By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Word got around the department that I was a good Arabic translator who did a great Saddam imitation," recalls the Harvard grad student. "Eventually, someone phoned me asking if I wanted to help change the course of Iraq policy." So twice a week, for $3000 a month, the Iraqi student tells the Voice on condition of anonymity, he took a taxi from his campus apartment to a Boston-area recording studio rented by the Rendon Group, a D.C.-based public relations firm with close ties to the U.S. government. His job: Translate and dub spoofed Saddam Hussein speeches and tongue-in-cheek newscasts for broadcast throughout Iraq.
"I never got a straight answer on whether the Iraqi resistance, the CIA, or policy makers on the Hill were actually the ones calling the shots," says the student, "but ultimately I realized that the guys doing spin were very well funded and completely cut loose."
And that's how Baghdad's best-known oppositional radio personality was born six years agoduring the Clinton administration. It was one of many disinformation schemes cooked up by the Rendon Group, which has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations fighting the psy-op war in the Middle East.
"The point was to discredit Saddam, but the stuff was complete slapstick," the student says. "We did skits where Saddam would get mixed up in his own lies, or where [Saddam's son] Quasay would stumble over his own delusions of grandeur." Transmissions were once a week from stations in northern Iraq and Kuwait. "The only thing that was even remotely funny," says the student, "were the mockeries of the royal guard and the government's clumsy attempts to deceive arms inspectors."
The Saddam impersonator says he left Rendon not long ago out of frustration with what he calls the lack of expertise and oversight in the project. It was doubly frustrating, he says, because he despises Saddam, although he adds that he never has been involved with any political party or opposition group.
"No one in-house spoke a word of Arabic," he says. "They thought I was mocking Saddam, but for all they knew I could have been lambasting the U.S. government." The scripts, he adds, were often ill conceived. "Who in Iraq is going to think it's funny to poke fun at Saddam's mustache," the student notes, "when the vast majority of Iraqi men themselves have mustaches?"
There were other basic problems, too. Some of the announcers hired for the radio broadcasts, he says, were Egyptians and Jordanians, whose Arabic accents couldn't be understood by Iraqis. "Friends in Baghdad said the radio broadcasts were a complete mumble," the student says. One CIA agent familiar with the project calls the project's problem a lack of "due diligence," and adds, "The scripts were put together by 23-year-olds with connections to the Democratic National Committee."
Despite the fumbling naïveté of some of its operations, the Rendon Group is no novice in the field. For decades, when U.S. bombs have dropped or foreign leaders have been felled, the PR shop has been on the scene, just far enough to stay out of harm's way, but just close enough to keep the spin cycle going. As Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic, during the campaign against Panama's Manuel Noriega in 1989, Rendon's command post sat downtown in a high-rise. In 1991, during the Gulf War, Rendon operatives hunkered down in Taif, Saudi Arabia, clocking billable hours on a Kuwaiti emir's dole. In Afghanistan, founder John Rendon joined a 9:30 conference call every morning with top-level Pentagon officials to set the day's war message. Rendon operatives haven't missed a trip yetHaiti, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Colombia.
The firm is tight-lipped, however, about its current projects. A spokesperson refuses to say whether Rendon is doing any work in preparation for the potential upcoming invasion of Iraq. But a current Rendon Arabic translator tells the Voice, "All I can say is that nothing has changedthe work is still an expensive waste of time, mostly with taxpayer funds."
However, Rendon may just prove to be one step ahead of the game. If Saddam is toppled, a Rendon creation is standing by to try to take his place. The Iraqi National Congress (INC), a disparate coalition of Iraqi dissidents touted by the U.S. government as the best hope for an anti-Saddam coup, has gotten the go-ahead from U.S. officials to arm and train a military force for invasion. The INC is one of the few names you'll hear if reporters bother to press government officials on what would come after Saddam.
At the helm of the INC is Ahmed Chalabi, a U.S.-trained mathematician who reportedly fled from Jordan in 1989 in the trunk of a car after the collapse of a bank he established. He was subsequently charged and sentenced in absentia to 22 years in prison for embezzlement. Back home in Iraq, he's referred to by some as the so-called limousine insurgent, and is said to hold little actual standing with the Iraqi public. Shuttling between London and D.C., Chalabi hasn't been in Iraq in more than 20 years, and draws "more support on the Potomac than the Euphrates," says Iraq specialist Andrew Parasiliti of the Middle East Institute.