WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has hired a well-known Washington public-relations firm to help it explain U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan to global audiences, U.S. officials confirmed Thursday.
It's part of a broader Bush administration campaign to try to reverse a rising tide of opposition in the Islamic world.
The firm, the Rendon Group, has worked in the past for U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, which paid it to boost the image of the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-backed group of Iraqis opposed to the rule of President Saddam Hussein.
That effort in the mid-'90s ended with an investigation by the CIA's inspector general over how a reported $23 million was spent on behalf of the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, current and former intelligence officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
For the anti-terrorism public-relations war, the Pentagon is paying Rendon to monitor news media in 79 countries; conduct focus groups; create a counterterrorism Web site that will provide information on terrorist groups and the U.S. campaign against terrorism; and recommend ways the U.S. military can counter disinformation and improve its own public communications.
``The war on terrorism started without notice,'' said Lt. Col. Kenneth McClellan, a Pentagon press officer. ``We needed a firm that could provide strategic counsel immediately. We were interested in someone that we knew could come in quickly and help us orient to the challenge of communicating to a wide range of groups around the world.''
McClellan said the initial contract, awarded without bidding, is for $397,000 and lasts 120 days, with an option to extend it for up to one year.
Officials at the company declined comment, citing a confidentiality agreement in the contract.
The Bush administration has been widely criticized, both at home and abroad, for being slow to realize the importance of images in the war on terrorism. It is struggling to counter a widespread perception in the Islamic world that the war in Afghanistan is a war on Islam and that the United States is indifferent to civilian casualties.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier this week, ``To the extent we need to do a better job to make sure that people are not confused as to what this is about, then we darn well ought to do a better job.''
``We are clearly losing the `hearts and minds' issue,'' said one official involved in the administration spin effort, describing it as ``not a very well-organized effort.'' The official requested anonymity.
In recent days, the administration has dispatched waves of officials for international television interviews, particularly on the widely watched Arab station Al-Jazeera. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has appeared on Metro TV in Indonesia, where anti-American protests have been widespread, and Great Britain's ITN.
But initial analyses indicate that the outreach effort still has a long way to go.
An Al-Jazeera interview of Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice ``continued to garner significant press attention,'' but Arabic press commentators in Morocco and Saudi Arabia ``found nothing new,'' said a State Department review of foreign media reporting Thursday.
``They claimed that the U.S. is offering Arabs a `false equation,' i.e. the war against terrorism is not against Islam or Arabs -- nevertheless, it is Muslims and Arabs who will have to pay for Sept. 11,'' the review said.
The choice of the Rendon Group to advise the Pentagon may not be a coincidence, given its past work on behalf of the Iraqi opposition.
© 2001 The Mercury News