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The First Casualty
The fate of Terry Lloyd has made headline news. But what of the reporter killed by Al-Qaeda who may have been an unwitting accomplice in the countdown to war in Iraq? Paul Rouse investigates.
People who knew him always joked that Paul Moran would be late for his own funeral. When he became the first media casualty of the war in Iraq—aged only 39—the handsome, easy-going Australian news cameraman proved instead to be tragically early for the event.
Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq on 22nd March 2003, just three days into a war that he had—perhaps unknowingly—helped to start. Yet only now is the full story beginning to emerge of the key role he played in the countdown to the invasion of Iraq, in a plan sanctioned at the highest level in Washington.
It is a story of intrigue, political spin and media manipulation on a grand scale which—to date—has barely broken out of the confines of a handful of US websites and the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
Yet the charismatic Australian's exploits—from his involvement with the cause of Kurdish independence to his untimely end at the hands of an Al-Qaeda terrorist—is a Hollywood epic waiting to happen, a real-life drama that damns American foreign policy and raises the issue of the other first casualty of war: truth.
In the wake of 9/11, with the Bush administration keen to find any evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction to justify its planned crusade to topple Saddam, the arrival of a Kurdish engineer and defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, prepared to tell all about WMD, must have seemed like a gift from the gods.
It was in fact a gift from John Rendon, head of the Rendon Group (TRG), one of Washington’s leading political PR companies, whose clients included the CIA, the Pentagon and the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Given its name by John Rendon himself, the INC was formed just after the first Gulf War as a loose coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish groups opposed to Saddam, whose original purpose was to gather information, distribute propaganda and recruit dissidents.
Funded by the CIA and US Congress, the INC had become, by late 2001, one of numerous potential governments-in-waiting pending the overthrow of Saddam. This despite the fact that its leader was Ahmed Chalabi, a former chairman of the Petra Bank in Jordan who had fled that country in 1989 under mysterious circumstances, and in 1992 was convicted in absentia for embezzlement, fraud and currency-trading irregularities, with a sentence of 22 years' hard labour.
The INC’s dubious credibility notwithstanding, the startling claims made by al-Haideri—including the existence of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in concealed sites in Iraq—turned out to be crucial in 'proving' George Bush and Tony Blair's case, and in helping sway a significant level of public opinion in both the US and Britain in favour of the invasion.
Under US law, Bush would have been prohibited from disseminating government propaganda of this nature at home. But in an age of international communications, there was nothing to stop him, in partnership with experienced media manipulators like the Rendon Group, from planting false pro-war stories that had their origins overseas.
Far from taking what would have been the normal route therefore – calling an international press conference perhaps, or setting up a one-to-one with the likes of Larry King on CNN—John Rendon chose just two outlets for the disclosures from al-Haideri, by this stage safely ensconced in a discreet location in Thailand.
One of these was perhaps predictable: the print exclusive went to Judith Miller, the highly-regarded Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, known to be sympathetic to the INC cause and guaranteed to garner column inches. Miller was also close to Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose sister, Sandra Libby, happens to be John Rendon's wife.
The worldwide broadcast exclusive however was given to Paul Moran, hitherto only known in media circles to a select band of war reporters for his freelance work—predominantly behind the camera—in such hotspots as Lebanon, Kosovo and Gaza, as well as the first Gulf war.
The selection of Moran, which went virtually unchallenged at the time, raises several important questions in the light of what we now know: that Saddam’s WMD never actually existed.
Was this an inspired choice of a naturally gifted and gregarious interviewer, who could also connect with al-Haideri on a personal level, as shortly after the meeting the Iraqi defector was due to be spirited away to Australia—indeed Adelaide, Moran’s home town—as part of a witness protection programme?
Or was it an easy way of John Rendon controlling the TV exposure by using a trusted—and trusting—soul with whom he had worked on previous projects? Moran had spent time in Kosovo in 1999 as a photographer for what he described at the time as a “human rights” website, the Balkan Information Exchange, which was being set up by the Rendon Group.
The contract came Moran’s way following a personal recommendation to John Rendon from Lynn McConaughey, a Washington-based PR professional who happened to be Moran’s former long-term girlfriend. Whatever its humanitarian origins may have been, the website—since renamed www.balkantimes.com—has evolved into a propaganda tool for the American point of view in the Balkans, a specialty of the Rendon Group.
What is certain is that Paul Moran’s televised interview with al-Haideri in December 2001 and the revelations made about WMD—aired initially by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), another of Moran’s regular employers—was picked up by the world's media, and along with Judith Miller’s front page article in the New York Times, paved the way for Bush’s famous 'axis of evil' speech at his State of the Union address in January 2002. The scene was set, even if the war was to take a further year of propaganda and manoeuvering by Bush and Blair before it became a sad inevitability.
By March 2003, Paul Moran—who over the course of his career had been based in Washington, London, Cyprus and Bahrain—was living in Paris, happily married to a beautiful Serbian-born pharmacist, Ivana Rapajic, and the proud father of a six-week old baby daughter, Tara. When the call came from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, asking him to cover the invasion of Iraq for them from the Kurdish angle, Moran was faced with the hardest decision of his life.
A long-term advocate of Kurdish independence and a frequent visitor to the region, Moran had—again on behalf of the Rendon Group—used his experience as a cameraman to train Kurdish dissidents in the use of hidden cameras to covertly film military activities. He was also the creator of a hard-hitting documentary about the treatment of Kurdish refugees by the Cyprus government during his time on the Mediterranean island, and felt he owed it to the Kurds to see their story through to what he hoped would be a satisfactory conclusion.
With Ivana’s blessing, he packed his camera bags "for one last war" and flew into Turkey, crossing into the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq just before the border was closed.
Three days later, Paul Moran was dead. Whilst filming Kurdish militants celebrating a victory in a skirmish in the remote northern mountains, a taxi rigged with a booby-trap, driven by a member of the Ansar Al-Islam group—an offshoot of Al-Qaeda—sped up alongside him and exploded, killing him instantly. His fellow ABC reporter, Eric Campbell, together with several of the Kurdish militants, were badly injured.
Unlike the situation with ITN journalist Terry Lloyd and his crew, who were first reported missing later that same afternoon, nobody is suggesting that Paul Moran’s death was anything other than a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was certainly convenient for a number of people, not least John Rendon.
While Washington's public relations firms usually relish attention, the Rendon Group rarely discusses its work—hardly surprising perhaps, as previous tasks have seen it paving the way for regime changes in such countries as Colombia, Panama and Haiti, and supplying American flags to the citizens of Kuwait for the "spontaneous" celebrations following the end of the Gulf War. John Rendon, a self-styled "information warrior," also keeps a fairly low profile for someone so influential in the corridors of power.
TRG has however publicly denied several of the allegations made by James Bamford in Rolling Stone magazine with regard to the al-Haideri interview and the group’s connections to Paul Moran, and whilst it acknowledged that Moran had "provided video services to TRG," it was adamant that Moran "had not done any TRG work for years prior to the events described by Mr. Bamford."
Strange then that such an incredibly busy man as John Rendon, with such a tenuous connection to a mere former freelancer, should take the time to fly halfway around the world to attend Paul Moran’s funeral in Adelaide, saluting when Moran's coffin, draped in an Australian flag, passed by. Strange too that he should have made a generous donation to the Paul Moran Memorial Trust, set up to care for the reporter's widow and child. Despite numerous requests, John Rendon has declined to discuss the Paul Moran connection further.
So what, meanwhile, of the other leading players in the story?
Judith Miller was jailed in July 2005 for contempt of court for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a leak naming Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. According to the subpoena, Miller discussed the matter with an unnamed government official—later revealed to be Lewis Libby—on July 8, 2003, two days after Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, published an article in the New York Times—criticising the Bush administration for "twisting" intelligence to justify war in Iraq.
Miller, who spent 85 days in prison before agreeing to give evidence, now works as a freelance journalist. Last year, she apologised to her former readers because her stories about WMD and Iraq turned out to be wrong.
Lewis Libby resigned his government position on October 28th 2005, hours after being indicted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with the Valerie Plame case. Jury selection for Libby’s trial is due to begin in January.
In the meantime, he is working as a senior adviser for the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based conservative think-tank, with a focus on issues relating to the war on terror. Other prominent members of the institute include former US Vice President Dan Quayle and disgraced media baron Conrad Black.
Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, following his WMD disclosures, was given a new identity and moved to Australia. His exact whereabouts in The Lucky Country are not known.
Paul Moran, of course, was not so lucky. Nor is he around to answer the numerous questions that have subsequently been raised about him and his eventful life as a globetrotting journalist, inveterate storyteller and genuinely "great bloke," as they say in Australia.
Was he a true Kurdish sympathiser or merely an objective observer with a keen eye for a good story? Was he fully aware of John Rendon's connections with the CIA, or was he used as a political pawn? Did he genuinely believe al-Haideri’s revelations about WMD, or was the temptation of a worldwide exclusive too good to turn down—or even question why he should have been the one chosen to deliver it?
Members of his family—if indeed they know any of the answers—have closed ranks, and the full level of Paul Moran’s involvement in the WMD story is a secret he may have taken with him to the grave.
Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, this is one story that does not come with a guaranteed happy ending.
© Paul Rouse 2006. Used with permission.
Paul Rouse is an English travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He currently lives in Portugal, working as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. He is the author of Classic Locations Oxfordshire, the first in a series of contemporary travel books, and has had articles on travel, food, cinema and current affairs published in a range of international newspapers and magazines.