Interview: James Bamford

James Bamford made his mark as an investigative author and reporter with two books, Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, that chronicled the inner workings of the top-secret National Security Agency.

James Bamford made his mark as an investigative author and reporter with two books, Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, that chronicled the inner workings of the top-secret National Security Agency.

Bamford also worked as the Washington investigative reporter for ABC's World News Tonight. He dropped his latest bombshell a few months ago in Rolling Stone with an article that explored the role of Washington PR agency the Rendon Group in the war in Iraq and other US conflicts. His article, as well as the Rendon Group's response, can be read online here.

PRWeek: What sparked your interest in the Rendon Group?
James Bamford:
Originally, I wrote a book that looked at the US intelligence role in both 9/11 and the war in Iraq, and I came across the Rendon Group in doing that. I just thought that the public would be very interested in reading about the role of public relations firms in both the lead up to the war, and after the war began.

PRWeek: How did you manage to get John Rendon to give you an interview?
I simply sent him an email. I'd had a meal with him before...I just asked him if he wanted to get together and talk to me for this article, and that's about all there was to it.

PRWeek: Why do you think he agreed to talk to you, given his secretive reputation?
Well I told him that I did the article, and I was happy to discuss the article with him. And I gave him a number of pages of information that I was going to be using in the article, and went over a lot of the issues that we were going to discuss. Plus I wanted to put a human face on it, which only he could do by talking to me, since I didn't have a lot of background information on him. There really wasn't much on his early background and so forth. Basically, why people do interviews is to get their input into it.

PRWeek: How did [Rendon Group founder] John Rendon reconcile his history with the Democratic Party with the type of work he does today?
He looks at what he's doing as very patriotic, as helping troops in war and that kind of thing. It was the most interesting transition I've ever seen, , going [to that] from somebody that was sympathetic with the anti-war movement, and became an activist for the George McGovern campaign... and [eventually] the executive director of the DNC. So that was an extremely interesting, and very quick, rise in Democratic and liberal politics. And then everything changed basically when Jimmy Carter lost reelection. That meant Rendon was out of work, pretty much. And so he set up a private consulting firm, and, throughout the 1980s, his clients began to become more and more foreign candidates...

And along the line, he became familiar to some of the people in the previous Bush administration, and somebody there recommended him, and the CIA hired him to help put in office Guillermo Endara, who was a candidate the CIA wanted to take the place of Manuel Noriega when they were going to have a regime change in Panama. And he did a very good job.... And then when the group was attacked by Norieaga's people with clubs and everything, which got his vice presidential candidate very bloody, they made sure that that picture went all over the world. And among the places it showed up was on the cover of Time magazine. So on the one hand you're making Endara look very good and very presidential, and on the other you're making Noriega look very bad, like a ruthless dictator and so forth. So that sort of set the tone for his future career. Very soon after that, he went to work for the Kuwaiti government. The Kuwaitis hired him to do somewhat similar work in the public relations field, which was to boost up the image of the Kuwaiti government, which at the time wanted massive US support to help...oust the Iraqi government... Then when the war ended, he managed to get flags over there to make it sort of look like the liberation of France after WWII, and create this very similar type of image, with flag waving Kuwaitis thanking American liberators and so forth. So from there, the Bush administration really wanted to get rid of Saddam, but they didn't want to do it during the Gulf War.

They wanted to find a way to have him basically overthrown. And in a very unusual move, instead of the CIA going in there like they did in the 50's and 60's when they were trying to overthrow places like Congo with Lumumba and Cuba with Fidel Castro and all that, they hired the Rendon Group to help create an opposition force, which the Rendon Group called the Iraqi National Congress [INC], and helped set it up. They helped put the organizing meeting together in Vienna, and they helped put [Ahmad] Chalabi in there as president. And then they funneled about $350,000 a month into the INC, and then, as Rendon told me in the interview, acted as a senior consultant for the group. So it was a very unusual road for Rendon to go from anti-war activist to now helping set up an opposition force in Iraq to overthrow a foreign government. I mean, you don't get career transitions like that very often. So I thought that was very fascinating.

PRWeek: Can you explain the Judith Miller connection with Rendon?
[John] Rendon didn't have any direct connection with the Judy Miller-Thailand episode [an incident in which Bamford says an Iraqi defector was taken to Thailand and coached by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), after which he gave false testimony to a CIA lie-detector expert about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He failed the polygraph exam, but the INC flew in reporter Miller, who used the information in a credulous front-page New York Times story]. But he was the guy who helped create the INC, and a lot of people who took part in that [Thailand episode] were former Rendon employees.

[The defector] completely failed the polygraph, and the CIA flew back and wanted nothing more to do with him. That didn't deter the INC people that were there. Chalabi called up Judy Miller, who was an old friend. Miller, in her own memo to her bureau chief in Baghdad, said that [Chalabi] had been a source of hers for about a decade, and was responsible for many of her front page stories in the New York Times dealing with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. So they saw Judy Miller as this sort of person they could easily sell a story to, and wouldn't do much checking, wouldn't do much asking of questions.

So she flew over there to interview [the defector]. And they gave her the worldwide print exclusive rights... and in that way they could prevent any other journalist from asking really penetrating questions and having access. And for worldwide television rights they got this guy Paul Moran, who was a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And what makes him very interesting is that before working for [ABC], he had actually been an employee of both the Rendon Group and the INC. He helped those groups in terms of anti-Iraq propaganda. So they had him come over, and obviously he had been on the payroll before, so it was the ultimate conflict of interest.

So the end result was around December 20, Judy Miller's piece appeared in the New York Times, and it was really the opening shot in the massive fraudulent propaganda war that helped sell the Iraq war to the American public. Prior to that front-page article on December 20, 2001, there had only been basically rumors, innuendo, and suspicions that Saddam still had a lot of weapons of mass destruction. But, after the article, a lot of people were convinced, because the article, for the first time, had an eyewitness say, "I saw Saddam have these weapons, and I helped bury them," or "I helped build the places for them to be buried." It was the first time that somebody had confirmed that Saddam still had nuclear weapon capability. And that went into the article. And it was an exclusive Judy Miller article; [since] she had no other co-authors on it, nobody else had a chance to interview [the defector]. And then the television networks around the world picked up on the [ABC] piece by Paul Moran. So it was this massive frontal assault on the worldwide public with regard to why we should go to war with Iraq.

PRWeek: The CIA presumably knew the story was false, but the White House used that Judy Miller article to help sell the war. Is that fair to say?
Bamford: The White House knew before the article even appeared that the story was phony. The White House has access to the CIA. They get briefings by the CIA every morning...and the Bush administration not only saw it, they commented on it many times, pointing to it as reasons, justifications to go into Iraq. Then they began using it months later; even nine months later they were still using the information when they were putting together the talk for Bush to address the United Nations in New York in September, 2002, as they were ginning up for the war. And they even put quotes in there from [the defector] in this booklet that they were putting together, and that they pushed out on the press. Ironically, the title of the book was 'Saddam's Deceptions' or something like that. In reality, it was the White House's deception. And even as I was doing this article last month, that document was still on the White House website. And the president obliquely referred to the same his state of the union speech more than a year later.

PRWeek: After your article, as well as recent articles about the Lincoln Group's propaganda work in Iraq, do you think there's going to be any political fallout?
The problem is there are so many bad news stories on the burner with regard to the Bush administration, it's hard for the public to focus on any particular one... so the bottom line: No, I don't think there's going to be any change.

PRWeek: Where does a company like the Rendon Group get its staff?
I know at least one of the senior people they have there did come from the CIA. But they've got a lot of people with a wide range of backgrounds... I'm not really blaming the Rendon Group. It's a PR firm; they're filling a contract for the government. I was far more critical of the press for buying into it, for the Judy Millers of the world who didn't do due diligence... There will always be PR companies out there trying to sell everything. You can't ban PR. What I blame is the media for really allowing this to happen.

PRWeek: The Rendon Group wrote a letter objecting to your article. What did you think about that?
We put both the letters-their letter and my response to it-on the Rolling Stone website. So if you go there, you can take a look.

Name: James Bamford

Outlets: Rolling Stone, others

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