It’s a coldish, overcast day in Washington, D.C. — and for local blog friends — I’m over at the Starbucks at Connecticut & R Streets if you want to grab a latte and talk about the big issues of the day.
This place was the birthplace of not only The Washington Note but also Talking Points Memo. In fact, I’m sitting in a chair where Josh Marshall’s used to be. I think that they have taken his over to the Smithsonian for preservation.
I am catching up with a lot of stuff today — but I keep reading items that I feel deserve some serious attention, like the article by James Bamford that just appeared in Rolling Stone titled “The Man Who Sold the War.” It’s a profile of John Rendon, but also has quite a bit on Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, whom I think not only successfully seduced America in a major disinformation intelligence effort but also marketed American secrets to Saddam Hussein (in an earlier coup effort) and to Iran.
For those of you who don’t know James Bamford, you must go back and read his seminal book on the National Security Agency titled Puzzle Palace: Inside America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization.
This book was first published in 1982, and I met James Bamford that year at UCLA when he was there for a ritzy conference on publishing, with Maxine Hong Kingston, and other writers. I gravitated towards Bamford at that conference and was intrigued by the fact that his book had opened up the super-secret NSA and that Bamford had been threatened with legal action and probable imprisonment by the U.S. government for proceeding with publication. He did proceed and he broke down one of the important doors of opaqueness in our democracy — and probably inspired me to get into this business.
I had not met or seen James Bamford for 23 years — though I have read everything he has produced — and he showed up at the political hurricane-triggering event that I organized at the New America Foundation with Lawrence Wilkerson.
This preamble on Bamford is important because I think that it’s useful for us to remember that the debates we are having today about the importance of transparency in national security decisions, the battles over Executive Privilege and checks and balances in our government, and the importance of robust civil society engagement in these debates — in which the public holds the government accountable for its actions — rests on the shoulders of giants like James Bamford who engaged in a serious wrestling match with the high priests of national security two and half decades ago.
Now, Bamford provides extraordinary detail about how the Bush administration hired John Rendon to do “what needed to be done” to get America positioned to invade Iraq. I am going to post a rather long excerpt of a much longer article that has appeared in Rolling Stone this week.
Read the entire thing — but this will give you a sense of it:
The road to war in Iraq led through many unlikely places. One of them was a chic hotel nestled among the strip bars and brothels that cater to foreigners in the town of Pattaya, on the Gulf of Thailand.
On December 17th, 2001, in a small room within the sound of the crashing tide, a CIA officer attached metal electrodes to the ring and index fingers of a man sitting pensively in a padded chair. The officer then stretched a black rubber tube, pleated like an accordion, around the man’s chest and another across his abdomen. Finally, he slipped a thick cuff over the man’s brachial artery, on the inside of his upper arm.
Strapped to the polygraph machine was Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a forty-three-year-old Iraqi who had fled his homeland in Kurdistan and was now determined to bring down Saddam Hussein. For hours, as thin mechanical styluses traced black lines on rolling graph paper, al-Haideri laid out an explosive tale. Answering yes and no to a series of questions, he insisted repeatedly that he was a civil engineer who had helped Saddam’s men to secretly bury tons of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The illegal arms, according to al-Haideri, were buried in subterranean wells, hidden in private villas, even stashed beneath the Saddam Hussein Hospital, the largest medical facility in Baghdad.
It was damning stuff — just the kind of evidence the Bush administration was looking for. If the charges were true, they would offer the White House a compelling reason to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. That’s why the Pentagon had flown a CIA polygraph expert to Pattaya: to question al-Haideri and confirm, once and for all, that Saddam was secretly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
There was only one problem: It was all a lie. After a review of the sharp peaks and deep valleys on the polygraph chart, the intelligence officer concluded that al-Haideri had made up the entire story, apparently in the hopes of securing a visa.
The fabrication might have ended there, the tale of another political refugee trying to scheme his way to a better life. But just because the story wasn’t true didn’t mean it couldn’t be put to good use. Al-Haideri, in fact, was the product of a clandestine operation — part espionage, part PR campaign — that had been set up and funded by the CIA and the Pentagon for the express purpose of selling the world a war. And the man who had long been in charge of the marketing was a secretive and mysterious creature of the Washington establishment named John Rendon.
Rendon is a man who fills a need that few people even know exists. Two months before al-Haideri took the lie-detector test, the Pentagon had secretly awarded him a $16 million contract to target Iraq and other adversaries with propaganda. One of the most powerful people in Washington, Rendon is a leader in the strategic field known as “perception management,” manipulating information — and, by extension, the news media — to achieve the desired result. His firm, the Rendon Group, has made millions off government contracts since 1991, when it was hired by the CIA to help “create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power.” Working under this extraordinary transfer of secret authority, Rendon assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, personally gave them their name — the Iraqi National Congress — and served as their media guru and “senior adviser” as they set out to engineer an uprising against Saddam. It was as if President John F. Kennedy had outsourced the Bay of Pigs operation to the advertising and public-relations firm of J. Walter Thompson.
“They’re very closemouthed about what they do,” says Kevin McCauley, an editor of the industry trade publication O’Dwyer’s PR Daily. “It’s all cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
Although Rendon denies any direct involvement with al-Haideri, the defector was the latest salvo in a secret media war set in motion by Rendon. In an operation directed by Ahmad Chalabi — the man Rendon helped install as leader of the INC — the defector had been brought to Thailand, where he huddled in a hotel room for days with the group’s spokesman, Zaab Sethna. The INC routinely coached defectors on their stories, prepping them for polygraph exams, and Sethna was certainly up to the task — he got his training in the art of propaganda on the payroll of the Rendon Group. According to Francis Brooke, the INC’s man in Washington and himself a former Rendon employee, the goal of the al-Haideri operation was simple: pressure the United States to attack Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.
As the CIA official flew back to Washington with failed lie-detector charts in his briefcase, Chalabi and Sethna didn’t hesitate. They picked up the phone, called two journalists who had a long history of helping the INC promote its cause and offered them an exclusive on Saddam’s terrifying cache of WMDs.
For the worldwide broadcast rights, Sethna contacted Paul Moran, an Australian freelancer who frequently worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I think I’ve got something that you would be interested in,” he told Moran, who was living in Bahrain. Sethna knew he could count on the trim, thirty-eight-year-old journalist: A former INC employee in the Middle East, Moran had also been on Rendon’s payroll for years in “information operations,” working with Sethna at the company’s London office on Catherine Place, near Buckingham Palace.
“We were trying to help the Kurds and the Iraqis opposed to Saddam set up a television station,” Sethna recalled in a rare interview broadcast on Australian television. “The Rendon Group came to us and said, ‘We have a contract to kind of do anti-Saddam propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi opposition.’ What we didn’t know — what the Rendon Group didn’t tell us — was in fact it was the CIA that had hired them to do this work.”
The INC’s choice for the worldwide print exclusive was equally easy: Chalabi contacted Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller, who was close to I. Lewis Libby and other neoconservatives in the Bush administration, had been a trusted outlet for the INC’s anti-Saddam propaganda for years. Not long after the CIA polygraph expert slipped the straps and electrodes off al-Haideri and declared him a liar, Miller flew to Bangkok to interview him under the watchful supervision of his INC handlers. Miller later made perfunctory calls to the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, but despite her vaunted intelligence sources, she claimed not to know about the results of al-Haideri’s lie-detector test. Instead, she reported that unnamed “government experts” called his information “reliable and significant” — thus adding a veneer of truth to the lies.
We should salute John Murtha for his leadership and honesty last week, but I also want to salute James Bamford for this important journalism and his bravery in creating a much more confident style of press reporting on national security issues. A “Dana Priest”-type would be hard to imagine if Bamford had not done what he did on the NSA.
— Steve Clemons