WASHINGTON - In an effort to fight what it sees as an insidious propaganda war waged by terrorists, from incendiary Web sites to one-sided television images of the Iraq war, the Pentagon has been quietly waging its own information battle throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
One of its primary weapons is a controversial, secretive firm that has been criticized as ineffective and too expensive.
The Rendon Group, directed by former Democratic Party political operative John Rendon, has garnered more than $56 million in work from the Pentagon since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
These contracts list such activities as tracking foreign reporters; "pushing" news favorable to U.S. forces; planting television news segments that promote American positions, and creating a grass-roots voting effort in Puerto Rico on behalf of the U.S. Navy, according to Pentagon records.
The contracts, some of which were obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal that the Bush administration is engaged in a constant war of images and words with the al-Qaida terrorist network and other radical groups.
Civilian and military leaders say the contracts are necessary to fight the media wars waged by Islamic fundamentalists who control images on television, radio and the Internet in some Arab countries.
But proponents of open government question the role of firms like The Rendon Group, suggesting their work blurs the line between legitimate news and propaganda. And Americans have long been nervous about the notion of the government managing information.
To the extent that the Pentagon is attentively studying media publications, there's nothing wrong with that, said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
"Where it gets questionable is when they start engaging in media-based operations," Aftergood said, meaning actually distributing news items. "And that's something that needs to be carefully circumscribed and defined in policy, because there is no clear line between the foreign media and U.S. media."
The Rendon Group is perhaps best known for its part in the controversy that surrounded the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence nearly four years ago. A February 2002 New York Times article disclosed the office's existence and reported that the company was part of the effort, which possibly included attempts to plant false new stories abroad.
After public and congressional outcry, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shut down the office. But John Rendon, who until now has declined to discuss the episode, said in an interview last week the news stories were wrong, and that his company never worked for the Office of Strategic Influence.
"That wasn't us," Rendon said. "The whole notion of putting false news stories abroad, that was never us."
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. S. Pete Worden, who directed the Office of Strategic Influence during its short life, confirmed by e-mail that The Rendon Group did not work for his office.
"He (Rendon) is correct that he didn't work directly for my office," Worden wrote. "Most of the actual work we did was through SAIC," or Science Applications International Corp., a large defense contractor.
Rendon has, however, played a substantial role in the Pentagon's efforts to track and shape media coverage of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and the war on terror.
Rendon has at least five current contracts with the Department of Defense, according to the newly obtained records. A full list of the contracts given to Judicial Watch by the Pentagon totals about $45 million. The work began in 2000 and continues today, the contracts show. They include work, supervised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the Air Force, Army, Navy and Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.
Most recently, Rendon was awarded a $6.4 million contract in September to track media coverage in Iraq. Rendon also won a $1.4 million contract in 2004 to advise the staff of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and a $3.9 million contract to work on a counter-narcotics campaign within the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The Rendon Group's costs were an issue among CIA staff members during the group's earlier work with the CIA and Pentagon. Rendon once received a CIA contract of $20 million to $40 million, according to former employees, to advise the then-London-based Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi.
The Pentagon offices that work with Rendon - the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict - each declined to comment. So did Douglas Feith, who recently resigned as under secretary of defense for policy.
Rendon's previous experience positioned him well for the Pentagon's new war needs. Rendon worked in the political world until 1989, when he took a job advising the Panamanian opposition on how to handle the media during the U.S. invasion to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. He took up similar jobs after that, including advising the Kuwaiti government after Iraqi troops invaded in August 1990.
When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, Rendon already had an active Pentagon contract.
"This is really probably the 10th or 9th time we've done this kind of work, going all the way back to Panama, with the exception of Somalia," Rendon said. "Nobody else has done this."
Though Rendon declined to discuss some of his Pentagon work because it is classified, he compared his Pentagon contracts to menus. They contain a variety of potential tasks, he said, but the Pentagon does not necessarily ask for all of them to be performed.
An Oct. 3, 2001, contract for $16.7 million describes Rendon's initial work as testing public opinion and "media mapping" - tracking and analyzing press reports in such places as Cairo; Istanbul; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jakarta, Indonesia.
The contract called for Rendon to track "the location and use of Al Jazeera news bureaus, reporters and stringers, both regionally and globally. The ... effort will provide a detailed content analysis of the station's daily broadcast. TRG (The Rendon Group) will also chart event-related regional media coverage to identify the biases of specific journalists and potentially obtain an understanding of their allegiances, including the possibility of specific relationships and sponsorships."
In the interview, Rendon was wary of saying his group tracked reporters' biases. "Bias is a tough term," he said. "I know that we don't look at U.S. journalists. I know that in conducting operational media analysis, we track the nature of stories."
The contracts also raised the possibility of Rendon establishing a radio program in Peshawar, Pakistan, to broadcast "timely, truthful and accurate information to the people of Afghanistan." That work, Rendon said, was not done.
While tracking media coverage is Rendon's self-described specialty - the firm is under government contract to do it in 34 countries - The Rendon Group is also paid by the Pentagon to advise foreign governments on handling the media.
Rendon said his firm has not "pushed" news favorable to the United States The firm's main advisory work, he said, "has been helping foreign governments to correct things that are bad or wrong in the news cycle, and amplify those things that are not bad."
Rendon became involved in shaping the relationship between the U.S. military and local communities in 2001, when it was given a $1.6 million Navy contract to help win over residents of Puerto Rico's Vieques Island.
The Navy had used the island for aerial bombing practice for 60 years and residents objected to the danger and noise. When the Navy's continued use of Vieques was scheduled for a vote in 2001, the Navy turned to Rendon to "conduct public outreach and build grass-roots support," for the Navy's position.
Questions were raised about the role of the Navy in trying to influence residents, and Judicial Watch noted that political activity by the Navy may violate U.S. law.
Rear Admiral T. McCreary, the Navy's chief spokesman, said that senior Navy officers noticed the contract language in August 2001 and ordered the activities halted. The contract was formally corrected, McCreary said, in October 2001.
A senior Defense Department official who asked not to be named said the Navy amended its contract when it learned that Rendon personnel were promising Vieques residents that backing the Navy's position would mean future U.S. development dollars. The Navy, the official said, did not have authority to make such pledges.
Rendon denied that his staff promised anything like that.
Instead, he said, the contract changed when the Navy decided that an island referendum on the issue was not a good idea.
The Navy, he said, was trying to "open a dialogue ... into the community so that people would know what was going on from the Navy, and not necessarily have to depend on outside parties to characterize the Navy's intentions."
President Bush announced in 2001 that the Navy would discontinue using Vieques as a bombing range by 2003.