Broadcast Ruse

A Grad Student Mimicked Saddam Over the Airwaves

"Were it not for Rendon," a State Department official tells the Voice, "the Chalabi group wouldn't even be on the map."

With funding first from the CIA throughout the 1990s and more recently the Pentagon, Rendon managed the INC's every move, an INC spokesperson acknowledges, even choosing its name, coordinating its annual strategy conferences, and orchestrating its meetings with diplomatic heavy hitters such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft.

Not that the Rendon Group was the first purveyor of psy-op tactics for promoting U.S. foreign policy in the region. In fact, some of the most impressive spin maneuvers occurred during the Gulf War in 1991, the lessons of which are particularly pertinent as the U.S. again gears up.

illustration: Anthony Freda

Most notorious was the work of PR giant Hill & Knowlton (for which current Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke worked after she was an aide to John McCain and Bush's dad). Subsidized by the Kuwaiti royal family, H&K dedicated 119 executives in 12 offices across the country to the job of drumming up support within the United States for the '91 war. It was an all-out blitz: distributing tens of thousands of "Free Kuwait" T-shirts and bumper stickers at colleges and setting up observances such as National Kuwait Day and National Student Information Day. H&K also mailed 200,000 copies of a book titled The Rape of Kuwait to American troops stationed in the Middle East. The firm also massaged reporters, arranging interviews with handpicked Kuwaiti emissaries and dispatching footage of burning wells and oil-slicked birds washed ashore.

But nothing quite compared to H&K's now infamous "baby atrocities" campaign. After convening a number of focus groups to try to figure out which buttons to press to make the public respond, H&K determined that presentations involving the mistreatment of infants, a tactic drawn straight from W.R. Hearst's playbook of the Spanish-American War, got the best reaction. So on October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill at which H&K, in coordination with California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter, introduced a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah. (Purportedly to safeguard against Iraqi reprisals, Nayirah's full name was not disclosed.) 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 coming into the hospital with guns and going into the room where 15 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." Allegedly, 312 infants were removed.

The tale got wide circulation, even winding up on the floor of the United Nations Security Council. Before Congress gave the green light to go to war, seven of the main pro-war senators brought up the baby-incubator allegations as a major component of their argument for passing the resolution to unleash the bombers. Ultimately, the motion for war passed by a narrow five-vote margin.

Only later was it discovered that the testimony was untrue. H&K had failed to reveal that Nayirah was not only a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, but also that her father, Saud Nasir al-Sabah, was Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S. H&K had prepped Nayirah in her presentation, according to Harper's publisher John R. MacArthur's book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. Of the seven other witnesses who stepped up to the podium that day, five had been prepped by H&K and had used false names. When human rights organizations investigated later, they could not find that Nayirah had any connection to the hospital. Amnesty International, among those originally duped, eventually issued an embarrassing retraction.

When asked if it acknowledges the incubator story as a deception, H&K's media liaison, Suzanne Laurita, only responded, "The company has nothing to say on this matter." Pushed further on whether such deception was considered part of the public relations industry, she reiterated, "Please know again that this falls into the realm that the agency has no wish to confirm, deny, comment on."

Years later, Scowcroft, the national security adviser at the time, concluded that the tale was surely "useful in mobilizing public opinion."

Ian Urbina is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, D.C.

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