument. At least a month ago, the last time I looked on the White House webpage, that document was still there, still quoting al-Haideri. There's a definite line there between the people who knew that the information was phony, which was the U.S. government, and promoting that information within the United States. And I think that's where you do have a possible violation of that Smith Act.
BOB GARFIELD:: All right. Well, Jim, thank you very much.
JAMES BAMFORD:: Oh, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:: James Bamford's article "The Man who Sold the War" is in the current issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. The Rendon Group declined to comment to us about Bamford's story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Coming up, the Weekly Standard turns ten - they grow up so fast - and the gossip columnist who gagged on his gag order.
BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media from NPR.
BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.