WASHINGTON - Senior officers at the Pentagon are being advised on countering Taliban propaganda by a marketing expert whose company once weeded out reporters who wrote negative stories in Afghanistan and helped the military deceive the enemy in Iraq, according to military documents and interviews.
Since 2000, the military has paid the Rendon Group more than $100 million to help shape its communications strategy, analyze media coverage, run its propaganda programs and develop counter-narcotics efforts around the world, Pentagon documents show.
One aspect of the company's work is aimed at changing attitudes of U.S. adversaries through messaging and advertising. Some Pentagon officials, including retired admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reject that, preferring instead to provide information and context about military operations.
John Rendon insists his company simply helps the military avoid mistakes in getting its message across to foreign audiences.
He offers advice "to people who face tough challenges and choices in a complex global information environment." A government watchdog found Rendon's access to Pentagon decision makers troubling.
"Rendon's previous work vetting journalists, performing public relations, and engaging in propaganda campaigns cause some concerns about the company's advice about changing the narrative in Afghanistan," said Scott Amey, lead counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. "However, in Washington, D.C., officials might be less concerned about objectivity or organizational conflicts of interest, and more interested in hearing what they want to hear."
Mullen refused to use the term "strategic communication" and told USA TODAY in an interview shortly before he retired last year that he had no use for it.
"I really do not like the term at all. It confuses people," Mullen said. "It means all things to all people. It's way overused and way overrated. I literally try never to use the term. We communicate as much if not more by our actions. I have become particularly concerned at a time that resources are so precious. It has become a thing unto itself. It is taking resources from the fight, I don't have time for it."
On Oct. 12, Rendon appeared at the Pentagon at a forum to help the military "synchronize our strategic narrative and counter the Taliban's," according to an announcement about his appearance. It was an off-the-record event and included dozens of senior military officers and civilian officials. They gathered in a Pentagon conference room outfitted with large television screens to allow officials in Kabul, Pakistan and Tampa, home of U.S. Central Command, to take part.
The Joint Chiefs declined to name the officer or civilian responsible for inviting Rendon. Army Lt. Col. Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell (PACC) "invited Rendon to speak at our weekly Federation Forum for an unclassified, non-attribution, academic discussion on his thoughts and experience in the area of strategic communications and messaging. His appearance at the Fed Forum falls in line with a wide range of views and topics presented weekly by the PACC. Mr Rendon was not financially compensated for his appearance."
The cell is commanded by Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend.
The Rendon Group has had a controversial history. Rendon also helped the Pentagon develop its policy on strategic communications, advising the Defense Science Board in 2001 that it needed to do more to shape public opinion. The firm was the subject of a Pentagon investigation into concerns raised in Congress that Rendon helped rally support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That investigation, by the Pentagon inspector general, found that Rendon employees had not done anything improper.
More recently, in 2009, his contract in Afghanistan for strategic communication was severed by the military after it was learned that the company was weeding out reporters who might write negative stories. In 2010, Pentagon contract records show, Rendon served as a subcontractor in 2010 in Iraq supplying services for "military deception."
Pentagon records also show that since 2009, Rendon has advised the Army's Training and Doctrine Command when it was under the direction of Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a strategic communication exercise called Sovereign Challenge, which is run by the Special Operations Command.
Currently, employees of The Rendon Group provide "communications support" to the Pentagon and U.S. embassies, for counter-narcotics programs, according to Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman. That support includes tracking local print, radio, television and online reporting and helping countries such as Pakistan and Colombia "conduct effective communications in support of U.S. and partner nation counter-narcotics objectives." Those contracts were worth more than $11 million in 2011 and 2012.
The top officer at Rendon could cost a federal agency such as the Pentagon as much as $2,490 a day, or $908,000 on an annual basis, for salary, benefits and overhead, according to a government price list for a recent contract.
Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia University in New York, blamed the Pentagon and Congress for failing to do their jobs in informing the public and oversight.
"That the Pentagon outsources its (public relations) counseling is perhaps unsurprising, because their in-house efforts are so frequently ineffective," Gitlin said. "That they turn to a contractor who includes military deception as part of his expertise is also, I suppose, to be expected. Do members of Congress realize they are appropriating funds for these purposes? Do they care?"