“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 ago—during 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 yet—Haiti, 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 changed—the 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.
“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.
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.