John Rendon, George Bush, & Guillermo Endara’s propaganda in Panama’s elections
by James Bamford
By law, the Bush administration is expressly prohibited from disseminating government propaganda at home. But in an age of global communications, there is nothing to stop it from planting a phony pro-war story overseas — knowing with certainty that it will reach American citizens almost instantly.
A recent congressional report suggests that the Pentagon may be relying on “covert psychological operations affecting audiences within friendly nations.” In a “secret amendment” to Pentagon policy, the report warns, “psyops funds might be used to publish stories favorable to American policies, or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of administration policies.” The report also concludes that military planners are shifting away from the Cold War view that power comes from superior weapons systems. Instead, the Pentagon now believes that “combat power can be enhanced by communications networks and technologies that control access to, and directly manipulate, information. As a result, information itself is now both a tool and a target of warfare.”
John Rendon lives in a multimillion-dollar home in Washington’s exclusive Kalorama neighborhood. A few doors down from Rendon is the home of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara; just around the corner lives current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At fifty-six, Rendon wears owlish glasses and combs his thick mane of silver-gray hair to the side, Kennedy-style. He heads to work each morning clad in a custom-made shirt with his monogram on the right cuff and a sharply tailored blue blazer that hangs loose around his bulky frame. By the time he pulls up to the Rendon Group’s headquarters near Dupont Circle, he has already racked up a handsome fee for the morning’s work: According to federal records, Rendon charges the CIA and the Pentagon $311.26 an hour for his services.
John Rendon is one of the most influential of the private contractors in Washington who are increasingly taking over jobs long reserved for highly trained CIA employees. In recent years, spies-for-hire have begun to replace regional desk officers, who control clandestine operations around the world; watch officers at the agency’s twenty-four-hour crisis center; analysts, who sift through reams of intelligence data; and even counterintelligence officers in the field, who oversee meetings between agents and their recruited spies. According to one senior administration official involved in intelligence-budget decisions, half of the CIA’s work is now performed by private contractors — people completely unaccountable to Congress. Another senior budget official acknowledges privately that lawmakers have no idea how many rent-a-spies the CIA currently employs — or how much unchecked power they enjoy.
Unlike many newcomers to the field, however, Rendon is a battle-tested veteran who has been secretly involved in nearly every American shooting conflict in the past two decades. In the first interview he has granted in decades, Rendon offered a peek through the keyhole of this seldom-seen world of corporate spooks — a rarefied but growing profession. Over a dinner of lamb chops and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at a private Washington club, Rendon was guarded about the details of his clandestine work — but he boasted openly of the sweep and importance of his firm’s efforts as a for-profit spy. “We’ve worked in ninety-one countries,” he said. “Going all the way back to Panama, we’ve been involved in every war, with the exception of Somalia.”
It is an unusual career twist for someone who entered politics as an opponent of the Vietnam War. The son of a stockbroker, Rendon grew up in New Jersey and stumped for McGovern before graduating from Northeastern University. “I was the youngest state coordinator,” he recalls. “I had Maine. They told me that I understood politics — which was a stretch, being so young.” Rendon, who went on to serve as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, quickly mastered the combination of political skulduggery and media manipulation that would become his hallmark. In 1980, as the manager of Jimmy Carter’s troops at the national convention in New York, he was sitting alone in the bleachers at Madison Square Garden when a reporter for ABC News approached him. “They actually did a little piece about the man behind the curtain,” Rendon says. “A Wizard of Oz thing.” It was a role he would end up playing for the rest of his life.
After Carter lost the election and the hard-right Reagan revolutionaries came to power in 1981, Rendon went into business with his younger brother Rick. “Everybody started consulting,” he recalls. “We started consulting.” They helped elect John Kerry to the Senate in 1984 and worked for the AFL-CIO to mobilize the union vote for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. Among the items Rendon produced was a training manual for union organizers to operate as political activists on behalf of Mondale. To keep the operation quiet, Rendon stamped CONFIDENTIAL on the cover of each of the blue plastic notebooks. It was a penchant for secrecy that would soon pervade all of his consulting deals.
To a large degree, the Rendon Group is a family affair. Rendon’s wife, Sandra Libby, handles the books as chief financial officer and “senior communications strategist.” Rendon’s brother Rick serves as senior partner and runs the company’s Boston office, producing public-service announcements for the Whale Conservation Institute and coordinating Empower Peace, a campaign that brings young people in the Middle East in contact with American kids through video-conferencing technology. But the bulk of the company’s business is decidedly less liberal and peace oriented.
Rendon’s first experience in the intelligence world, in fact, came courtesy of the Republicans. “Panama,” he says, “brought us into the national-security environment.”
In 1989, shortly after his election, President George H.W. Bush signed a highly secret “finding” authorizing the CIA to funnel $10 million to opposition forces in Panama to overthrow Gen. Manuel Noriega. Reluctant to involve agency personnel directly, the CIA turned to the Rendon Group. Rendon’s job was to work behind the scenes, using a variety of campaign and psychological techniques to put the CIA’s choice, Guillermo Endara, into the presidential palace. Cash from the agency, laundered through various bank accounts and front organizations, would end up in Endara’s hands, who would then pay Rendon.
A heavyset, fifty-three-year-old corporate attorney with little political experience, Endara was running against Noriega’s handpicked choice, Carlos Duque. With Rendon’s help, Endara beat Duque decisively at the polls — but Noriega simply named himself “Maximum Leader” and declared the election null and void. The Bush administration then decided to remove Noriega by force — and Rendon’s job shifted from generating local support for a national election to building international support for regime change. Within days he had found the ultimate propaganda tool.
At the end of a rally in support of Endara, a band of Noriega’s Dignity Battalion — nicknamed “Dig Bats” and called “Doberman thugs” by Bush — attacked the crowd with wooden planks, metal pipes and guns. Gang members grabbed the bodyguard of Guillermo Ford, one of Endara’s vice-presidential candidates, pushed him against a car, shoved a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. With cameras snapping, the Dig Bats turned on Ford, batting his head with a spike-tipped metal rod and pounding him with heavy clubs, turning his white guayabera bright red with blood — his own, and that of his dead bodyguard.
Within hours, Rendon made sure the photos reached every newsroom in the world. The next week an image of the violence made the cover of Time magazine with the caption POLITICS PANAMA STYLE: NORIEGA BLUDGEONS HIS OPPOSITION, AND THE U.S. TURNS UP THE HEAT. To further boost international support for Endara, Rendon escorted Ford on a tour of Europe to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Italian prime minister and even the pope. In December 1989, when Bush decided to invade Panama, Rendon and several of his employees were on one of the first military jets headed to Panama City.
“I arrived fifteen minutes before it started,” Rendon recalls. “My first impression is having the pilot in the plane turn around and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, but if you look off to the left you’ll see the attack aircraft circling before they land.’ Then I remember this major saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, but do you know what the air-defense capability of Panama is at the moment?’ I leaned into the cockpit and said, ‘Look, major, I hope by now that’s no longer an issue.’”
Moments later, Rendon’s plane landed at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. “I needed to get to Fort Clayton, which was where the president was,” he says. “I was choppered over — and we took some rounds on the way.” There, on a U.S. military base surrounded by 24,000 U.S. troops, heavy tanks and Combat Talon AC-130 gunships, Rendon’s client, Endara, was at last sworn in as president of Panama.
Bamford, James. “The Man Who Sold the War: Meet John Rendon, Bush’s General in the Propaganda War.” Rolling Stone, 17 Nov. 2005, www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/8798997/the_man_who_sold_the_war