Tuesday, April 10, 2012

K Street and the Arab Spring

Harbour Group, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm, is soon to receive payment from the new Libyan power structure in Tripoli, after working pro-bono for the last year on behalf of the National Transitional Council (NTC).  In an article at The Hill, it was revealed that the Harbour group recently signed a new $15,000 a month contract with the Libyan Embassy.

Since April 2011, the Harbour Group has been running a successful PR operation in the U.S. for the Benghazhi-based forces who overthrew Gadhafi.  The NTC was recognized as an official government by the State Department, and was handed the substantial amount of Libyan assets in the U.S. that were seized by the Obama Administration.  Patton Boggs, another large K street lobbying group, has also been representing the new Libyan regime, with David Tafuri, a partner at the firm, taking four trips to Libya over the past year.  According to The Hill, Patton Boggs has been paid $240,000 from the NTC since signing a contract in July 2011.

However, as proof that money speaks louder than ideology, U.S. firms had no problems in the past lobbying for Gadhafi as well.  The Cambridge, Massachusetts based Monitor Group held a hefty $250,000-month contract with Tripoli, recruiting prominent American academics to praise the Libyan government.  Those who took the groups speaking fees include Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukyama, Richard Perle, and Joseph Nye.  Nye, a Harvard professor and the originator of the idea of "soft power," visited Libya in 2007, meeting with Gadhafi, and then wrote a favorable article about the trip for The New Republic.  As late as August 2011, in an incident that has yet to be explained, David Welch, a top State Department officer in the Bush Administration and current Bechtel executive, was meeting with Gadhafi government officials in Cairo, discussing with them strategies to stymie rebel advances and create a more favorable PR climate.  The meeting was uneathered when al-Jazeera reporters found government files after the NATO backed opposition militias had taken Tripoli.

More After the Jump

K street is also actively participating in the Bahrain uprisings, however this time on the side of the al-Khalifa government that has been violently cracking down on protesters.  According to an article by ProPublica, last spring the Bahraini government signed a $40,000 a month contract with Qorvis, a major D.C. PR firm that also represents fellow autocrats Saudi Arabia.  For this sum, Qorvis publicly defended the tiny Gulf island's monarchs after they raided a Doctor's without Borders office, and also disseminated pro-government articles in U.S. media like the Huffington Post (Thomas Squitieri, the HuffPost Blogger in question, never revealed in his articles that he worked for Qorvis).  Another D.C. firm, Policy Impact Communications, also signed on to the campaign, helping to create the "Bahrain-American Council" in March 2011.

Of course, none of this approaches the work of the Rendon Groups two decade long involvement in Iraqi regime change.  Investigative journalist James Bamford, in a 2005 aricle for Rolling Stone magazine, termed company founder John Rendon "The Man who Sold the War," writing:
Three weeks after the September 11th attacks, according to documents obtained from defense sources, the Pentagon awarded a large contract to the Rendon Group. Around the same time, Pentagon officials also set up a highly secret organization called the Office of Strategic Influence. Part of the OSI's mission was to conduct covert disinformation and deception operations -- planting false news items in the media and hiding their origins. "It's sometimes valuable from a military standpoint to be able to engage in deception with respect to future anticipated plans," Vice President Dick Cheney said in explaining the operation. Even the military's top brass found the clandestine unit unnerving. "When I get their briefings, it's scary," a senior official said at the time.
In February 2002, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had hired Rendon "to help the new office," a charge Rendon denies. "We had nothing to do with that," he says. "We were not in their reporting chain. We were reporting directly to the J-3" -- the head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Following the leak, Rumsfeld was forced to shut down the organization. But much of the office's operations were apparently shifted to another unit, deeper in the Pentagon's bureaucracy, called the Information Operations Task Force, and Rendon was closely connected to this group. "Greg Newbold was the J-3 at the time, and we reported to him through the IOTF," Rendon says.
According to the Pentagon documents, the Rendon Group played a major role in the IOTF. The company was charged with creating an "Information War Room" to monitor worldwide news reports at lightning speed and respond almost instantly with counterpropaganda. A key weapon, according to the documents, was Rendon's "proprietary state-of-the-art news-wire collection system called 'Livewire,' which takes real-time news-wire reports, as they are filed, before they are on the Internet, before CNN can read them on the air and twenty-four hours before they appear in the morning newspapers, and sorts them by keyword. The system provides the most current real-time access to news and information available to private or public organizations."
The top target that the pentagon assigned to Rendon was the Al-Jazeera television network. The contract called for the Rendon Group to undertake a massive "media mapping" campaign against the news organization, which the Pentagon considered "critical to U.S. objectives in the War on Terrorism." According to the contract, Rendon would provide a "detailed content analysis of the station's daily broadcast . . . [and] identify the biases of specific journalists and potentially obtain an understanding of their allegiances, including the possibility of specific relationships and sponsorships."
The secret targeting of foreign journalists may have had a sinister purpose. Among the missions proposed for the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence was one to "coerce" foreign journalists and plant false information overseas. Secret briefing papers also said the office should find ways to "punish" those who convey the "wrong message." One senior officer told CNN that the plan would "formalize government deception, dishonesty and misinformation."
According to the Pentagon documents, Rendon would use his media analysis to conduct a worldwide propaganda campaign, deploying teams of information warriors to allied nations to assist them "in developing and delivering specific messages to the local population, combatants, front-line states, the media and the international community." Among the places Rendon's info-war teams would be sent were Jakarta, Indonesia; Islamabad, Pakistan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Cairo; Ankara, Turkey; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The teams would produce and script television news segments "built around themes and story lines supportive of U.S. policy objectives."
Rendon was also charged with engaging in "military deception" online -- an activity once assigned to the OSI. The company was contracted to monitor Internet chat rooms in both English and Arabic -- and "participate in these chat rooms when/if tasked." Rendon would also create a Web site "with regular news summaries and feature articles. Targeted at the global public, in English and at least four (4) additional languages, this activity also will include an extensive e-mail push operation." These techniques are commonly used to plant a variety of propaganda, including false information.

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