Marketing the Invasion of Iraq
New Book Documents Bush Administration's Use of PR Firms to Sell War to the American People
by Bill Berkowitz
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's new book will not sell as many copies as Hillary Clinton's memoir, the latest Harry Potter book or Ann Coulter's most recent bestselling work of fiction, "Treason." There won't be a major motion picture deal and there's no made-for-tv flick in the works. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Stauber and Rampton haven't received a massive multimedia financial proposal from CBS -- or any other network. And thus far, they haven't been asked to co-host MTV's Doggy Fizzle Televizzle with Snoop Dogg.
They haven't even been invited to discuss their timely book on the Today Show, Good Morning America or any of the nightly cable news channel talk-fests. And most mainstream dailies haven't seen fit to review it.
In a mid-August email, Stauber talked about a recent trip to New York City "where our very competent and hardworking publicist at Penguin was unable to interest a single ABC/NBC/CBS/MSNBC/FOX/CNN/PBS program in having us on for a discussion." He noted that even "the war's number one cheerleaders at FOX" refused to avail themselves of the opportunity "to pound and smear us in their typical WWF style. Amazingly," adds Stauber, "the common response from these networks when they turned down our publicist was 'the book is not topical.'"
But despite this homeland blackout, the book has been well-received in Australia and Great Britain, and is managing to do very well in some major U.S. markets: On August 10, it was #4 on the paperback bestseller list of the San Francisco Chronicle -- one of the few daily papers to review the book. Amazon.com had it ranked #41 on August 8th. Given the media blackout, most Americans have probably not heard of the book.
If there is one work of non-fiction you read this summer, make it Stauber and Rampton's "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq" (Tarcher/Putnam, $11.95).
As the Bush Administration's rationales for going to war with Iraq continue to unravel questions are finally being asked about how we got into the mess in the first place. How could an invasion of Iraq -- based on administration-orchestrated misinformation, disinformation and outright lies -- have been sold to the American people? Who did the selling? And what are its ramifications for democratic discourse and/or future American overseas adventures? These are just some of the issues tackled in "Weapons of Mass Deception."
Rampton and Stauber are veteran PR industry watchers. Co-authoring such books as "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" (1995); "Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" (1997); and "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future" (2001), they've relentlessly focused on decoding the manipulative monkeyshines of the PR industry.
Rampton has been a newspaper reporter, activist and author and has contributed to The Nation, In These Times, Harper's and a number of other publications. Stauber, a long-time investigative reporter, founded of the Center for Media & Democracy in 1993 and is its Executive Director. Both edit and write for the Center's quarterly newsmagazine, "PR Watch" (http://www.prwatch.org).
You may be familiar with some of the issues discussed in "Weapons of Mass Deception," but unless you monitor the ins and outs of the pr industry the books drops the veil on a number of stories that have not been covered adequately -- or not reported at all -- by the mainstream media. Of particular interest is the book's focus on the critical role of public relations companies hired by the government to sell the war.
"Weapons of Mass Deception" takes a close look at the Rendon Group, a relatively unknown yet powerful public relations outfit that has had its imprint all over U.S.-Iraqi affairs for more than a decade. Founded by John Rendon, a former consultant to the campaigns of Democratic Party politicians Michael Dukakis and Jimmy Carter, the company "has worked... during the past decade on behalf of clients including the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency." In 1996, Rendon boasted to an audience of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy that during the first Gulf War he had been responsible for providing the hand-held American flags and flags of other coalition countries to the people of Kuwait City so they could greet the U.S. Marines when they arrived.
"Saddam Hussein was the beloved ally of the senior Bush Administration right up until the point he decided he could go in and take over the oil fields in Kuwait," John Stauber told Amy Goodman, the host of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now, in a recent interview. "Part of the PR campaign against Saddam twelve years ago was [the relatively easy task of turning] him into an evil dictator." Before Desert Storm, Rendon received $100,000 per month "to work the media on behalf of the Kuwaiti royal family."
According to the book, after the war, "during the first year of Rendon's post-war contract with the CIA... [it] spent more than $23 million, producing videos, comic books ridiculing Saddam, a traveling photo exhibit of Iraqi atrocities, and two separate radio programs that broadcast messages from Kuwait into Iraq, mocking the regime and calling on Iraqi army officers to defect."
The Rendon Group's "most significant project" was helping to organize the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992. The INC is described as a coalition of "Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites Arabs, secularists and Islamists, liberal democrats, old-style nationalists and ex-military officers." Ahmed Chalabi, the "colorful" Rendon protege was appointed to head the group in October 1992. ABC News' Peter Jennings reported in 1998 that the Rendon Group not only came up with the [group's] name, but had passed along more than $12 million of CIA money to the organization. Chalabi will soon take the reigns (for a month) of the newly formed Iraqi Governing Council, the first national Iraqi political body since the fall Saddam Hussein's regime in April.
In the fall of 2001, barely a month after 9/11, the Pentagon gave the Rendon Group "a four-month, $397.000 contract to handle PR aspects of the U.S. military strike in Afghanistan." Within a few months Rendon was assisting the Pentagon's "new propaganda agency, the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI)." Although the OSI was forced to disband over a spate of bad publicity, Rendon kept its Pentagon contract. Rendon Group staff refused to discuss its Pentagon work with the press, claiming it was operating under a "confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement."
One incident "during the war itself provided a rare breach in the wall of secrecy." The incident involved the murder of TV cameraman Paul Moran by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq in late March. His obituary, published in his hometown of Adelaide, Australia, noted that Moran's activities "included working for an American public relations company contracted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to run propaganda campaigns against the dictatorship." John Rendon attended Moran's funeral in Adelaide.
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. told the New York Times in September 2002. Rampton and Stauber write: "Card was explaining what the Times characterized as a 'meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.'" From that point forward, the administration rolled out a heavy arsenal of misinformation, disinformation, and highly dubious intelligence to sell the war to the American people. The late-March invasion of Iraq was the culmination of this campaign of "perception management."
Post-war planning was obviously not nearly as attentive to details. After manufacturing pre-war consent, the administration has been confronted with a number of unexpected challenges including chaos and instability, a burgeoning guerilla resistance, and mounting U.S. casualties. At home, the Bush Administration continues to receive criticism about ginned up intelligence and the failure to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Among the lessons gleaned from "Weapons of Mass Deception" is how this administration readily pulls together a dream team of spinmeisters and story tellers -- government agencies, highly paid public relations firms, political hacks, and a willing media -- to market its message.
In the coming months, expect the Bush Administration to launch a campaign to convince the American public that it has found Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or what it now prefers to call "weapons of mass destruction programs." In light of Andrew Card's words, the campaign will likely not be unveiled until September. Conservative columnist Robert Novak has already provided a sneak preview: In a short item in an early-August column Novak wrote: "Former international weapons inspector David Kay, now seeking Iraqi weapons of mass destruction for the Pentagon, has privately reported successes that are planned to be revealed to the public in mid-September."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.