Payola Pundits for War?

by , January 29, 2005

How pervasive is the practice of pundit payola? First it was black conservative Armstrong Williams found sucking on the federal teat to the tune of $240,000 to promote the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Armstrong, in his own defense, revealed that there were plenty of other pundits on the government dole, and it wasn’t long before “pro-family” columnist and author Maggie Gallagher was outed by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post. Gallagher’s $21,500 contract was with the Department of Health and Human Services to push the administration’s $300 million “marriage initiative” aimed at persuading the nation’s breeders to tie the knot – while simultaneously (and just as actively) campaigning against the legalization of gay marriages. In pushing the initiative in National Review and other venues, Gallagher neglected to mention that she had rented herself out to the U.S. government. Now Congress is investigating the widespread use of public relations agencies and the buying of pundits to push the government’s agenda. All of which leads us to raise a vitally important and highly interesting question: how many pro-war commentators are being paid under the table to promote and defend the war effort in Iraq?

Public relations spending doubled under the Bush administration – to at least $88 million in fiscal 2004, for a grand total of $250 million during the first term –and it is safe to say that not all of that money was allocated to purely domestic programs.

The use of public relations agencies to sell wars as one would soap or any other product has a long and inglorious history reaching all the way back to the first Gulf War, and the infamous lies told by Hill and Knowlton. H&K, with numerous and close ties to the Bush family, contracted with the Kuwaiti government to sell the American public on the war: their “Citizens for a Free KuwaitAstroturf group flooded the country with war propaganda, including an appearance before a congressional committee sponsored by Democratic congressman Tom Lantos in which a young girl testified eloquently that she had personally witnessed Iraqi troops invading a Kuwaiti hospital and disconnecting the life-support systems of babies in incubators. When it was later discovered that the girl, previously identified only as “Nayirah,” was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S., and her story could not be corroborated, Amnesty International was forced to issue a rare retraction.

The Rendon Group, a Washington public relations firm, also got in on the gravy train in a big way. As company founder John Rendon told cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996:

“‘I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician. I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.’ He reminded the Air Force cadets that when victorious troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of the first war in the Persian Gulf, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. The scene, flashed around the world on television screens, sent the message that U.S. Marines were being welcomed in Kuwait as liberating heroes.

“‘Did you ever stop to wonder,’ Rendon asked, ‘how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?’ He paused for effect. ‘Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs then.’”

Plenty of government money, from the Emir and from U.S. Treasury, was poured into a propaganda effort designed to sell the American public and the world on the benevolence of the American mission to defend the throne of Kuwait. But that was just the first chapter in a continuing story.

For all intents and purposes, Rendon, and not Ahmed Chalabi, is the real founder of the Iraqi National Congress. Rendon gave the group its name and somehow canoodled $12 million of covert CIA funding for the INC between 1992 and 1996. Chalabi, a Rendon protégé, was appointed to head the group in October of 1992. Later outed as an agent for Iranian intelligence who turned over highly sensitive U.S. intelligence to Tehran, Chalabi is now firmly embedded in the political milieu of the Shi’ite mullahs slated to take over “liberated” Iraq. After his disgrace and the raid on his headquarters by Iraqi police and U.S. “contract” civilians, the wily old opportunist could still wind up a leading figure in the new government, and is even being talked about as a potential “dark horse” candidate for prime minister. If this happens, he can accurately say “I owe it all to Rendon – and the taxpayers of America.”

According to Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the Pentagon handed the Rendon Group another big assignment: public relations for the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Rendon was also intimately involved in the effort to sell a preemptive war on Iraq, though both Rendon and the Pentagon have kept steadfastly mum on exactly what this involved.

In the run-up to war, Seymour Hersh reported that Rendon had been hired by the Pentagon’s now-defunct Office of Strategic Influence, which was tasked with planting news stories – including false ones – in the media. While there is some doubt as to whether the OSI was really dismantled – after all, couldn’t its alleged abolition be one of those false news items? – it is legitimate to ask which American “journalists” worked with the OSI for as long as it existed, and how much were they paid.

There won’t be any real investigation into U.S. government propaganda because both major parties have their hands in the till. The Clinton administration’s rather lame attempts to overthrow Saddam and its numerous interventions abroad were also brokered and sold by Rendon, as the Village Voice reported:

“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.”

Our government has funded a lavish propaganda campaign to convince Iraqis that an election held under the strictures of an American military occupation is legitimate and worth participating in, as part and parcel of their military counterinsurgency effort. In modern warfare, however, half the battle is waged on the home front: that is the only lesson our rulers seemed to have learned from the Vietnam experience. If they’ll pay Armstrong Williams to push “No Child Left Behind,” and hand out money to Ms. Gallagher to push her marriage-is-for-breeders campaign, what’s to stop them from subsidizing other conservative “journalists” of equal moral fiber to make sure no Iraqi is left behind as we march into the glorious future of what Bush calls the “global democratic revolution“?

The whole idea of government-generated propaganda is alien to the American tradition and has about it a distinctly Soviet air. The founding fathers did not try to export their revolution abroad, and explicitly warned against doing so – unlike the founding fathers of Russia’s 1917 Communist coup d’etat, who looked upon it as a duty.

The Communist International, the world federation of Soviet-loyal parties, was for years headquartered in Moscow and took seriously its task of spreading the doctrines of red revolution the world over. Even after the formal abolition of what became known in Commie-speak as the Comintern, the Soviets spent billions of increasingly worthless rubles in propagating their archaic and stereotyped dogmas translated into dozens of languages. Like everything else in the ramshackle Soviet empire, however, the propaganda products churned out by the socialist bureaucracy didn’t work. The “party line” was by that time so transparently a lie that not even the top officials believed it, and, as the Berlin Wall fell, discontent soon spread to the Russian heartland.

The American “party line” in Iraq is, today, undergoing a similar crisis of credibility. According to the Bush administration and a dedicated corps of home-front cheerleaders, America is engaged in the necessary task of building “democracy” in Iraq, and the “mainstream media” (known as the “MSM”) is responsible for declining public support for the war by emphasizing only the bad news. It makes perfect sense – if you have no morals or sense of journalistic ethics, that is – for the government to search out and subsidize those who prove cooperative in bringing out the “other side” of the story. Of course, direct payments would not have to be made, or proved: the Armstrong-Gallagher method is a little too crude for the “perception managers” of the War Party’s PR department.

Far better to have the Iraqi government finance a pundit payola program: plenty of U.S. taxpayer dollars can be laundered in this way, and the amounts will only increase as the elected government is legitimated in the eyes of American lawmakers, if not the Iraqi people. Like most foreign governments, the new Iraqi “democracy” will have its Washington lobby: a fancy public relations firm to show its best face to the American people, and a cadre of bought-and-paid-for columnists, publicists, and perhaps even a few “bloggers” to parrot the party line.

The president’s recent invocation of a worldwide crusade to “rid the world of tyranny” means that the democracy-promotion industry is going to take off like a rocket – and you can bet that all sorts of profiteers and various interest groups will be lining up to get in on the gravy train. Free tax dollars – come and get it! You can bet the neocons will be right at the front of the queue.

The next time you read something in National Review, or any of the other party-lining pro-war pro-Republican outlets of opinion in which Armstrong and Gallagher appeared, including The Weekly Standard and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound like a Pentagon press release – and try to calculate, in dollars and cents, how much it contributes to the war effort. Because there is a strong possibility that your tax dollars are paying for it.

Writing in the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris noted the defiant attitude of Williams (who refused to return the money), and Gallagher’s moral agnosticism – “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?” she sniffed, “I don’t know. You tell me.” Glastris goes on to make a trenchant point:

“The ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt. In this moral universe, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle can think it’s perfectly OK to pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising an Air Force plan to lease refueling planes from Boeing at hideously jacked-up rates while at the same time being a principal in a venture capital fund into which Boeing invested $20 million. In this environment, James Glassman can feel just fine about editing a conservative web magazine that is published by a notorious GOP lobbying firm whose clients’ causes receive favorable editorial coverage on the site.”

A recent demonstration of how the neocon echo chamber works is the example of Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, who both “consulted” with the president’s speechwriters and went on to hail Bush’s inaugural as world-historic – without revealing their relationship to the White House in this instance. Putting them – or their ilk – on the payroll would at least make honest whores out of them.

But if it’s honesty we’re after, then let’s give the pro-war payola pundits a chance to come clean – before they’re involuntarily outed. So c’mon, you whores – step forward. What other National Review writers are recipients of government grants and contracts? Who else at the Weekly Standard is on the dole? Out of the few dozen bona fide neocons on earth, a good dozen or so are newspaper columnists: which ones are on the payroll, either Iraq’s or the Pentagon’s? Fess up!

Read more by Justin Raimondo