For those who haven’t yet encountered it, there’s a fascinating article, now circulating on the net, that was originally published in Rolling Stone. It’s by one of my favorite writers, James Bamford, famous for his books A Pretext for War, Body of Secrets, and The Puzzle Palace, the latter two apparently the only histories of the National Security Agency.
He’s a pretty amazing reporter. After publishing The Puzzle Palace despite intense opposition from the NSA, he decided to write another history that became Body of Secrets. At first the agency did everything in its power to discourage him; but he finally convinced NSA that he’d managed to publish the first one, and he intended to publish the second; therefore it seemed logical for the agency to give at least nominal cooperation, since that would allow it to tell its side of the story.
Actually, though he bitterly criticizes certain operations of the US government, and some NSA actions, he does not consider the agency to be illegitimate. In fact, he finds some heroic people and a few heroic deeds in the archives; and in general he’s quite impressed with the dedication of NSA folks (if not always with their results). For instance, his description of what really happened on the USS Liberty, an espionage ship that Israel tried to sink on June 8, 1967, because it was listening to what was really happening in the war, is an amazing tale. (He told the original version in The Puzzle Palace, and the updated and corrected version in Body of Secrets.)
If you buy the version of Body of Secrets that was printed after 9/11, you’ll find an appendix that details, minute by minute, what happened, and especially what George W. Bush did, on that fateful day.
His latest amazing tale concerns John Rendon and his firm the Rendon Group.
Rendon is a man who fills a need that few people even know exists. Two months before al-Haideri took the lie-detector test [on December 17th, 2001], the Pentagon had secretly awarded [Rendon] 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.”
Rendon’s an unusual character:
Thomas Twetten, the CIA’s former deputy of operations, credits Rendon with virtually creating the INC. “The INC was clueless,” he once observed. “They needed a lot of help and didn’t know where to start. That is why Rendon was brought in.” Acting as the group’s senior adviser and aided by truckloads of CIA dollars, Rendon pulled together a wide spectrum of Iraqi dissidents and sponsored a conference in Vienna to organize them into an umbrella organization, which he dubbed the Iraqi National Congress. Then, as in Panama, his assignment was to help oust a brutal dictator and replace him with someone chosen by the CIA. “The reason they got the contract was because of what they had done in Panama — so they were known,” recalls Whitley Bruner, former chief of the CIA’s station in Baghdad. This time the target was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the agency’s successor of choice was Ahmad Chalabi, a crafty, avuncular Iraqi exile beloved by Washington’s neoconservatives.
The article interested the Rendon Group enough to provoke a response on their web site.
If I were forced to bet on this controversy, I’d bet on Bamford.