It's one of my favorites: Wag the Dog, the 1997 film starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. DeNiro plays Conrad Brean, the ultimate behind-the-scenes spin doctor hired to reelect a president about to be outed in a sex scandal involving an underage girl.
Hoffman plays Stanley Moss, the Hollywood producer to whom DeNiro turns to help him save the president by creating a massive diversion -- a fake war in Albania!
Hilarious and macabre, Wag the Dog leaves viewers with the chilling thought that this is how the game is really played. Please, say it ain't so!
Unfortunately, a recent Rolling Stone article on a heretofore mostly unknown Washington spin doctor named John Rendon reveals Conrad Brean is alive and well! In fact, Rendon has been working for more than a decade to create what we now refer to as "the war in Iraq." If you haven't already read James Bamford's article "The Man Who Sold the War," it's at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/_/id/8798997.
John Rendon, 56, a member of Democratic President Jimmy Carter's staff 25 years ago, has found success in Washington by becoming America's leading "information warrior."
"We help clients understand the real-time news and information landscape and how it shapes public opinion and policy deacons," reads The Rendon Group website -- http://www.rendon.com.
Rendon first demonstrated his unique, ahead-of-the-news-curve talent on the international stage by playing a key role in the U.S. overthrow of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega in 1989. The Rendon Group (TRG) got the CIA contract to rally the Panamanian opposition, and Rendon himself handpicked Noriega's successor.
Seven months after Noriega's ouster, Rendon turned his attention to Iraq, and he's been on the job ever since. According to Rolling Stone, Rendon, with CIA funding behind him, is the reason an anti-Saddam Hussein entity called the Iraq National Congress was formed. Shady Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, its leader, was also handpicked by Rendon.
In true Wag the Dog fashion, Chalabi turned into the source that both the Bush White House and The New York Times' now discredited reporter Judith Miller used to paint the picture of Saddam's nuclear arsenal and "weapons of mass destruction." Weapons that, like Conrad Brean's Albanian freedom fighters, simply did not exist.
Early in Wag the Dog, Brean the damage-control genius is trying to recruit Moss the producer.
"But at some point," says Moss, "they gotta know?" (Meaning the American public will eventually learn the truth.)
"They gotta know? Get with it!" replies Brean. "You watched the Gulf War, what did you see? Day after day, the one 'smart bomb' falling into a building. The truth? I was in the building where they shot the shot. They shot it in a studio, Falls Church, Virginia, one-tenth-scale model of a building."
"Is that true?" asks a dumbfounded Moss.
"How the fuck do we know?" answers Brean. "You take my point?"
We take his point.
Now, switching back to what we think is the "real world," listen to what John Rendon said back in 1996 in a speech at the Air Force Academy.
"I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician," he said. "I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager."
And a very, very successful one, because the American people's "perception" of Iraq certainly has been well-managed.
Rendon is quite proud of it, fer chrissakes. He boasted to the cadets that he was personally responsible for getting hundreds of little American flags in the hands of the "liberated" Kuwaitis. He manufactured the perfect, worldwide TV news shot of the locals cheering the U.S. Marines as they rolled into Kuwait City in 1991.
God bless America! Your tax dollars at work!
Last week, an "Inside Track" reader sent us an interesting tip: A little Montpelier software company lists "The Rendon Group" on its website as one of its clients.
The Montpelier software company is called Bear Code LLC -- http://www.bear-code.com.
When we visited the site, we were in for a surprise: The company also lists Seven Days as a client. News to us! More on the Seven Days connection later.
As for Rendon, the Bear Code website's "clients" page states: "Bear Code has developed for the Rendon Group multiple web-based applications that rely on a robust database backend. A staple of Rendon's requirements is rapid development, and they keep working with Bear Code because we continue to deliver."
On Monday, yours truly contacted the little Vermont software firm with ties to the secretive international perception-management company that has helped sell Americans a phony war. We spoke with Managing Partner Michael Howe.
Bear Code, said Howe, 43, was started in 2000 and licensed in Delaware. "We're a custom software development group and we have expertise in backend database applications, specifically web applications."
For a number of years the company was in Maryland, Howe said, but in 2002 Bear Code relocated to Vermont. It has 12 employees. Three are in Montpelier and nine are in Moscow, Russia. Howe, a Connecticut native, is fluent in Russian. His little software bear's annual revenue, he said, is "under $1 million annually."
Asked about Bear Code's Rendon connection, Howe told us "We built a couple of database/web-base applications for them, and in reading the [Rolling Stone] story where he talks about media-mapping -- that's really the kind of stuff that we do. We built some tools for just mapping what's going on in the media space."
"Media-mapping?" A new word in our lexicon.
Howe explained it this way: "If I took 100 articles in real time and I want to know, of the 1000 quotes in those hundred articles, how many were attributed to a government source? How many were attributed to a media source? How many were attributed to what? You can instantly see what is going on."
Howe calls it a "snapshot of the moment." If someone is "planting something in the media, we can see it."
In the case of TRG's work in Iraq and the Middle East, seeing what's going on first in the new world of online journalism, and being able to "fix" it before the rest of the world sees it, has been of priceless value.
Howe said Bear Code's software has nothing to do with reshaping the news. And he insisted Bear Code software products sold to TRG were not used to promote the war in Iraq.
"They weren't. I know they weren't," said Howe. "It wasn't developed or deployed at that time. It began in the spring of 2004, when it sort of became deployed."
Prior to that contract, Howe said Bear Code did "two discrete tasks for Rendon." He described them as "very small database projects not connected to the Middle East."
"In my mind," Howe said, "we're part of a move to an open society." It's not about enhancing secrecy, he said, but about "transparency."
Nice spin, eh?
Bear Code software "can be used by anyone," said Howe, "to really sort of get a sense of what their environment is and how people are responding to their message in the media space."
But what if TRG is using Bear Code's media-mapping software as a tool in a Conrad Brean-esque tool box designed to change the news and, with it, public opinion? Are people who manufacture such "weapons" responsible for what other people do with them?
"I think it's a legitimate concern," replied Howe, "but I think the really sort of problematic parts of that article were not so much connected to the work that we do, which is mapping media, but it had to do with the disinformation and shaping of news, which I have not seen any of in the work that we're connected to. I can't speak to that, if they do that. I hope they don't do that," said Howe.
Will Bear Code continue to sell software to TRG?
"It feels like the question is in the camp of, 'So, when did you stop beating your wife?' replied Howe via email.
"I don't like what I read in Rolling Stone," he continued. "If I knew those to be the facts, I would not accept more work with them again. I would politely decline."
But Howe added he would not act based on "innuendo, which is what the Rolling Stone article was based on. If John Rendon wants to do more work with us, I will quietly have a side discussion with him about issues that concern me. I trust him to be forthright enough to either answer or 'not answer,' which will be my answer. I will then either feel comfortable working for them or I will not. If I am not comfortable, I will quietly not work for them again."
P.S. As for Seven Days' connection to Bear Code, Co-Publisher Paula Routly told us that Bear Code's Rik Dryfoos had approached her at a Montpelier business networking event last spring.
At the time, said Routly, "We were looking for some custom software development and he wanted to show us what they do."
Routly says she decided to give Bear Code a shot at developing Seven Days' online dining guide, called 7 Nights -- http://sevennightsvt.com.
Bear Code is also under consideration for developing software for a new version of Seven Days' classifieds section.
Then, about two weeks ago, a friend alerted Routly to the Rolling Stone article -- a friend who was also aware of Rendon's Vermont connection.
At her next meeting with Bear Code, as Dryfoos and managing partner Mike Lowe entered the room, Routly dropped a copy of Rolling Stone on the table.
"It put them on the defensive," she said. The Bear Code boys left her with the impression they would rethink their relationship with TRG.
The question is, said Routly, "If Bear Code has worked for a company promoting the war in Iraq, does that make them evil?"
Sanders' Predicts Pullout -- Vermont's Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders sure sounds like he's on the same page as Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, the conservative, pro-military Democrat who recently stepped forward to declare the Iraq War "won," and urged the pullout of U.S. forces.
"For a variety of reasons," said Bernie on Monday, "Bush will soon begin a drawdown of troops in Iraq." Sanders predicted the president will "pull them out in large numbers within the next six months. My own view is that we should be able to withdraw a majority of our troops -- not all of them, by any means -- within the next six months, and certainly all of them by the next year."
And with 600 Vermont National Guardsmen coming home Friday after a year in the war zone, Sanders is particularly concerned about the ability of the Veterans Administration to address their postwar needs.
"Last year," said Ol' Bernardo, "we were able to get -- with John Murtha's help, I should tell you -- a half-million dollars for the VA in the state of Vermont to work with the National Guard in reintegrating these young men and women back into their communities."
But Vermont's Independent remains concerned it won't be enough, and that "as a nation, the VA does not have the resources it needs to deal with this very serious problem."
"So when you hear people saying how much they support the troops, how much they love our veterans," said Sanders, "I think the time is long overdue for them to start putting their money where their mouths are."
Ol' Bernardo made those remarks at a poorly attended (just yours truly and WCAX-TV) Monday morning press conference at his Church Street office in Burlington. The purpose was not to address the mess in Iraq, but another potential mess here at home: President George W. Bush's effort to "privatize" Social Security. Representatives of the Vermont chapter of AARP were on hand to present Bernie with a petition opposing the move.
But, hey, in the "current climate" in Washington, our impression was W's privatization move was dead in the water.
"You're absolutely right," replied Ol' Bernardo. "But the current climate did not happen by accident."
While conceding "we've won the battle," Bernie made it clear the "war" was far from over.
"Do you think Mr. Bush and Wall Street and the Republican leadership still do not want to privatize Social Security?" asked Sanders. "If you think so, you're wrong!"
"So the best defense is a good offense?"
"That's correct," replied Bernie.
Memory Lapse? -- Or was it more political spin?
We asked Republican Gov. Jim Douglas at his weekly press conference if he thinks President Bush's recent low approval ratings -- 35-40 percent -- will hurt GOP candidates in 2006.
"It's too early to say," replied Gov. Scissorhands, adding, "Clinton's popularity after the Lewinsky scandal was not much different from what President Bush is enjoying now."
Good answer, but it's not true!
According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls of 1999, President Bill Clinton's approval rating ranged from a low of 58 percent to a high of 68 percent. The previous year his approval rating hit 72 percent.
Monica Lewinsky may have inspired countless dirty jokes, but it's this president, the one Vermont's governor defends, who actually has his head in the toilet.