KABUL, Afghanistan - When The Rendon Group was hired to help Afghan President Hamid Karzai with media relations in early 2004, few thought it was a bad idea. Though Rendon's $1.4 million bill seemed high for Afghanistan, the U.S. government was paying.
Within seven months, however, Karzai was ready to get rid of Rendon. So was Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and now the American envoy in Iraq, according to interviews, e-mails and memos obtained by the Chicago Tribune. The complaint: too much money for not enough work.
Despite such grumbling, The Rendon Group, based in Washington, managed to secure even more U.S.-funded work with Karzai's government, this time a $3.9 million contract funded by the Pentagon, to create a media team for Afghan anti-drug programs. Jeff Raleigh, who helped oversee Rendon in Kabul for the U.S. Embassy, and others in the U.S. government said they objected because of Karzai's and Khalilzad's opposition but were overruled by Defense Department superiors in Washington.
"It was a rip-off of the U.S taxpayer," said Raleigh, who left the U.S. Embassy in September.
Rendon departed from Afghanistan in early October when its $3.9 million contract expired. But diplomatic sources said it is in line for another multimillion-dollar Afghan contract: a three-year deal to work on counternarcotics public relations.
The company's work in Afghanistan is just a sliver of the more than $56 million the Pentagon has paid Rendon since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it became one of the leading media consultants in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. It also is doing work for the Pentagon in Iraq.
Its performance, and the Defense Department's use of the company to shape its anti-terrorism message, has come under renewed scrutiny amid reports that the Bush administration hired Rendon to track foreign media and reporters and to help foreign governments shape their own anti-terrorism messages and images.
Advocates say Rendon helps fight propaganda from Islamic fundamentalists. Critics say the Pentagon's use of media firms such as Rendon blurs the line between public relations and propaganda.
The company's fees also have been an issue. CIA staff members have complained about the group's work on other projects, such as a costly media campaign against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul estimated that the work the company was hired to do on its second contract in Afghanistan could have been performed for about $200,000 rather than $3.9 million.
The firm was to train five Afghan press officers, according to e-mails and people familiar with the contract. But it trained only three, and one has left her job.
Company founder John Rendon, a former Democratic political operative, said neither Afghan nor U.S. officials registered complaints about his firm's work in Afghanistan. "I never heard that from Karzai," he said.
He said he won the second Afghan contract by applying anti-drug campaign experience he gained years ago as a Massachusetts state official.
"I took that experience over to the Ministry of Interior and provided training to people in the ministry so they could use communications to support their police initiative," with good success, he said.
At least one Afghan official publicly backed Rendon - the deputy interior minister for counternarcotics. And a former U.S. government official who worked in Afghanistan with Rendon said the company did a good job of helping Karzai organize his media operations.
"There was just remarkable improvement," the former official said. "It was a fledgling government office, but they did a great job, really."
In early 2004, presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin asked the U.S. Embassy for $1 million to help develop his office. He spoke to Richard McGraw, a former Pentagon spokesman and congressional liaison working with the little-known Afghanistan Reconstruction Group, a small group of U.S. executives, lawyers and other professionals who advise Afghan and U.S. officials on reconstruction.
Instead of handing over money, McGraw suggested hiring Rendon, which already was working in the country for the Pentagon, Ludin said.
McGraw, who said he became familiar with Rendon's Pentagon work during his own service on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's staff, requested bids from Rendon and the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Rendon's bid was "far and away the best," said McGraw, who was the main public relations officer at G.D. Searle & Co. outside Chicago when Rumsfeld was the drug company's chief executive.
But Jim Lake of Burson-Marsteller's Washington office said McGraw asked only for a preliminary assessment, not a formal proposal that the company routinely prepares for competitive bidding on government work. "I thought we were in the information stage, not a bidding process," he said.
Rendon workers spent about five months at the presidential palace on a contract reportedly worth $1.4 million. "I think they did an excellent job in a tough circumstance," McGraw said.
The contract ended in August 2004. Raleigh, who had replaced McGraw with the Afghanistan Reconstruction Group, pushed for a two-month extension because of the upcoming presidential election. But by then, Karzai and his staff had concluded that Rendon wasn't worth its pay.
"The president was really upset about it," said Ludin, now the president's chief of staff.
Karzai also complained to Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, who agreed with Karzai, U.S. officials said.
Several U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department officials said in interviews that Rendon's work had been inadequate and that others in the U.S. Embassy ended up doing a large share of media advisory work with Karzai's staff.
"There's been a sense of frustration that a lot of money is being wasted on consultants who, frankly, just aren't worth the money," said a senior U.S. official familiar with Rendon's work in Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They were very well-intentioned, but they weren't plugged into what was happening there."
But within a month of the contract's expiration, Rendon won a new contract through the Defense Department, $3.9 million to train Afghans in counternarcotics public relations at the Interior Ministry, officials said.
Raleigh said he told Pentagon officials that Khalilzad and Karzai did not want Rendon to stay, but that they worked out a plan to allow Rendon to report directly to Raleigh and Doug Wankel at the U.S. Embassy, instead of to the Pentagon. Wankel, who refused to comment for this story, works on counternarcotics for the embassy.
An e-mail from Wankel on Sept. 10, 2004, backed up Raleigh's account, saying Wankel had met with Khalilzad to discuss whether the Defense Department contract with Rendon would be canceled or continued. Wankel said in the e-mail that Khalilzad agreed to a third option - a 90-day trial in which Rendon would work under Raleigh and Wankel.
Rendon and the Afghan government would hire and train five Afghan media specialists and support all counternarcotics publicity, Wankel wrote.
At first, the company helped put on a counternarcotics conference, just after Karzai's inauguration in December 2004. But by January, the end of the trial period, Raleigh questioned where the money was going. He said the company should lose its contract, according to e-mails. But Rendon stayed.
Mary Beth Long, who oversaw the contract for the Pentagon, declined to be interviewed.
By May, Rendon was pushing to have its contract extended from the end of July through the parliamentary elections in September. Raleigh sent an e-mail to Long and others. "For the record, let me reiterate what I have been saying for months - paying The Rendon Group is a waste of taxpayer funds," Raleigh wrote.
But the Rendon contract was extended through the end of September for $600,000, according to interviews with officials.
"I don't think their performance was worth more than $50,000," said Lutfullah Mashal, until recently the spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "It certainly was not worth millions of dollars."
Barker reported from Kabul, Hedges from Washington.
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