Ready, Aim, Inform
Clinton administration prepares for information
by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, March 2000
During last year's war against Serbia, the White House discovered
that the bombing campaign was not backed up by any coordinated
attempt to sell U.S. policy to foreign audiences. So last April,
President Clinton, ~ through a secret presidential directive,
established the International Public Information (IPI) "core
group" to "implement a more deliberate and well-developed
international public information strategy." The group consists
of officials from the CIA, FBI, and State, Treasury, Commerce,
Justice and Defense departments
According to a draft of the IPI charter obtained by the Washington
Times, the core group's mission is to counteract enemy propaganda,
"to prevent and mitigate crises and to influence foreign
audiences in ways favorable to the achievement of U.S. foreign-policy
objectives." According to the charter, the IPI will control
all "international military information" to influence
"the emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately
the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and
individuals." The aim of all this is "to enhance U.S.
security, bolster America's economic prosperity and to promote
Critics fear that this new master spin agency is a government
attempt to overtly apply psyop (psychological operations) techniques
on both the world and American public using communication strategies
refined by the PR industry. IPI's proponents say it is better
to fight a war with words than bullets, but that to do so requires
some central coordination.
The IPI has assumed many of the functions of the U.S. Information
Agency (USIA), which was disbanded last October, and operates
out of a new Public Diplomacy branch of the State Department.
As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Evelyn Lieberman
explained on CNN Worldview: "This is an opportunity for us
to join the tools of traditional diplomacy with the tools of public
diplomacy, and talk to foreign publics about American foreign
policy and democracy in new ways and in ways that are appropriate
for our new wired world."
Others in the foreign policy establishment are not so sanguine.
Michael Waller of the American Foreign Policy Council told Worldview,
"It's just going to be a propaganda machine for our diplomats."
The Washington Times' Ben Barber reported last July that a
former senior Clinton administration official who requested anonymity
said that administration officials believe "news coverage
is distorted at home and they need to fight it at all costs by
using resources that are aimed at spinning the news." The
former official, who had close knowledge of the plan's development,
said this "new multi-agency plan to control the dissemination
of public information abroad was really aimed at spinning the
American public.... This has been in the works a long time. The
target is the American people."
Indeed the draft charter of the IPI advises that information
aimed at U.S. audiences should "be coordinated, integrated,
deconflicted and synchronized with the IPI Core Group to achieve
a synergistic effect."
The former director of the USIA, Joseph Duffey, opposed the
plans to subsume his agency into the State Department. According
to the Washington Times, in 1997 he wrote to Richard Leone, the
president of the Twentieth Century Fund Foundation, expressing
concern about the IPl's ability to keep information campaigns
targeted at foreign audiences separate from those aimed at domestic
audiences. He cited a "USIA Reorganization Team" memorandum
warning that "foreign information programs inevitably have
some 'spill over' or 'blow back' effects here at home."
Gene Kopp, former deputy chief of the USIA under Nixon, Ford
and Bush, also worries that the public diplomacy campaigns will
be directed at the American public. "The temptation to spin
this stuff in a partisan way will be very strong-probably irresistible,"
he told the Washington Times. "The other ominous feature
is that this includes the intelligence agencies. They are in the
business of misinformation. God only knows where that goes."
Much of this IPI criticism come from the right, advanced by
the Washington Times, a right-wing paper published by the Rev.
Sun Myung Moon. The Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen, for example,
fears a left-wing conspiracy. He told the Washington Times last
July: "It cannot be driven by any political-correctness agenda
that will not be representative of what the American people think
or that will re-elect only a social-change agenda of extremist
Cohen perhaps has reasons to be concerned. The IPI draft charter
was written by Jamie Metzl, who in previous scholarly writings
has expressed solidarity with the work of Intemet groups like
BurmaNet and East Timor Action, as well as organizations like
Amnesty Intemational and Human Rights Watch. Metzl, 37, is currently
coordinator of IPI. (He did not respond to a phone call from In
Metzl has worked most recently as an aide to National Security
Council "terrorism czar" Dick Clarke. Metzl holds a
doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Oxford and a law degree
from Harvard. A former U.N. Human Rights Officer and the author
of Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in
Cambodia, 1975-80, he believes information is power and that
information, when wielded correctly, can do great good.
In a 1996 issue of Human Rights Quarterly, he provides human
rights activists with a primer on "harnessing information
technology for the benefit of human rights." He offers helpful
tips, such as encouraging human rights Web sites to provide viewers
with suggestions "regarding action which can be taken."
Citing the work of progressive political philosopher Benjamin
Barber, Metzl notes that "developments in communications
have given wings to systems which destroy diversity and foster
capitalist-defined cultural uniformity.... While international
capitalism might wish to mold individuals as passive consumers
susceptible to mass advertising campaigns, supporters of human
rights would wish to use information technology systems to give
voice to the voiceless and access to the disadvantaged."
But he cautions: "If information technology can function
as a tool of the oppressed, it can just as much serve the oppressor-'technologies
of freedom' can just as easily become technologies of abuse."
Similarly, in a 1997 Foreign Affairs article, Metzl advocates
using information warfare to prevent "humanitarian disasters."
"Mass media reach not only people's homes, but also their
minds, shaping their thoughts and sometimes their behavior,"
he writes. He points out that radio was used "to propagate
Nazi ideology and spur genocide in Rwanda"; and in the former
Yugoslavia, radio and television were instrumental "in fomenting
ethnic animosity and bloodshed." "Countering such incendiary
transmissions systematically, using information warfare techniques,
will go a long way toward securing human rights short of costly,
large-scale military interventions," he concludes.
Metzl's more current thoughts on information warfare can be
found in the Summer 1999 issue of The Washington Quarterly. In
that article, Metzl urges making all future wars PR battles, thus
mitigating the need for armed intervention.
This is not altogether a bad idea-better to be hit with propaganda
than bombs. The examples Metzl uses, however, illustrate the problems
inherent in the IPI policy.
Metzl points to the August 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical
plant in Sudan as an information war the United States lost, because
much of world public opinion turned against the U.S. action. "Although
the U.S. government's policy was sound, presenting it became all
the more difficult in this more hostile environment," he
That hostile environment included some quarters of the Clinton
administration. The New York Times' James Risen reported in October
1999 that on the eve of the attack "senior diplomatic and
intelligence officials had argued strenuously over whether any
target in Sudan should be attacked."
In the aftermath of the bombing, Risen reports, Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright and a senior deputy "encouraged
State Department intelligence to kill a report being drafted that
concluded that the bombing was not justified." An administration
official, who says the United States may have made a mistake,
told Risen, "As an American citizen, I am not convinced of
Another information battle the United States lost, according
to Metzl, was over its refusal to sign the international treaty
to ban land mines. Instead, the International Campaign to Ban
Land Mines carried the day. "Had the government recognized
the potential influence of these NGOs," Metzl writes, "it
might partially have attempted to strike a deal with them early
in the process whereby the United States would commit its tremendous
resources to building consensus for such a ban provided that a
specific class of mines used in Korea would be excluded."
Clearly, despite assurances from the State Department, IPl's
information arsenal will be aimed at U.S. citizens-how can it
not be? As Metzl himself points out in The Washington Quarterly:
"In foreign affairs, just as in economics, success will belong
to those who internalize the lessons of an increasingly open global
system." One of those lessons is that government cannot send
one message to the international press corps and another to domestic
There is nothing new about the U.S. government deceiving the
public about bad policies or strategic blunders. They are by nature
hard to defend, even with the best PR, as one administration after
another has demonstrated. What's new is that the administration
is preparing to use different techniques to convince a world audience
that U.S. might makes right. Metzl writes, "The models for
its effective use are plainly available in political and mass
advertising campaigns: state a goal, determine the audience, test
messages or products with that audience, and then constructively
engage that audience."
Ready, aim, inform.
Propaganda and Media Control